Maeve smiles. She loves the laughter of Roxanne’s voice. Roxanne chats with her own husband, whispers in his ear and plays with a strand of his long black hair. Stan nods encouragingly to keep the melody of her monologue going. He loves to listen to Roxanne. It is like the soul-filling chirps of the chickadees early on a cloudless morning.
Outside the antique rail car, the hot morning sun throws the rocky farmland into high-definition. Surprisingly, to Maeve, the rolling sun-stroked country seems fruitful. As the narrow gauge locomotive slowly rolls through the eastern flatlands of Jefferson, it crosses small shallow canyons that are lush and well watered. Water seeps and springs gush up everywhere. None in a hurry to join the Klamath River in his rush to the all-encircling ocean.
Other family groups around them chatter too; local families taking their visiting relatives on the train to Montague for the day and low budget tourists hitting every attraction along Interstate-5. Also, a bevy of dark skinned beauties that Maeve wonders might be dancers.
The tourists lean out the pane-less windows and take pictures of everything. A prickly pear cactus in bloom stands on the corner of a vineyard. Honeysuckle overgrow the willows that hide a “hobo camp”. The train passes the home of the owners of the “Honey Bear” restaurant chain. A fly buzzes lazily out and then casually back into the last of the three slow moving rail cars. The tapered rows of reeds grow up the bank from the clear algae-rich creeks. Wind and drought sculpted junipers and ancient scrub oaks stagger solitarily up the gentle tan slopes.
Maeve asks her husband quietly if he’d ever been on a train before. He shakes his chin doubtfully. His earliest memory is still meeting Rugen Sienna on a dusty road while out for a walk. Rugen and his small sons were hiking on the family estate that day. Rugen took pity on the exhausted American wearing two walking casts.
“Six Western Pond turtles on that log on your right.” the conductor/tour guide announces.
Gleeful children stampede to that side of the train. The tourists stand to snap digital photographs over their tousled heads. Roxanne’s husband Stan gets out of her way so she can see across the car.
“Oh how cute…” escapes Roxanne’s round, red, laughing lips before she actually sees the blunt, pointed, snapping snouts, salt–encrusted, spiny, soft gray shells and reptilian features of Clemmys marmorata.
“Oh, nasty looking little things.” Maeve exclaims with admiration and a swipe of her pink tongue across her blood red lips.
“They don’t look big enough.” Maeve’s husband John mumbles with a gruff laugh. “I think the Joy of Cooking says they have to be six and ½ pounds.” He laughs again and then pushes back his cowboy hat to massage his forehead.
His sister-in-law Roxanne gives him grief about his joke.
Meanwhile, Maeve studies Roxanne’s husband who seems deep in thought. His perpetually tranquil green eyes glance Heavenward. His fair brow furls in concentration, beneath the hat they’d insisted he wear against the sun.
“I’m trying to remember the lyrics to a Chuck Berry song; My Ding-a-ling.” Stan announces. “Once while swimming cross turtle creek…”
“Man them snappers all around my feet.” John adds hesitantly.
“Sure was hard swimming cross that thing.” Stan continues with a smile.
“With both hands holding my ding-a-ling!” they both finish. A few of the older rowdies on the train join in.
Roxanne covers her laughing mouth and flushing cheeks with both her manicured hands. Maeve throws back her head to laugh aloud as she shakes her ebony locks. John just grins in red-faced embarrassment. Each chuckle makes him grimace a little and reach for this forehead again. Stan is pleased as punch with all the joy in his kinfolks.
“Buddy?” John blurts out in an effort to change the topic. “Want to join me on the platform for a smoke?” He jerks his head towards the back of the train.
Maeve eyes her tall lean auburn haired hunk. He wears the straw hat she and Roxanne bought him and Stan for the trip; maroon polo shirt, tight slightly faded Levis, er, make that Wranglers and his proverbial cowboy boots. No pack of cigarettes in sight.
Burly Stan tosses a knowing glance to his wife and nods to his best friend. Both men stand. The more muscular of the two grabs a large bottled water out of his wife’s bag. Stan too is wearing Wranglers (at his wife’s insistence) and boots. Due to his fair complexion, everyone insisted he wear a white long sleeve shirt atop his muscular frame and the aforementioned cowboy hat. (Roxanne brought parasols for her and Maeve.)
The men move towards the back of the train with the staggering stumbling steps of those without “sea legs” or “train legs” if there is such a phrase. Maeve smiles to see that her hubby isn’t grimacing with each step. The dry climate has been good for the arthritis in his toes. It is a shame about his foot problems considering how much he loves to dance. Roxanne leans a little into the aisle to admire her husband’s ass. Maeve catches her in the act.
“Stan should wear cowboy boots more often!” she says with a blush and goofy arch of her penciled eyebrows.
Both women laugh.
Maeve turns to watch their men folk. “I thought he only used that “going out for a smoke” when he wanted out of boring meeting or awkward social situations.”
“Hair of the dog, dearie” Roxanne explains tipping an imaginary champagne flute.
Their driver from the airport in Ashland had gotten them to their rented summer home late last night. Maeve and Roxanne had sat out on the balcony enjoying the evening. They had time to enjoy a couple of flutes of champagne before hitting the hay. Their men meanwhile spent a few hours swimming in the outdoor pool beneath the twinkling stars. And jumping off the second floor balcony in the pool. And being too loud and drinking tequila.
“Am I the only one who doesn’t know when my husband has a half pint of Jose Cuervo Gold in his boot?”
Roxanne just smiles knowingly in response and gazes out the windows.
