The Picnic, First Revision

  Phil lay in the dust by the side of a trail which ran up to Lookout Mountain.  The day was warm, but a soft breeze kept Phil cool as he lay in the shade cast by a canopy of chaparral.  To his left the mountain sloped downward, toward the east.  Phil could see the Laguna Mountains rising to 6,000 feet in that direction, but he couldn’t see them well.  His vision was blurry, as was his state of consciousness.  “Where am I”  he asked himself.  “Oh, yeah.  I’m on a hike.  Why am I laying here?”  Phil struggled to get his thoughts together and at last, with some effort, he recalled how the day began.

It was 9 o’clock in the morning when Phil and Sandy rolled to a stop at the Arroyo Seco picnic area seventy miles east of San Diego.  The parking lot was already filling up with cars as city dwellers fled the heat and humidity, spawned by a tropical storm somewhere off to the southwest.  The lowlands of southern California was trapped in that storm’s hot and sticky embrace, but the picnic area lay at 4,000 feet.  The air tended to cool as it rose up the sides of the mountains, bringing the blessing of that coolness to any who would make the tortuous drive on the serpentine two lane road that led there from the city.  Phil was apprehensive as he stopped the car, set the handbrake, and turned off the engine.

“Here we are.  The hike to where I planned our picnic is about two hours away, so we had better get started.”

Phil tried to sound cheerful, but he was almost certain that his falseness was showing through like a searchlight on a clear night.  He and Sandy had only been together for seven months after meeting in their eleventh grade science class at Grant High School.  Phil was painfully shy and nervous as hell when he asked Sandy to accompany him to a dance, and was surprised and relieved when she agreed to go with him.

“One thing I should tell you”  Phil told her.  “I don’t know how to dance.”

Sandy’s laugh was soft and musical, and projected reassurance rather than condemnation.  “Don’t worry about that.  I don’t know how to dance either.”

Over the next few months the relationship grew from two kids struggling to learn a few dance steps to a more-or-less committed thing.  Sandy didn’t go out with any other boy and Phil prayed that it would stay that way.  Phil was a complete novice at this boy friend/girl friend thing, and his lack of self confidence when it came to girls made him feel ill-suited to compete with other boys if any such competition should arise.

The couple were able to get together at school every day, and at least one and sometimes both weekend nights for dinner at a drive-in burger joint, followed by talking and necking on a dark and uninhabited road wherever such a road could be found.  Sometimes they would pay to park in a drive-in theater, where kissing in the back seat was more likely to take up the bulk of their time than paying attention to whatever Burt Lancaster or Tab Hunter was doing on the screen.

After five months of this routine Sandy became a little less eager to participate, and a remoteness crept into her response to Phil.  He thought he noticed it first at a party where Sandy talked more to his best friend, Matt, than she did with him.  Soon after the party Phil spoke with Matt about this.

“Hey Matt.  I gotta ask you something.  Are you interested in Sandy?  I’m not jumping on you or anything like that, but it just seemed like something went on at that party at Pat’s house.  I won’t get mad.  Really.  And if you two are interested in each other I’ll be okay.  I just gotta know.”

“No” Matt responded, and the surprised look on his face made Phil believe that his denial was sincere.  “I’m not interested in Sandy at all.  I mean, she’s pretty and all of that, but I’m busy with school working out for football practice that’s gonna start in two weeks, and I think that Darlene and I might start going out together soon.  I’ll tell you something though.  If you’re worried about Sandy looking at other guys, maybe you should think about whether you want to continue this or not.”

Phil was anything but a veteran at this sort of thing, but he instinctively knew that Matt was right about that.  Still, Sandy was his first girl friend.  Phil found that he really liked being in a relationship with a girl, especially this girl, and he was prepared to venture into some unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory if there was any way that this relationship could be saved.  That is, if there really was anything amiss with the relationship.  Maybe Phil was imagining all of this; with his inexperience, how would he know?  Without asking, that is.  That is what today’s picnic was going to be all about.

Phil’s daydreaming slowly faded and he once again became aware that he was lying in the dirt on the side of the trail.  Above him small, grayish brown birds twittered and flitted from branch to branch in the chaparral that rose up over him.  He was thirsty but his right arm didn’t seem to want to move so that he could grasp the canteen of water by his side.  His left arm seemed to be working, but he didn’t care enough to expend the energy that would be required to reach across his body.  Hmm.  Sandy started this day with him.  Where was she now?  Oh, yes.  She walked – – -, no, she ran down the path back towards the parking lot.  Why?  What did we forget”  Phil’s confused brain tried to sort this all out, and the process took him back to the parking lot at the picnic area.