“I’m glad to see you smiling today.” Maeve says with a smile of her own. “Yesterday, as we landed in the state capital, I thought I heard a sigh escape you.”
“Well, dearie, “Roxanne begins. Her shoulders slump. Her arms gather themselves around her ample bosom to console herself. She almost frowns, but thinks better of it. “It just that last time I was in Ashland, it was sort of big thing.”
“You mean the hundred thousand waiting in the darkness…the tarmac wet with tears…the hysterical girls…the blubbering old men.”
Roxanne shrugs with a guffaw. “Yes, yes I know dearie. There were all there to see Prince Tristan. I was just picking him up at the airport. Still it was fun.”
Maeve pats her sister-in-law’s exposed knee and slides the hem of her summer dress over it. Roxanne is a full figured gal, prone to sunhats and floral prints. Maeve is fond of black. They’d looted Roxanne’s wardrobe for this drip.
Roxanne busies herself by waving at a toddler a few seats up. “I like Yreka.” She whispers aside to Maeve. “But, it’s totally different from the rest of the state.”
“Well, with the state of Jefferson being located between Oregon and California you can expect a wide range of people. Ashland is the state capital, has the university and the Shakespeare Festival. Yreka is where the Jefferson State Golden Fair is held.”
“Oh, my kind of people, here.” Acknowledges Roxanne now blowing kisses to the little darling three seats up. They were about the age of Maeve’s and Roxanne’s grandchildren. She sits up straighter, her emerald eyes glance about. She tilts her head to listen. Then sniffs gently. Her shoulders drop and the redhead inhales deeply. “What is that Heavenly smell?” she sighs with glee.
“A saw mill.” The men explain as they return to the car.
They’d seen it during the track’s last curve. Now the train scurries down the little divide that separates Montague from Yreka. It’s on a long straight track headed right for the sawmill. The conductor explains that twice a week this tourist train hauls lumber to the main track. Incongruously, it slides between stacks of lumber, piles of aromatic sawdust and pallets of decorative bark.
“It reminds me of the cedar chest my mom had.” John whispers absently. His blue eyes focus far and happily away. He savors and holds each breathe.
His kin grow quiet. Maeve carefully says nothing. Roxanne gazes up at her brother-in-law timidly. Stan lays a massive comforting hand on John’s shoulder. They don’t want to scare the thought away. After the accident, John recalled little of his childhood.
Roxanne looks back and forth between the friends, wondering if they are sharing similar thoughts. “I had a small cedar box once.” She almost sings. Her voice is soft and deep. She smiles as John and says nothing more. The track crosses the highway; the jolt startles everyone and interrupts her performance.
The children leaning out the windows see other children ahead and begin calling to them. The adults all look out the windows too. They approach a farmhouse surrounded by pastures and alfalfa fields. The house itself sits among hoary old cottonwoods overgrown with honeysuckle. And surrounded by rhododendrons. The train children wave frantically. Finally, the farm kids reluctantly return their waves. They stand, the three farm boys in a family size above-ground swimming pool, red-faced and slow moving.
“Their faces are as red as that pile of cedar chips you two love so much. What were they up to?” Maeve asked aloud.
Several of the mothers on board nod in agreement.
“Skinny-dipping!” Stan yells out the window.
“Stan!” his wife exclaims.
But, it’s too late and too obviously true to everyone! The boys duck under water and swim to the near side to hide from view. In the process, one bare white butt breaks the surface! The train passengers roar and the cameras click. Several small children ask “What is skinny-dipping?” Roxanne is beet red with laughter. Maeve has the giggles and John smiles.
Stan’s big left hand still lies on his buddy’s shoulders. Stan never loses his composure. As everyone continues to look at the “skinny-dipping pool” receding behind them, Stan’s eyes dart back and forth between the women trying to get their attention. The hilarity is dying, the moment is about to pass. “I bet that wasn’t in your little…cedar box.” He mumbles just loud enough for his mahogany-haired wife to hear.
Maeve and John laugh; Maeve too much. Roxanne jumps in her seat and then gazes into her husband’s eyes. The train rolls across one last shallow well-watered gully. The engine banks right on the gentle sloping rise. Atop the eastern edge of the plain, the train turns left and determinedly coasts towards Montague. But, just before it took the left run, as the passenger cars clunked, clunked, clunked over the rise, the people on the left hand side of the car see a “geyser” rising over the green fields. Well, maybe they see it. The tracks turn and the mirage is lost, hidden by the engine.
“Montague has a water park?” Stan asks cheerily.
John’s blue eyes snap towards his best friend. Surprise graces his smiling tan face. He suppresses a snicker and licks his lips in preparation to speak. Then he changes his mind when their wives say “Really? Where?”
“Up ahead on the right.” John explains as glee slips across his feature and a sly smile spread across his lips. His deep brown moustache twitches with emotion, but he manages to suppress it.
“Let’s see!” Stan suggests a little too enthusiastically, as he and his red-head honey try to look ahead. They see “something” at first. Maeve joins in the exuberant effort. When they see “the fountain”, all the tourists call to one another. The locals become suddenly mum, engrossed by Black Mountain to the north. John does the same. He’d been reading the map.
“Water Park? Wow!” Turning to John, Stan winks when their wives aren’t looking. “Buddy, you wearing boxers? We could…”
“Don’t even think about it Stanley Scamander!” Maeve snaps.
“Oh dearie,” Roxanne begins reassuringly, and then covers her painted lips with the fingers of the right hand. Her smile wilts into an expression of concern. She glances hesitantly at the men.
“What?” snaps Maeve. The men avoid looking into her black eyes. “Is there something else everyone knows except me?”