Phil and Sandy exited the 1962 Mercury sedan and Phil lifted the trunk lid.  Inside were two packs of unequal size.  The larger one carried a sheet, food, two quart bottles of water and a fancy Swedish gas stove no bigger than the palm of your hand.  With the stove Phil planned to heat some water to make coffee.  Neither Sandy nor Phil drank coffee much but Phil was just beginning to like doing so more with his older brother.  He reasoned somehow that it would make him look more like an adult, and perhaps make a good impression.  The smaller pack contained more sandwiches, the coffee, sun protection and other such gear.  Swinging their packs onto their shoulders, the two began their walk to where, a couple of hours later, they were to have their lunch and a long conversation.

The two young people were not far along the trail when Sandy asked “Where exactly are we going to eat this lunch.  Have you really ever been up here?”

Phil chuckled, a little nervously he thought, and replied “We’ll go an hour or so up this trail.  When we get to a valley up there we’ll cross the valley and then climb part way up another mountainside.  There’s no trail up the side of that mountain but it is pretty clear of undergrowth and isn’t too difficult of a climb.  There’s a level place among some boulders.  I found this place hiking with my Dad a couple of years ago.  It’s one of my favorite places in these hills.”

“How hard is the climb?”  Sandy asked.

“It’s not all that hard” Phil replied.  “The hike we took coming up the east side of the mountains from the desert was a lot harder.  It’s not much of a challenge for either of us.  Let me know if you get tired though.”

“I’m tired now” Sandy laughed, but she was a very athletic young woman and Phil suspected that she could keep up with him wherever they went.

They reached the top of the first climb in an hour, as predicted.  The trail had been bounded on one side by chaparral, a mix of twisted, thorny, drought-resistant plants that had grown tall and in some place had arched all the way over their heads because of a series of rainy years.  It now opened up as they reached and passed along the western edge of a mountain valley.

“We’ll climb part-way up there” Phil said, pointing to a peak which rose from the east side of the valley and poked a little higher into the cloud-dotted blue sky that did its neighbors.  “If you look about a third of the way up the hill, just above that tree that was split by a lightening strike, you can see where we’re going to eat.”

“I don’t see where you’re talking about” Sandy complained.

“In that cluster of rocks” Phil answered, pointing the rocks out.  He stood close to Sandy, putting one hand on her waist and pointing at the rocks so that she could sight along his arm and extended second finger.  Sandy’s nearness; the smell of her hair and the ease with which he could be near her were exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.  “This is what I want” he thought one moment, and “this is what I may be losing” was the thought that quickly followed.

Phil regrouped.  “Like I said, there’s not a trail from here, but the terrain is pretty easy.  There’s not much chaparral on the side of that hill but the valley can be pretty marshy because the Cuyapaipe River begins up here.  We’ll stay in the upper part of the valley where it is the driest, and then cut back so that we can reach the rocks.

“You’re the leader” Sandy said.  Was there a strain in her voice?  Did she intend to let Phil lead anything for long?  The questions sat like something bitter in the pit of his stomach.  “Lead on.”

They stepped off of the trail and onto the grassy floor of the valley near the north end, and indeed it was fairly dry there.  The warm sun and dry air, the valley floor strewn with wildflowers, and the beauty of the mountain should have been a thing to make one’s heart glad.  Instead, Phil was not feeling good at all.  He knew that a very difficult conversation needed to take place and he struggled over when and how to begin it.  He had planned to broach the topic at some time during their lunch but he simply couldn’t carry the weight of this thing any longer.

“There’s something that I’ve been wanting to talk about.” Phil began.  He could see Sandy’s body tense out of the side of his eye as he stepped carefully over clumps of grass, avoiding scattered marshy patches.  Phil was trying to collect his thoughts but they stubbornly refused to stay collected, so he pressed on.

“I’ve begun to get the feeling that you don’t like me as much now as you did a couple of months ago.  Is that how it is?”  Sandy seemed to be surprised by the directness of the question, and in fact Phil was too.

I don’t know” Sandy replied.  “I don’t think that I do, but I still like you a lot.”

Phil kept a poker face while that arrow tore through his heart.  He had been right, and now it was in the open and there could be no going back.

“Is it because you’re attracted to Matt?” Phil asked.

“No, not at all” Sandy said, but Phil did not see the same surprise that he had seen in Matt’s face when he asked his friend the same question.  Phil still had his doubts after her answer to that last question but he pressed on.

“Maybe it’s your Dad.  I know that he doesn’t approve of me, or at least not very much.”  Phil remember how he had been given the third degree like a petty hoodlum when he showed up at Sandy’s house on their first date.

“So, young man.  You want to take my daughter to a dance.  Will there be adults at this dance or will it just be kids at a house somewhere?” the father had asked.

     “It’s at a recreation center, sir.”  Phil replied.  “There will be Parks and Recreation leaders there the whole time.”

     “Hmm.  All right.  So what about you, son.  What are your plans?  College?  Career?”

     “Uhh, I’m not sure sir” Phil stammered.  “I’ve always wanted to fly, and my brother told me that my grades are good enough to get into helicopter training in the Army.  I might do that.”

     “I don’t see how that will happen” Sandy’s father said.  “You have to be an officer to be a pilot and your have to have a college degree to be an officer.  

     “Well sir, my brother told me – – oh, I’m sorry.  My brother just got out of the Army last month.  Anyway, he told me that helicopter pilots can be  warrant officers, which is something like less than an officer but more than a sergeant or whatever those guys are called.  Anyway, with my grades I could qualify and go to Alabama for nine months and come out flying.”

     “Helicopter pilots are in a pretty dangerous position, aren’t they?  The Viet Cong like to shot them down as quickly as they can.”  Sandy’s father seemed to like that idea.

     At that point Sandy swept into the room looking like an angel from heaven and rescued Phil from the hot seat.  Sandy kissed her father on the cheek and said “Good night Dad.  We’ll be back by 10:00.”

     “See that you do” he growled, looking directly at Phil.  

Back on the valley floor Sandy shook her head, more convincingly this time than the last, and said “No, it has nothing to do with my father.  He’s usually either at work in his office at the shipbuilding company or in his office at home.  He’s all worried when I stray from the house but otherwise hardly knows that I’m there at all.  He told me that warrant officer was good enough for him and I haven’t heard anything more about it.

Phil processed that answer as they walked along.  Warrant officer was good enough for Sandy’s father, but was it good enough for Sandy?  The two walked in silence for a short distance as each tried to organize their thoughts.  At last, Phil could not wait any longer.

“So what is going on?  I want to know if something’s wrong that I am able to change or fix.”

Sandy remained silent for several more steps and then began to speak in slow, measured words.  “There’s nobody else that I’m really interested in.  Really.  And I don’t care if my dad likes you or not.  I honestly do still like you, but I’m just not sure about where we are or where we’re going.  And I don’t really know how you feel about me either.”

Sandy returned to silence as they walked, and now neither of them were nearly so careful about avoiding the marshy spots on the valley floor.  Phil stepped into one and growled ‘Shit!” at which Sandy laughed a little.  Phil felt his face flushing and knew that he was turning red.  He had never sworn in front of Sandy before but he was feeling the strain and losing his control just a little.

“You see, that’s what I’m getting at” Sandy continued.  “You are always the same person.  There’s never a change.  You pick me up.  We eat at the drive-in. We make out somewhere.  We go home.  Always the same.  Always controlled.  I like all of that stuff but I want something else.  I know that there’s more to you than just that stuff but you don’t share it with me.  At least I think that there’s more to you, but how would I know?  At last, you finally stepped into some water and said ‘shit’.  Guess what.  If I stepped into water I would probably say ‘shit’ too!  Or maybe more than that.  I have said it before, you know.  I’ll bet that you have too.  I’ve lived for 16 years where everything is proper and runs according to a schedule and rules and guidelines, and I don’t want to do that with you.”

They returned to walking in silence again.  Phil was more careful about where he stepped now and Sandy was wondering if she had just stepped into something a great deal different than water.  Phil was glad that he was not competing with Matt or anybody else and Sandy was glad that this conversation had at last begun.  They were approaching the eastern edge of the valley when Phil picked up the thread again.

“Well, I do like to make out with you.  You’re a beautiful girl, and sometimes I can hardly believe that it’s me kissing you.  It just becomes the only thing that I want to do.  Maybe I have a lack of imagination about what to do with you because I’m so happy just to be with you at all.”