Roxanne pulls her sister-in-law down on the bench next to her and whispers something about “commando” in her elfin ears.
“Gross!” squeal the darksome girls at the front of the car. Similar comments pop up all over the train. “What is that smell?”
The conductor/tour guide woefully informs everyone that the “Water Park” is actually the village sewer ponds.
“Gross!” resounds through the train.
After several stern lectures about being back on board for the departure in a hour and a half the passengers are allowed to disembark into a grassy park in the middle of Montague. Facing the simple parched park are sun-bleached older buildings with “Western” facades. Most of the stores are gift shops, a few restaurants and the town’s “recently remodeled” Corner Bar. John leads the way to “Miss Lynn’s Tea Shop.” Once inside the purple double doors with the large oval glass panes, the foursome stops to let their eyes adjust to the relative dark compared to the white hot cloudless day outside.
“Come on in! We don’t bite” called the slim blonde proprietress from the cash register.
Maeve gazes at the display case and stumbles as she tries reading aloud the cards in front of the offered delicacies. “Juniper Berry tarts and Prickly Pear pie.”
“Really?” roars John spinning about. “I haven’t eaten prickly pear fruit since I was a kid!”
Rather enthusiastically, he explains how he and his brother use to eat them.. (His brother’s name was “Steve” by the way. When he use to wrestle and play with his young sons, he’d occasionally called the eldest “Steve”, because “You remind me of my brother.”) They would knock the swollen red fruit off the cactus with sticks. For protection against rattle snakes, they’d carry long sticks when exploring the “mesa”. (Spanish often pops up when John speaks his native English.) He explains how they cut them open with a pocket knife and then carefully scooped out the sweet, meaty red jam within. They had to be careful because…
“Monsieur Sienna?” Miss Lyn asks. “John Sienna?”
John turns and looks at her blankly, as though he doesn’t recognize his own name. The spell is broken. The moment’s gone. Roxanne bites her lower lip in frustration. Maeve’s facial expression is not so discrete. Stan relieves the proprietress’ confusion by admitting they are the Sienna party of four. As they are led to the garden , Stan sees a young dark haired girl teasing a large “biscuit” she’d just pulled from the oven. With her thumbs, she gingerly pulls it apart. A nodding of her head and the smile caused by inhaling its aroma tells Stan they are ready.
The garden is planted with trees that will someday protect guests from the brutal Jeffersonian summer sun. For now, awnings cover the white wrought-iron tables. A small fountain plays among the under-watered yellow roses. Purple and yellow pansies fill well-watered flower boxes surrounding each table and over–watered fuchsias hang from the awnings.
“How beautiful!” Roxanne comments as they are seated.
The dark haired girl in the kitchen arrives almost immediately with the honest-to-goodness silver tea set. She pours the strong dark “Devonshire Tea” into each cup, mentioning as she does that there is hot water in the other silver decanter and sugar and cream in the silver bowls. Each heavy white cup and saucer is framed by two small spoons; one for scooping sugar and one for stirring. Stan take advantage of the tea pouring ritual to snatch up a piece of decorative bark surrounding the roses.
When asked what they’d like for lunch, John asks what she’d recommend.
“Scones!” the young pastry chef answers proudly.
John agrees. When she leaves, they begin to talk of other things.
Pretending to take his wife’s hand beneath the table cloth, Stan scrunches the bark in his massive fist and scatters the aromatic chips on the concrete as his wife’s high heels. He makes a show out of hefting his broad chest and breathing deeply. “I can still smell the cedar.”
Maeve and Roxanne glance at Stan with the most serene, pleased, awed, looks imaginable. Later Maeve will tell him that it was a moment of pure genius.
“Speaking of which, what about that cedar box of yours?”
“My wedding trousseau?” Roxanne responds quickly and (for her) unnaturally quietly. “Actually, my grandmother’s . When I reached “certain age”, my relatives gave it to me in preparation for my own weddings.
Stan’s verdant eyes glance at John’s sky blue. His buddy’s thoughts are already far away in a place he hadn’t been able to recall in 35 years. “What was in your cedar box, Roxanne?” he says. His tense hulking frame leans over his wife in hopefully anticipation.
There is something about her husband’s passionate inquiry and enthusiasm that warms Roxanne to her task. “The necklace I wore at all my weddings. A sliver necklace with 13 blue turquoise stones. The stones are covered by the spidery webs of copper veins. They are grasped by a silver setting that makes each look like a flowering fruit. Hey, like a prickly pear fruit actually.
Stan is gazing into his beloved’s green eyes. He starts to speak, hesitates and says, “I recall it at our wedding day. I haven’t seen it on you lately.”
“I gave it to your youngest daughter when she wed. You know; “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” I didn’t need it anymore. I’ll never wed again.
Roxanne’s gazes up into Stan’s sea green eyes. She exhales as he breathes in .
Maeve intuitively reaches for John’s hand. He doesn’t respond. From the corner of her eye, she can see this thoughts are pleasantly far away on the shining red cedar chest that ran the width of my parent’s marital bed and protected the foot.
He speaks. “I can smell the aroma. I can see the blonde streak on the unvarnished inside of the lid and the…”
“Here you go folks!” The baker says as she drops a trefoil of local jams and a bowl of heavy whip cream on the table. Miss Lynn yells at her when she returns to the shop about her apron and name tag.
Roxanne wakes from her moment with Stan, horrified that the charm is broken again. Maeve’s hand on the red head’s thigh beneath the table stops her from saying anything.
“What else was in your grandmother’s red cedar box?”