Sandy stopped in mid stride.  She turned to Phil, put her hands on her hips and said “Why is it that this is the first time that I’ve heard that?  I’ve wanted to hear you say something like that to me for the last half year.  Was it so hard to say that?”

Phil knew that Sandy was right, but how could he know that he should say such things?  Phil’s father and mother lived a sort of cold war, sharing a house but inhabiting separate worlds; separate bedrooms, separate budgets, separate vacations, and separateness in every other aspect of their lives.  They went dancing and to dinner with friends, but that façade came off as soon as they got home.  If Sandy would have known Phil’s parents better she would have had a much more clear view of his confusion in the matter of expressing affection.

Sandy began to walk again, a little faster than before as her own confusion and anger was beginning to creep toward the light.  Phil caught up quickly but Sandy began to speak again before Phil could get out a word.

“And then there’s another thing.  When we were eating lunch at school that guy, Paul What’s-His-Name, was fresh with me and you didn’t seem to mind.  It looked to me like you were afraid and he could just say anything to me that he wanted to.  I’m sorry, but that bothered me.  I don’t want to pick your fights for you, but I felt insulted and alone when that happened.  I would like to know that you would defend me.”

Phil felt the pain of that accusation tear through his heart and mind.  Paul Duggar was a big oafish kid and a bully, and he had made advances towards Sandy right in Phil’s face.  Phil had laughed a little and then walked away with Sandy towards where some other kids that he knew were standing, and the number of those friends persuaded Paul to leave after another grating remark or two.

The memory of that day stung, but the worse part was that Phil had not the least fear of Paul Duggar.  Phil had been bullied in the sixth grade and had persuaded his father to pay for karate lessons.  By good fortune Phil had ended up with an instructor who trained him well.  His teacher also advised Phil to keep his training a secret from his friends.  “When the upstart defeats the old gunfighter, the new gunfighters all want to pick a fight with him to earn their reputation.  Train hard.  Stay quiet.  Use what you know only when you have to, or you’ll have to be using it all the time.

Phil had lived by that teaching, but now he knew that a page had to be turned and a new strategy was called for.  He thought back on that day and knew that he could have laid Paul out with three or maybe four blows.  Perhaps it was time to share this side of himself with Sandy.

“I’m sorry that I wasn’t more assertive that day” Phil said lamely.  “I wasn’t afraid of Paul; I just didn’t want to get into a fight then and there.  If I thought that you were in any danger I would have done whatever was necessary to protect you.  I will never let anything hurt you.  Never.”

They walked along in silence again for a while.  Phil was making a list of things that he wanted to tell Sandy, and what Sandy was thinking Phil couldn’t tell.  Her jaw seemed tight, as if the Paul episode still was eating at her, but Phil wasn’t sure.  They arrived at the eastern edge of the valley and began their climb towards the boulders.  They were picking their way through the rocks and chaparral that was scattered about when Phil spoke again.

“So I haven’t told you how I feel about you.  Okay.  You’re right.  I’m new at all of this and honestly, I don’t know what I’m doing or should be doing most of the time.  So, let me tell you now.  I look forward to every minute that I can be with you, and I feel sick when I think that I’m losing you.  If you don’t want me to kiss you so much, then I won’t.  If you want me to stand on my head instead, I will.  Just being near you will be enough for me as long as I know that you are happy being near me.  But if that won’t work, then we should break up now so that I won’t bother you or look like a fool, which is how I’ve been feeling.  That is not what I want to do, but if it is what you want, we should do it.”

There.  Phil had said it.  He couldn’t believe that he had got it out without his voice cracking, and he hoped that Sandy wouldn’t take him up on it, but there it was, right out on the table.  They would have to deal with it now, for better or for worse.  Sandy looked like she was glad to have the issue laid bare too.  The tightness around her jaws softened and Phil even thought he saw a little moisture fill the eye closest to him.

“This is what I’ve been missing” said Sandy.  “We’ve been acting so much like my parents.  Pick me up.  Eat.  Make out.  Go home.  It’s like a broken record.  I don’t want you to be my knight in shining armor but I would like to feel safe when I’m with you, and I don’t want to just follow the same old script.  Surprise me sometimes.  Take me out to a nice restaurant, or just grill me some hot dogs in your back yard and tell me that I’m special to you while we sit on that big bench swing that your dad built and eat them.  And the next time that we’re making out while some stupid movie is playing, try to get into my pants or something.  “I’m not looking for ‘out of control’, but I’m tired of everything being so tame and predictable.”

Sandy was a little out of breath after such a long speech, and was more than a little surprised at what had just come out of her mouth.  Phil had stopped dead in his tracks with his mouth hanging open, frozen by both his elation and the shock that he felt from what he had just heard.

“You would let me get into your pants?”  he asked in amazement.

“No.  Of course not.  Don’t be silly.  But I wouldn’t hate you for trying, as long as you weren’t being a jerk about it.  At least I’d know that you want to get in them.  We can then talk about anything more than that later.”

Phil put out his hand, acting as if he was reaching for Sandy’s belt.  She laughed as she slapped his hand away.  “I said later.  A whole lot later.”

Phil laughed too, just beginning to believe that this was going to end a lot better than he had dared to hope that it would.  They had reached the place where the picnic was to be had and Sandy’s laughter was singing a love song in Phil’s ears as they climbed up over the first layer of rocks.  That was when Phil saw the rattlesnake that was warming itself in the sun.  Sandy was unaware of the snake and her head was not two feet away from it when it coiled in preparation to strike.  There was nothing that Phil could do other than thrust his arm between Sandy’s neck and the snake, and he did that without thinking.

The serpent struck in less than the blink of an eye and buried its fangs deep into Phil’s bicep.  He shook his arm furiously until the snake let go and wriggled swiftly into the small stand of chaparral that was nearby, leaving a shaken Sandy and a bitten Phil in its wake.

“Oh God!  Oh God!  You’re bitten” Sandy kept repeating.  Phil stared numbly at the twin punctures on his arm that were oozing blood, frozen with fear.  Sandy’s cries became louder and more hysterical, and the sound brought phil back to something like his senses.

Phil’s father had grown up in Oklahoma and knew a lot about rattlesnakes, including how to hike in the mountains without getting crosswise with one.  One lesson his dad had omitted from Phil’s education was how to remain watchful for snakes while negotiating with a beautiful girl about getting into her pants, even if only in jest.  Phil had forgotten to tap the rock with the head of the steel hatchet that he wore in its canvas cover on his belt.  The sound would alert any snake in the rocks that Phil was coming, and the snake would return the favor.  “The snake will let you know that he’s there if you will let him know first” his father had said.  “And that will work out best for the both of you.”

Sandy was losing it pretty badly, and Phil went to her, wrapped his arms around her and held her close.  “It’s okay.  It’s okay Baby” Phil kept repeating, although he could not for the life of him figure out how it could possibly be okay.  “Calm down now.  We’re going to be all right.  We have to think about this now.”  Sandy’s sobbing diminished, and soon she looked up at the snakebitten boy who was comforting her, and began to control her fear.

“You really were bitten, weren’t you?” she asked.  Phil stared at the damaged arm that was just then beginning to throb.  “Yes” he replied with a calmness born of shock.  “I believe that I was.”

Sandy’s tears began to flow again but Phil just held her close to keep her from falling apart.  Her jaw worked, but few words came out.  “Are you going to die?” she finally croaked in barely a whisper.

Phil didn’t answer right away because he didn’t know the answer.  His father had told him that tourniquets and sucking out the poison were mostly Hollywood horseshit.  “The best thing to do is get to a doctor fast” he had told him.  Phil knew that such a plan was not going to happen, and the first shiver of panic crawled down his spine.  Bile crept up into his throat and he almost threw up from the fear.  The look on Sandy’s face however, and seeing the concern and compassion that she felt for him, settled him down.  He remembered more of his father’s teaching and one possibility rose to the top.

“My father told me that sometimes rattlers will give you a dry bite, where they don’t inject venom.  All we can do now is start back to the parking lot and hope that this snake was in a good mood today.”

  Oh, yeah.  the snake.  Phil looked down at his right arm as he lay in the shaded dirt of the trail.  The arm was already puffy, bruised, and numb.  And it also hurt like hell.  “How can an arm be numb and hurt at the same time?” Phil asked himself.  He moved the arm an inch or two and dug his fingers into the dirt.  Sure enough, he couldn’t feel the ground underneath arm or fingers, but he could certainly feel the fiery pain that enveloped the entire appendage.