Roxanne takes a deep breath to steady her nerves. “My marriage certificates of course. (Stan was her fifth.) Oh, and grandmother’s; on the onion skin paper they use to use, all fragile and yellowed.”
John gasps. “My mother’s cedar chest was mostly linens. I remember looking in there once and seeing yellowed newspaper clipping in the bottom. They were from President Kennedy’s assassination. And, and, and there was a little blue and white throw pillow someone embroidered to celebrate their wedding. It was blue with blue trim and white lace. “Carl R.” Hey, my dad’s name was spelled with a “c”. And “and Lela J. – November 12, 1953-“
He pauses then still concentrating with all his fiber on a fleeting precious moment in the past.
“Does it show their last name?” Maeve asks innocently
John shakes his head slowly with ever rising frustration showing on his cheek bones and by the watering of his blue eyes. “It’s cursive. I’m not sure-“
“Here’s the scones!” announces the baker proudly.
John looks up and recognizes her. She’s wearing her ruffled country apron and a name tag; Arliss.
Arliss!” John shouts.
Arliss almost drops the biscuits. The table shakes with John’s consternation.
“Their last name was Arliss?”
“No! Urliss! Our last name is Urliss; U, R, L, I, S, S!”
Arliss leaves her master pieces and runs away. John’s face is full of delight and surprise. His face flushes heartbreak and disbelief. He looks to his wife.
Dumbfounded, her features glacial white, his wife says, “I’m Maeve Urliss?’
The unflappable Stanley Scamander beams with excitement.
His wife jumps in her seat and claps her hands. Roxanne’s face is red with emotion. “Yes, yes!” She screams. “You’re Maeve Urliss! Just like I’ve always said, absolutely Maeve-ur-lous!”
After tea time, the little train chugs back up the gentle slope, weaves its way through the juniper studded divide and snakes back into Yreka. Aboard, sets of emerald and ebony eyes lock on John as his once imprisoned memories march forth gloriously, one at a time from their jail in the black depths of his subconscious. Back at the vacation home they’d rented for this visit to the Shakespeare Festival, as the women pack picnic lunch, John and Stan sit by the pool whispering conspiratorially. John lets loose some forgotten memories that a wife and sister-in-law might not want to hear. On the walk to the city park on elm-lined Miner Street, the flood of refugees from oblivion turns to just a tinkle of memories. The doctor had long prepared his relatives for this moment.
Maeve could no longer resist, “Your first kiss?”
“John and I already covered that!” Stan snaps
Roxanne pulls a Maeve’s sharp elbow to rein her in. They want to ask about monumental events that he will want to tell them about.
“No, we didn’t.” John replies with a shake of his head as he reassuringly grabs Stan’s hand. “Her name was Terry MacDonald. It wasn’t so much the kiss as what lead up to the kiss. She sat three rows ahead of me in junior-high English. I was too shy to ask her out. It was a two-hour class with lots of in class writing. The girl in front of me and I use to get our work done quickly and then talk to one another. The teacher didn’t mind because we were quiet. One day, Linda that was the girl’s name ahead of me, asks me which girls I liked in our grade. I nodded at Terry sitting up ahead of us. “Have you invited her out?” “I don’t have her number.” With that, Linda turns away from me and leans forward. “Psst. Terry!” she whispers. Now, Linda was the second-most popular girl in the school. No one much less Terry could imagine that Linda would speak to her. “Terry, I needed help with my math homework the other night. I wanted to ask your help but didn’t have your number.” You get that? The second most popular girl in school just announced that Terry was her friend and some sort of math genius. Terry proudly whispered back her number. Linda thanked her as she wrote it down. She gave the dumbfounded faces looking her way an imperial dismissive nod. As they went back to work. She handed me the number. “So, who do you like?” I ask. “Danny Montoya.” “He and I share a locker.” “Yes, I know.” She says to me. “So, if you stopped by between 4th and 5th periods this afternoon, we’d both be there. You could ask me about our English homework.” So I invited Terry to a dance a month away. So, she felt comfortable asking me to help with her club’s Easter Seals event. So, I could invite her to something else I had going. It wasn’t some much the kiss I got at the end of the dance, but how good we got to feeling on the way to it.” John looks to his relatives for a response. Maeve and Roxanne sigh romantically. Stan lays a heavy hand on his shoulder.
“You were shy?”
They all burst out laughing.
“First pet?” Roxanne asks as they continue up Miner Street.
“I don’t recall one,” John mumbles as he shakes his head.
“No dog before Gizmo and Jake?” she nudges trying to unfetter the memory.
“Oh! Pete! My family use to enjoy going for a “Sunday drive” after church. One Sunday we saw some black and white puppies in the window at a pet store. My dad says, “If that puppy is male we can get it.” So Monday, while I’m at school, my mother and little brother go to the pet store. My mom says, “If that’s a male puppy, we’ll take it.” So, naturally the clerk says it is a male puppy. We had it three weeks when my Uncle Gene flips “Pete” over and says, “This isn’t a boy.”
“So you had an Uncle Gene?”
“Yeah, Aunt Barbara and Uncle Gene. A cousin Scott a little younger than me, but older than Steve. Holly… no Shelley and their sister, sister Amy. Yeah, Amy.”
“Was Uncle Gene your father’s brother or mother’s?”
“No, no I think they were just family friends.” And with that, John frowns and shakes his head in frustration.
“Dagget County, when we came in second in the volley ball tournament.”
“No buddy, a trophy before the youth hostel caught fire.”
John could remember neither a trophy in his childhood nor the fire that ended it.
“Teddy bear or security blanket?”
“It was a tiger, shaped like a teddy bear…” (Everyone gasps.) “just like I bought each of my boys; Shep, Nom and Puck.”
Maeve pries her jaw up off the asphalt first. “Leaving home for college? The army?”
“No, sorry.” John says and urges them all along the street now flooded with other picnickers headed to the concert in the city park.
“Ever elected president of the student council? King at homecoming?”
“No, but one time I got an A++ on a mythology paper in elementary school. My GPA was so high that for once the boys had a higher group GPA than the girls.”
They pass through a modest archway of rough concrete and brick on the corner of the city park. The crowd mostly passes by the food vendors that line the street and stream onto the ball field. There is a stage set up for the band over home plate. The drummer and a guitarist are performing sound checks. Retirees in beach chairs and families on blankets dot the sun-drenched field, drinking beer and wine. On the North edge of the field is a short dirt embankment that helps level the tennis courts. Rougher people and younger people sit there sipping from brown paper bags in the shade of the parks cottonwood trees.
Roxanne knows the generic questions designed to unlock the secrets of John’s life before 20 years old are running out. It’s time to start on the specifics. “Stan you keep quizzing John. Maeve and I will figure out where to sit. Dearie, there’s an elderly couple over there, nicely dressed. They look like your kind of people. We should see if we can squeeze in next to them.”
Roxanne’s husky tone is light and airy. But her knowing look and the way her fingers linger at her chin, tells Maeve something is up. Out of the corner of her painted eyes she can see Stan asking her husband about other monumental firsts in his life. Stan knows John’s specific tastes. John blushes as he whispers his replies.
“Yes, Roxanne.” Maeve replies loudly playing along. “Doesn’t she look classy? I hope we look that good at her age. But, Roxanne, I really think you’d enjoy the crowd with the better view.
They can continue like this for a while, giving the boys plenty of alone time. Maeve and Roxanne finally settle on a spot in the grass on the first base line.
“Oh look, it’s that lovely young black woman from the train and her girlfriends. Maybe I can ask them to scoot over a bit, so we can throw down our blanket.“
Kelley and company are pleased to comply. She’s built like maybe a basketball player. She wears “Dolce and Gabbana” sunglasses. Her girlfriends are Rebecca in a red sequined top with a chest almost as large as Roxanne’s. The third girl sits furthest from Roxanne. She seems quiet and looks oriental. Roxanne, Kelley and Rebecca get along famously. This frees Stan and Maeve to quiz John.
When Roxanne asks how three beautiful women like themselves could possibly be at the concert unescorted, they explain their boyfriends are in a ruby tournament. And that they’d best show up soon, because “They are in the band!”
“Band” got John’s attention and he asked all about it. Kelley assured him, they were very good and that there would be room to dance in the grass in front of the stage. So, now Rebecca and Kelley joined the quizzing.
“First shot of Jose Cuervo Gold?” didn’t loosen any memories.
“First large game animal?”
“At black bear at Yellow Stone National Park, back in the day when they still feed the bears. I must have been three or so. I remember my mother lecturing me that if a bear came around I should run to the truck, roll up the windows, lock the doors and not come out until the bear was gone. So, as soon as she got our lunch laid out on the picnic table, a bear comes over the hill. So, I ran to the truck , rolled up the windows and locked the doors. My dad picked up his 8mm camera and gleefully recorded the bear demolishing our meal. My mother came running up to the truck, “Let me in! Let me in!” “No.” I said. “You said not to unlock the door until the bear went away.” She got in the back of the truck. “
Everyone is so engrossed with the conversation that the girls don’t see their beaus approaching. Squeals of delight greet the men. Both men wear heavy parchment yellow t-shirts trimmed in grass green and white shorts. The larger of the two wears a black ball cap decorated with a light-blue triangle with the letters G and P inside. The slighter wears stylish shades and a killer smile. Kelley asks where her boyfriend is . “Larry” jokingly replies that with his short legs, it’ll be a while until Matt catches up. The boys are introduced. Larry is a big quick guy like you’d expect a rugby player to be. His heavy 5 o’clock shadow overshadows the sun burn his cheek bones received on the rugby field today. Dusty is taller though leaner, duskier and more muscular. Roxanne finds him a handsome man, but can’t place his ethnicity until he answers that he’s a Native American.
“And you are in a Celtic Rock band?” Roxanne asks Dusty.
In reply the young man can only shrug his shoulders. Introductions are made all the way around. Stan and John’s boots slip off at some point, which reveals the untouched ½ pint of Jose Cuervo Gold. The guys became fast friends around that, while the women huddle around the other end of the picnic blanket. John wishes his grown sons were here, “They’d really like you guys.” The crowd grows in size and becomes louder as it gets closer to show time.
Matt arrives and joins the women. Matt is a dwarf! A rugby playing dwarf with an Australian accent! He’s in a Celti-rock band! John and Stan don’t notice him at first. That’s because he is so short that he is hidden from view by everyone else sitting around the infield. But, a flash of parchment yellow catches John attention and through the happy crowd he sees Matt.
He nudges Stan. “Is he sitting in his girlfriend’s lap?”
Ends up Matt has no qualms about his height. He self-confidence with the ladies would indicate he’s much bigger. Larry announces that it is time to get ready. The boys tramp off to the “sound booth”, pick up their costumes and head to the cider block men’s room to change.