     Phil’s head was resting on a pillow.  “Odd” he thought.  “A pillow out here.”  Then he remembered that Sandy had taken off her pack and used it to cushion his head.  Phil smiled at the thought of using a pack full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and some socks and a scarf as a pillow.  His vision had been blurry for a long time and now his breath was getting a little harder to come by.  Phil looked down the trail where Sandy had disappeared – – – how long ago?  Phil hadn’t the least idea.  Maybe she’d be back in five minutes with help, or maybe she only left five minutes ago.  There wasn’t one damned thing that Phil could do about it one way or the other, so he lay his head back down on his makeshift pillow and drifted off into memory again.

Sandy began to cry again and Phil was not doing so well himself.  He hugged her once again, being careful not to bleed on her clothes.  Sandy controlled her own fear and stepped back from Phil’s embrace.  “Come on.  We have to get you to a doctor.  You leave your pack here.  I’ll take mine and let’s get going.  I don’t think that we’re going to have a picnic here today after all.”

They set off down the hillside, towards the valley.  By the time they got to the margin of the valley a purple blotch had grown around the bites on Phil’s arm, and the pain was becoming fierce.  “It looks like the snake was not in a good mood” Phil told Sandy.  “I don’t know how long I’m going to stay standing.  We’ll go straight across the valley.  I want to get you to the trail and I’m not going to worry much about getting my shoes wet doing it.

They walked quickly side by side across the grassy valley floor.  Phil wondered how far he would get before the effects of the venom would lead to weakness, light-headedness, shortness of breath and possibly death.  He wanted desperately to make it to the trail on the west side of the valley.  Once there, Sandy could follow it straight to the parking lot and safety.

Phil thought about dying and once again panic began to rise in his throat.  Half-way across the valley he bent forward and threw up the remains of his breakfast.  “Was that fear?” he wondered, “or the effects of the venom.”  Phil had not thought about death and dying any more than any other seventeen year old kid had, but now it was a distinct possibility.  In some odd way the fear did not immobilize him.  The bite was a fact; Phil couldn’t change that.  He had to get Sandy to the trail, and anything else would be extra credit.  Life, death, heaven and hell were not in his hands, so all he could do was put one foot in front of the other for as long as that was possible.  The rest would have to take care of itself.

Sandy tried at first to keep up idle chatter as they walked, whether to distract Phil from their desperate situation or distract herself wasn’t clear to Phil.  Eventually however, when Phil began to stumble more as they passed through the soggy clumps of marsh grass and shallow pools of clear water, Sandy focused all of her attention on supporting Phil.

“Come on.  We can do this” she told Phil as the trail finally came into view.  “We’re almost there.  Let’s just keep this going.  And by the way, I want you to know that I believe that you weren’t afraid of Paul.  If you weren’t afraid of a goddam snake I guess you can handle Paul.  I apologize for that.”  Phil smiled weakly, but didn’t speak.  It was becoming clear to him that he was not going to make it down the side of the mountain.  They stumbled onto the trail and Sandy gave a little whoop, but Phil simply plodded forward.

Phil didn’t know how far they had walked on that trail before it finally became clear that he had gone as far as he could.  “I can’t go on any more” he said.  Sandy tried to urge him on but he held up his left hand.  “No Babe.  I’m sorry.  I can’t do it.  This is it.  This is as far as I can go.  I’m going to have to lay down right here and let you go on the rest of the way.  Here.  Help me to lay down.”

“No” Sandy quavered.  “Don’t give up.  You can do this.”

“I’m sorry Babe.  I can’t.  And I’m not giving up on you or anything else.  You can travel faster without me.  You run the rest of the way and get help.  Ill stay here, resting, and wait for you to come back.  This is the only plan that I can see that has a ghost of a chance.  Now help me to lay down and go.  Quickly!”

Sandy looked like she wanted to argue, but it was obvious that this really was the best plan.  “Okay.  You can use my pack for a pillow and lay here in the shade.”  Sandy helped Phil to stretch out in the dirt.  She lifted his head and put her pack under it, and then leaned over and kissed Phil twice and said “I love you, Phillip Coltrane.  You wait for me because I’m coming back, and I’ll be really pissed off at you if you don’t.”

Sandy then rose up and shot down the trail at a full sprint.  She quickly disappeared around a curve, and Phil wondered if he would ever see her again.