The Parks and Rec director jumps up on stage and the locals knowingly quiet. He rotely, welcomes everyone to the weekly concert in the park, thanks the sponsoring organizations, and recites the schedule for the next couple of weeks. He interrupts his litany to mention that the Jefferson Gold State Fair starts in three weeks. Then he introduces the band. Larry, Dusty and their bandmates press through the applauding crowd shaking their raised arms. The crowd is enthusiastic especially some overdressed young women by the stage. “Groupies!” Kelley explains with a laugh.
“Oh my!” chuckles Roxanne when Larry leaps on stage.
The big guy wears a camouflaged kilt. Apparently the whole band is wearing kilts. Larry wears a black long sleeve dress shirt, wears his ball cap backwards and carries a base guitar. His bandmates take their places on stage. Dusty wears a tight fitting matching black tank top and wears his shades atop his head. He steps to the keyboard. The groupies gather at his side of the stage. Maeve and Roxanne don’t see Matt. Kelley explains that Matt is the lead singer and comes on stage during the third song. The music begins. John doesn’t waste in time. He dances first with his wife, then his sister-in-law, then Kelley – at which point Matt pops up on stage dressed as a leprechaun! The crowd doesn’t seem surprised. Maeve mumbles “something else everyone knew but me.” John does the country-swing with Rebecca and then after a little encouragement gets the third girl out there. We are talking the kind of good foot stomping music that John just loves. He is taking a breather (and shot of tequila for the growing pain in his feet) when Dusty stops playing the piano and picks up a violin.
“A fiddle!” John shouts above the music. “I haven’t heard a fiddle since – “ He gasps. “I remember the first time I ever danced.”
Before his crowding kin can ask any questions a deafening roar rises above the tremendous music. Kelley and Rebecca are laughing. Their oriental friend, Larry’s girlfriend has covered her face with her hands. Her small mouth is hanging open. She runs for the car.
“What happen?” Roxanne and Maeve both ask.
Rebecca and Kelley laugh and blush too hard to answer. But, Stan happens to be looking at Larry that particular moment. In response to Dusty’s solo, Larry and his base whirl across the front of the stage. “He’s going commando underneath his camo.” Stan explains.
Larry face burns with embarrassment and he now has his kilt firmly presented against his thick thighs with his guitar.
It’s a great concert! There is no quiet moment to ask John about his “first dance” until they head for the demolition derby at the fairgrounds. The men walk ahead, side by side, carrying the remains of the picnic lunch. John hobbles along painfully beside his burly buddy, but insists that calling for their car in this traffic congestion would be a waste of time. It is still unbearable hot and now muggy.
“Well, then tell us about your first dance.” Maeve asks brightly.
“I had a buddy who loved to dance. I use to watch him. One night I had an extra beer at dinner and when the band struck up I head to the dance floor. “Now which of these girls wouldn’t be embarrassed to dance with me?” I said. At that moment, sent by God, fresh off the court came a girls basketball team in uniform! “These girls aren’t going to be embarrassed to do anything!” I said. So, I walked up to a little Latina and asked her to dance. She said I don’t know how. I said, neither do I. I’m sure we’ll have a wonderful time. We did and the rest is history!” He ends with a flourish and big smile.
Everyone just beams back at him.
The brutal sun pounded at their backs in route to the demolition derby. On the fairgrounds, ancient cottonwoods shade the ground, but oven like heat still prevails. The demolition derby is to held at the rodeo ground. A large wooden covered bleachers parks on the west side of the dusty arena. John points out the that aluminum bleachers flanking the structure are just as shaded by the trees and probably cooler. They grab a beer for each at the concession stand and grab their seats early. It had been a parching hike and the beers slip away quickly. John and Stan go for another round.
“So, how does this work?” Roxanne asks.
“Well, the last car still running wins. I think I heard they will toss 5 cars in at a time. The winner of each heat will competent in the final heat.”
Roxanne adjusts her sun hat and peers doubtfully at the stock yards on the opposite of the area. There in the uneven rough country scattered about; are two dozen vehicles and trailers. Teams of backyard mechanics scurry about the lot. Clearly only a dozen or so of the vehicles could be competing. Roxanne assumes that the rigs with chained down hoods, missing windshields and with reinforced cages for the drivers are competing. The rest of the vehicles must be for support.
“Doesn’t look like we’ll be here very long then!”
The boys return with beers. In the arena a water truck circles about sprinkling the dirt. The summer sun turns the soil into a fine dust powdering everyone standing against the railing of the arena. Every so often the announcer reminds parents to keep their children off the railings and the water truck runs close to the railing to reinforce the notion. More and more people arrive with their families. The competing cars rumble into the arena to the amusement of the audience. John announces his support for the black one with the heavy weld because it reminds him of the car at the finale of “Animal House”. Roxanne picks out a day-glow green. Maeve declares for the supped up car with the chain down hood. Stan tries to claims Roxanne’s car, but gets hooted and wisely picks an undecorated station wagon. The pit crews race out to join their driver. The announcer slowly introduces each car; its driver and what neighboring community they are from. The crowd applauds each mechanized gladiator enthusiastically. The announcer then explains the rules. Maeve is right. Five cars per heat. There are 13 cars entered.
“What?” Stan asks after finishing off another frothy draught.
“It’s going to be a short event.” Maeve reiterates.
But, the boot-wearing folks sitting behind them predict 5 heats before the finale, because pit crews often get their cars restarted and can re-enter. Eight of the contestants bounce their way out of the tractor-leveled field leaving the five that will attempt to bash one another to death in the first round. Roxanne decides to pass on her second beer and passes it to Maeve who hands it on to her husband who turns it over to the thirsty Mr. Scamander.
“Thanks Mr. Urliss.” Stan whispers to John.
“Please stand for our nation anthem.”