  “It must have been a while since Sandy left” Phil thought.  “The shadow from the chaparral is nearly half way across the path now.  How long does it take for the sun to move that far in the sky?  Hell, I don’t know.  It’s still midday though, and that’s good.  In the evening the tarantulas come out to hunt.  I know.  I’ve seen then on this trail in the evening.  God, I hate spiders.  Especially big, hairy ones.  Ah, no sweat.  I won’t be alive this evening.  The ants will already be cleaning up my mess.  Spiders are worse than snakes.  Screw snakes anyway.  Maybe a big, fat spider will eat that bastard who bit me.  Maybe – – – huh!  I’ll be damned.  That looks like two men in some kind of uniforms standing over me.  Sandy.

 

 

Notes From Santa Fe

Today is the last full day at St. John College in Santa Fe.  It has been much like the others:  great discussion in the workshop and equally great conversation with my fellow travelers over coffee in the cafeteria.  I will be glad to return home tomorrow so that I can begin to digest all of the input that I have received and start writing again.

What has been as pleasant to me as the learning is the rain that has fallen.  Rain is nothing new where I live in the Northwest, but here rain is a special event!  It has rained every day that we have been here and today we had a soaking rain in addition to the deluge that is the more common form.  Ditches and dry washes have running water in them and the ground is becoming saturated.

The grasses and weeds are greening up and yellow flowers already adorn one little plant that appears everywhere.  Pine, cedar, birch and cottonwood are a rich green and their aroma pervades the campus.  I have little doubt that the drier areas downstream and at lower elevation are enjoying the underground flow of these waters as they work their way slowly towards the Rio Grande Valley.  

I’ll miss Santa Fe after I leave tomorrow, but it’s not going anywhere.  Ah’ll be bock!

At The Knee Of The Master

One Santa Fe note which I neglected to post yesterday involves twenty minutes that I had the privilege to spend with author and teacher Suzanne Wolfe.  Let me explain the experience in this manner.  Suppose you are a young sprinter and got to spend twenty minutes with Usain Bolt, or perhaps you are a high school quarterback and did the same with Tom Brady (during his four-game suspension, heh heh).  Maybe you’re a young physicist and sit with Steven Hawking, or a rookie CIA agent and get to learn from – but wait.  I can’t mention her name or she’ll have to kill me. That is what it was like to sit at a picnic bench on a patio in the Santa Fe afternoon for twenty minutes with Suzanne Wolfe.

I had with me my manuscript of a story about a boy and a girl and a snake; no, it wasn’t Adam and Eve (or was it?), and Ms. Wolfe had already made numerous editorial marks and comments on it.  Now, I had the chance to explore each of those comments, or at least the most important ones, and learn how Point of View and Word Choice and Major Dramatic Crisis works in such a story.  Three days ago I didn’t even know that the above-mentioned categories existed!  Now Ms. Wolfe was explaining their meaning, their importance, and suggesting ways to bend and shape my story into a more pleasing and coherent product.

I realize that I may never become a great writer, which might save me from dying of cirrhosis in a Paris hospital from drinking too much Spanish wine.  I do, however, have the opportunity to become a better writer than I am how, if I want to put in the hard work.  That is a gift and an offer that I can’t refuse.

The Birds And The Bees

When you travel from the Pacific Northwest to the desert Southwest it becomes readily apparent that you are in a different world.  Landscapes choked with trees and undergrowth give way to vistas of brown earth, red and black rocks and hillsides dotted with individual trees, if that.  Gentle rains that last all day or longer in the Northwest become sheets of water that blow sideways for thirty minutes, accompanied by celestial artillery in the Southwest.  The best of differences is the food.  Dinners that revolve around the pasture, the forest and the sea move over and make way for beans and corn and squash, and green and red chili and all sorts of meats cooked slowly in same.

Differences in wildlife are subtle but can be seen if you look for them.  Lizards might be seen warming their cold blood on a rock in the sun, their little heads darting first one way and then the other as the lizard tries to find an unwary bug for his next meal while watching out to prevent providing the same service to a hungry road runner.  In the evening a tarantula hawk, a huge black wasp with orange wings skims just above the surface of the ground in search of his favorite snack; fresh tarantula (or any other large spider).

The most dramatic sign of wildlife involved just that, a sign taped to the inside of our dorm door which said, in paraphrase: “Please do not block the door open.  This allows the entrance into our dorm of snakes and other creatures with four, six, eight and many more legs that you would not like to wake up sharing your bed with.”  There are few dull moments in Santa Fe.

Rain

It rained today in New Mexico.  That doesn’t happen as much here as it does in a great many other places.  The desiccated land rests patiently; it has no option to do otherwise, for the miserly sky to grant it the blessing of life-giving rain.  Stubborn plants, from weeds to great trees, plot their strategies for survival here; a quick flowering and release of seeds for one and deep and wide roots for another, in order to make the most of what the sky will give them.

With the coming of the waters the land is quick to send its thanks to the relenting sky.  The air is redolent of the smells of tree, shrub and weed as each one provides its own fragrance.  The land itself; the dirt and rocks, adds its aromatic notes to this olfactory orchestra, providing rich notes of earth and fertility to those of the plants in this symphony of smells.

Soon, too soon for many in this parched land, the clouds will blow away.  The earth will dry.  Dust will blow and rocks will rest where they lie, waiting for the next torrent to inch them farther down the hillside.  Plants will either wither after producing seeds, their work finished, or slow down their rhythm, relying on water stored in root, stem and leaf, or deep in the earth itself, waiting for the next gift of water from the stingy sky.

Glen Workshop

The soft morning breeze rustled the leaves of the trees outside of the snack bar where I was buying a bottle of water.  I was enjoying a short break between halves of a writing workshop in Santa Fe, and I had a lot to think about concerning a sample story that I had written for this event.  The workshop leader was speaking terms that I had never before considered:  Point of View, Word Choice, Major Dramatic Question and the like.  These were all new terms to me and I knew that I should give them my full attention.

The trees would not allow this to happen.  The cedar, the pine, and the tree with the white bark and roundish leaves that would quiver in the breeze; they spoke to me of things more solid than my quest for mastery of a story, and more permanent than a 68 year old writer who had suffered a heart attack and survived bypass surgery two years earlier.  The trees stood, almost silent but not motionless, where they had stood for many a year; possibly more years than mine, epitomizing this place that rests near to the center of my heart.

New Mexico.  My brother lived one hour south of where I now stand for forty years before retiring and moving closer to his remaining child.  How many years I came to visit, and we crawled in and out of known and obscure crannies of this state and still didn’t cover the tenth part of it.  My parents, or at least their ashes, rest a couple of miles north of where I stand, in the Santa Fe National Cemetary.  I want to rest there too some day.  Below me, in the city of Santa Fe, people are preparing carne adovada and green chili chicken casserole and all manner of good things.  I intend to eat some of that food soon.

One week from now I will return to my “home” far from this place.  I will resume my normal life and hopefully write better stories.  The pine, the cedar and the white-barked tree will remain behind however, their leaves quivering and their aroma suffusing the campus where I am staying.  The cooks will continue to pour treasures out of their kitchens in the restaurants and homes of Santa Fe, and I will some day return here to stay.  Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Theology Pub

“I am pro-life!”

“So am I.  Abortion is murder!”

“But I am pro ALL life.  I am opposed to the death penalty!”

“Wait a minute; I mean innocent life.  Justice requires the death of a murderer.”

“Taking the life of anybody once they no longer present a threat is not justice.  It’s murder.”

“Why are you just extending this conversation to human life?  Animals were created by God too.  How can you eat factory farmed animals who are killed after their miserable lives in the most hideous manner and call yourself pro-lift?”

So the conversation would proceed at Theology Pub.  Theo Pub was a two year experiment in diversity which was sponsored by my church in Vancouver Washington.  We met at a pub, The Brickhouse,” and enjoyed wonderful pub grub and a dizzying list of beers, wines and spirits while we discussed every imaginable topic.  the idea was to speak honestly, and sometimes with heat, but always with respect and love for our partners at the table.  People of other faiths and of no faith were invited, and the rules were the same: love each other and  ‘splain yourself.

I was asked by a person at work why a church group would meet in a bar.  “Because that’s where they serve alcohol” was my response.  We explored evolution, gay marriage, abortion, and other topics and books, with tongues well lubricated but attitudes in check.

All things have an expiration date, and our experiment is concluded.  Our love for each other and our warm regard for the owner and staff of The Brickhouse is intact.  If you want good, open conversation, come to the House of Providence.  If your preference runs to a  cold beer and some nachos, The Brickhouse can accommodate you just fine.