When John sees their neighbors removing their ball caps, he nudged Stan and they do the same with their straw cowboy hats. Roxanne and Maeve place manicured hands across their ample bosoms. A young woman on horseback enters the arena and gallops the American flag back and forth before the crowd during the playing of the recorded anthem. She hands it to a young cowpoke straddling the railing and he places it on the judge stand down front. The crowd cheers at the end of the performance, waves their hats before settling them back on their heads and reaching for their beers.
“Now if no one objects, we are going to offer up a prayer on behalf of these braver fellas.”
Roxanne (and John) dutifully bow their heads. Maeve follows suit. Stan clearly mutters into his beer, “No one better not, God damn, object!” The crowd of hard-working folks behind them grunt their support for Stan’s comment.
Roxanne proudly puffs out her ample chest and whispers to Maeve, “I guess that long hair, really does cover up a red-neck!”
After the prayer and a rousing cheer from the beer-swilling crowd in honor of it. The announcers says, “Gentleman, start your engine.” The wail of an air horn sends the vehicles peeling out; some forward to circle around in a tight arc, some backwards across the arena. Two of forward flying cars, end up side by side and the outer one is forced into the railing. It slams on the brakes, slides across the powdery field and manages to swerve into the driver’s side of the offending car. Stan’s station wagon meanwhile, sees an opportunity and flies across the arena in reverse to T-bone an opponent. The crowd cheers in appreciation of the maneuver.
“Is he okay?” Roxanne asks of the driver in the slammed car.
The driver in question wears a visored crash helmet, is strapped into the rig by a four point harness, sports padded carharts overalls and some narely looking gloves. He is also taking advantage of the location he ended up in, to run into the station wagon at high speed.
A roughly painted black and red car seems damaged and maybe even high-centered in the rutted field. Several drivers hit it and in turn are hit and disabled. After a duel between the two remaining mobile cars, the station wagon gets slammed into submission and Roxanne’s day-glow green car is the last one standing.
“I’m so happy. The driver kind of reminded me of Puck.”
Maeve shares a questioning glance with her husband. Neither of them could see any similarity with their youngest son. (With whom they were well pleased by the way.)
Chase vehicles and tow trucks drag the disabled cars away. Stan and John went for more beers. The water truck went back to playing desert Zamboni. Five new contestants line up mid-field. The horn went off and they all race forward into a melee right in front of the judges stand. Roxanne shrieks when one of the cars is hit so hard it bounces 5 feet before regaining traction and circling back on its attacker. The contestants are now a mass of striving metal monsters, several with bummers or jagged side panels interlocked trying to free themselves or to get off the railing. The crowd is on its feet to see the action. Maeve can’t see if the whiff of smoke rising is caused by a spinning tire or a fire under the hood.
“Stan!” John commands.
There is something terse, cold and deadly serious in John’s voice. Maeve can feel the hair rise on her neck. She can feel his right hand grasps her shoulder and starts to turn her towards the fire exit. His left arm reaches around Maeve and his left hairy hand presses into the small of his sister-in-law’s back. Stan leaps atop his seat and begins picking out who is going to dock out of the way in their rush to escape the fire. Once, years before John and Stan did a safety message at the monthly office meeting. They’d done a dramatic reading on fire safety. It was Eddie Foy’s first person account from the stage of the Iroquois Theatre on that horrific day in December 1903. Ever since they’d taken fire in public assemblages, very seriously. Fortunately, the horn went off again to end the heat and the pit crews, fire extinguishers in hand easily put out a small blob of burning oil.
Everyone sat with a sigh of relief and a grin. Accept Roxanne.
“I’m going to go walk Jake.”
“What?” cried her kin.
“He’s been left at that house all by himself, ever since we got here.”
“Well, if he wasn’t always trying to play with Gizmo’s new puppies, we wouldn’t have had to bring him.” Maeve points out.
Clearly demolition derby is not Roxanne’s sport. Clearly everyone else was enjoying it.
Maeve gives her a kiss goodbye and their blessing, but as an afterthought adds. “Promise you won’t walk down by Yreka Creek.”
“The creek that parallels Interstate-5 downtown.”
Stan and John follow the conversation without comment.
“Oh, dearie, you don’t have to worry about me finding a “hobo camp”.
“I’m worried about some meth-heads finding you.”
“Oh dearie –“
“Roxy.” Stan calls pleasantly down the row. He never calls his wife that. There is something terse, cold and deadly serious in his voice.
Roxanne finally understands their concern, gulps, blushes a little embarrassed and promises not to go near the chamber of commerce’s “River Walk”. It’s a long walk back to their vacation home, but Roxanne knows a short cut. She finds Jake curled up on the cool flagstones in the most shaded part of the yard. He is asleep.
“Jake dearie? I know they say to let sleeping dogs lie, but don’t you want to go for a walk?”
Jake’s tail wags in approval well before he is fully awake. He struggles to his long-clawed paws, with massive head bowed and eyes still soft and body warm from his slumbers.
“What a beautiful boy? Do you miss Gizmo?” she intones sweetly while tickling his chin and avoiding the flickering of his tongue.
Only Roxanne could call Jake beautiful. His own master refers to him as a big drooling baby. At 120 pounds he is no baby. Jake is enormous! He’s a quiet dog. When he barks it is only a warbling, joyful howl in greeting when John comes home. He’s never learned to growl. He never has to threaten another dog and never fears another. He never disturbs the neighbors so no one peeks through the hedges or notices the flashes of unusually long claws on his unnaturally small paws. No one has yet seen the snake like whip of his tail. Nor the short stygian-black fur on his frame growing into a mottled mess of a mane atop his shoulders and neck. They haven’t taken a double glance at the hard hooked snout or gotten up close to see the flat ragged strains of hair. Roxanne puts Jake on the leash, pops open the back gate and heads for the main street of Yreka. Oh, in answer to her question, yes, Jake misses his spouse.
“Well what do you think Jake? Will you like your new name? Jake Urliss?”
The dog continues his jolly gallop alongside Roxanne obvious to her questioning concern or the big blob of foaming white drool that whips across his char-black snout. A local woman rolls up to the stop sign alongside Roxanne. The woman studies Jake with surprise and then glances away with obvious emotion.
“Don’t you worry Jakie-Pooh! We love you regardless of what over people think. And so does Mrs. Jake Urliss. Hmm.“ continues Roxanne now more to herself than the mutt at her side. “Jake and Gizmo Urliss?”
“Hey lady! Dog sure does like you!” announces a teenager riding by with his buddies.
Roxanne smiles back in delight and the teenagers start hooting. She shakes her head and glances about more bemused than confused.
On the opposite of the street comes a man walking a moderately sized dog. Roxanne gets a grip on the leash closer down. “He’s sure enjoying his walk.” The guy calls from across the asphalt.
Roxanne brow furls in consternation. “Jake, I hope our new relatives are nicer than these people.” Her eyes continue to glance about looking for a solution to the comments. A growing suspension rounds her emerald eyes and brings color to Roxanne’s cheeks. She glances down at Jake and notices the odd gait of his hind legs.
“Jake?” she says with rising concern in her voice.
The red-head glances his way again, but apparently she can’t see anything from that angle. Her eyes drift away again to the route ahead on the sidewalk. But in the corner of her eye she sees a flash of pink reflected in the window of the storefront they are passing.
“Oh Jake. No.” she whispers. She stops and watches his reflection in the store front as Jake paces back and forth. She sees the pink beneath his belly again. “Oh no, Jake!” Roxanne’s left hand almost reaches for his hind leg, but with a blush she thinks better of it. Across the roundabout lays Yreka Creek. “Well, just go over there and cool you off.”
The water is shallow, but Jake wades right in, lapping as he goes and cooling his “belly”. Roxanne sighs loudly and snickers when he decides to roll around in the pooled water.
“Good dog! Now come out of there and shake for Aunty Roxanne.”
Jake complies. The rattle of his choker collar startles the three men watching Roxanne from the cottonwood grove. The usually gregarious red-head sees the tell-tale missing teeth, the blistered skin, chapped lips, inhuman emaciated frames, zombie-like stance and that “hunger” in their eyes.
“Oh, here she is!” announces Maeve’s voice in loud falsetto as she trips down the short dirt embankment to her friend.
Maeve stops and looks at the meth-heads. She licks her blood red lips as though she’d just spotted something delicious. Stan is right behind her. He stops in his tracks. His sledge like fist pull back his massive forearms. His eyes boil like the green algae hot pools in Yellowstone. The three men should have run then. Instead, they stood there enthralled like deer in the headlights until Jake’s head pops up out of the shrubbery to see what everyone is interested in. That’s when they bound away cussing and muttering. Stan begins to follow, but John throws his arms around Stan’s barrel chest to stop him. Maeve leads Roxanne back to the street above them.
“I’m sorry. I told everyone I wouldn’t go down there. But, but, Jake really needed to cool off.” With tearful eyes Roxanne indicates Jake circling around them.
Maeve noncommittally notices he still needs to cool off. She calls the dog and whispers in his ear. His every-wagging tail drops between his legs and he scurries back to where the men are climbing the embankment. He stays close to John after that.
Stan, smiling now, offers his wife a burly arm and leads the way. John offers his dark haired beloved his hairy arm and follows. John kisses the back of Maeve’s hand as they stroll along the street in the twilight. The far-shooter has finally sailed beyond the mountains.
“Well buddy, I just have to know.” Bursts out of Stan of all people. “You changing your last name to Urliss?”
John slowly shakes his head. “If we change our names. Then the boys will want to change theirs. And how confusing will that be to our grandkids? “ John continues to shake his head as they stroll along.
“Besides, ” Maeve pipes up. “Our daughter-in-law Harmonia won’t allow it.” Stan and Roxanne stop and turn to hear this. “ If Puck changes his name, she’d be married to Puck Urliss and no woman wants a husband who is pucker less.” She finishes with a grin. Everyone smiles. “You know your parents might still be alive. Good chance your brother is.”
John goes back to shaking his head slowing. His relatives move in close to hug him. “No. Rugen and Orion Sr. were good to me. This is my brother now.” He kisses Stan on the cheek. This is my family now, here…” He pulls them all to his arms. “and back in Italy. I don’t even speak the same language as the Urliss people. I don’t know them. I’m dead to them. Let sleeping dogs lie.”
“Ain’t that the truth!” Roxanne mutters to herself and self-consciously strokes back a coppery lock of hair.
She exchanges looks with her husband and Maeve. She nods with a smile. Stan nods with a smile. Maeve, smiling, starts digging around in her purse.
“Is there something going on that everyone but me knows about?”
“Buddy, your wife has something for you.”
“What?” he asks turning her way.
Maeve’s hit speed dial on her cell phone. “It is Steve Urliss.”
John can hear the phone ringing.
“Dearie, we want to meet our nieces. It’s Luke 15: 32; But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
A voice says “Hello?” on the phone
John’s eyebrows rise in recognition. Unbidden a warm smile comes to his lips. “Hello, bro!“ he begins.