Chapter 12 – Holiday in the Sun

September 10th, 2010 § 0 comments

Loopy with booze, Bryson sat back into the black foam seat and toyed with the radio. Clouds, enormous hunks of coal with little lightning forks leaping between them, approached from the north. The rest of the sky was achingly blue, in every direction. She passed over Seneca Lake. The land about was parched, the meadows bleached blond and copper, except for the woods, and the fringe of dark green that followed the shores and banks of lakes, streams and gorges, like veins of emerald. Lake levels were low and she could see the old northern shoreline of Keuka Lake, under water since 2130, a wavy, indigo Y discernible just beneath the brighter, bluer surface, which petered out in a large swamp over the lost town of Old Penn Yan.

The craft set down on the west side of the lake, in a sheltered area Leonard had cleared, beneath the ridge of the hill that separated the vineyard from the road. Set in the brush like that it was safe from wind and invisible from the road and the house. In one hand she carried a bag and used the other to balance herself. Grasses and weeds grew up two metres high and smelled of corn silk. There was a cacophony of insect and amphibian voices, frogs going dunk dunk dunk, scissoring cicadas, the busy mandibles of grasshoppers chewing. Moths and butterflies bounced among the tall hot weeds and she was a little unnerved to discover that the unbroken background buzz was made by yellow jackets. Overhead a turkey buzzard circled.

Weeds slowly gave way to rhododendron. The dark, resinous leaves smelled strong, of nightshade, and the stalks, or trunks, had grown rankly, reaching a frightening height for a plant she thought of as a sort of flowering shrub. The shade was close, choking. As a child the leaves always reminded her of fingers. A cool breeze from the north bore a cruel scent of rain. It wouldn’t stop here; those clouds were just passing through.

She was sweating profusely now. It ran off her head and back. Long ago she had stopped noticing the drops rolling down her side. Black flies settled en masse upon her shoulders. She could feel their little feet running around on her neck. Mosquitoes and gnats engulfed her face. They bit at the tips of her ears. But she didn’t bother swatting, confident that the BiteStop pills she took would keep them from stinging anywhere else.

The path soon joined the driveway and the space opened out on either side. To her left was a stand of oak trees, hundreds of years old, with broad canopies. Each was different. There was the listing fat one and the one with a trunk like a mast. A few were split and twisted. Even on the hottest days the air beneath these trees seemed cool, sweet with acorns and dense, tannic leaves. To the right was a grove of dogwood, separated from the driveway by a split rail fence. Then there were crooked apple trees, moss and lichen covered, small green apples hanging in the gnarled boughs. Up ahead the weathered grey clapboards of the house came into view. In between was a sort of tent, a flat canvas roof held up by bamboo poles with netting for sides and a hole cut in the center to let out smoke. It was connected to a couple of mismatched composite shacks with solar panels. Then there was the baby blue and white pick up truck with the smashed out headlights. The thatched roof of the house blazed like a stupa covered in gold.

A small dog began to yap and within seconds there was a din of barking. Dogs ran in from all sides, starting with a mangy black poodle. Inside the structure sat an old man in shorts, shirtless, his back to her. He was tending a fire with a stick and talking to another man.

“That you, Ruth?” he shouted. The seated shadow stood and as it approached the black netting, its flesh came into soft focus. A red snout poked out from the bottom and Sasha ran up to her. She pet the dog but could never match her enthusiasm. The fur felt dirty in her hand, greasy, with a vague odor of death. “Hello, hello, hello,” she sang. Leonard rushed towards her and hugged her to him. They kissed lightly on the lips. “Come in, come in,” he said. They entered the netting. It was dark and smelled smudgy, of smouldering green wood. In the center of the room a pot bellied copper alembic sat atop a pile of coals. The air was unbelievably hot. She could not remember anything so unpleasant. A man sat sweating in a chair. As she approached, choking and blinking back sweaty tears, he stood. “Forgive me,” she said, blowing her nose.

“Let me get you a glass of water.”

“No.” She waved him off though she desperately wanted one.

“Here,” Leonard said, thrusting a warm water bottle into her hands, which she began to glug down. “You won’t believe what I’ve got going here. You remember Dennis Blanpied?”

“Of course,” said Dennis. He was in a khaki uniform, with pistols in each holster. He had a middle aged, weather beaten face, kind brown eyes and a military haircut.

“Try this,” Leonard said, handing her a small glass with clear liquid at the bottom. “It’s made from the grapes. I finally figured, why not make booze if the wine’s no good? So I got Jason, you know that hippie who lives off the main road, about a mile up in the woods, just past the tobacco shed? You know, he’s got a fat wife, a bearded daughter and two beautiful sisters? He helped me rig it up. It’s a pot still.”

“Not bad,” Dennis said. “For moonshine.”

“The Italians call it grappa.”

She took a sip and sputtered. It burned into her lips, tongue and throat. Then the heat faded and a slight taste of fermented fruit lingered on her palette. Immediately she wanted another sip. The second didn’t burn half so much. “You ought to at least age it in some of those oak barrels downstairs,” she said, when she could finally speak.

“Well, that’s what we were just talking about,” Leonard said.

“I figured he could char the barrels and put some color on it. Anyway, I’ll take a bottle of it just as it is.”

Leonard handed him the bottle. “Dennis brought tobacco.”

Bryson looked up with interest. Between smoking and drinking it was a bit of a toss up but in the end smoke always took the prize of her affection.

“Yeah, I have Canadian cigarettes if you want to buy some. But I also have some of my own tobacco.”

“You wouldn’t believe the taste. It’s, it’s heirloom tobacco, what you imagine a cigarette tasted like in the 1940’s, the kind Humphrey Bogart smoked.”

As Leonard spoke Dennis rolled her a cigarette and she lit it up. Jesus fucking christ, she thought. No wonder Bogart died of cancer. A few drags later and she was able to inhale. That was better. But between the two she could feel her voice getting hoarse.

She lowered her bag to the floor and sat on a crate between the men, who stared periodically at the fire. Leonard was strong. His calves were sharp and his stomach small. His white hair had grown down below the ears but he was clean-shaven, deeply tanned.

They made small talk for a while and she drank grappa and smoked the tobacco. She figured it would tan her like leather and then the bugs wouldn’t bother biting the extremities not protected by BiteStop. She wouldn’t feel the heat either, even if she dried out and cracked.

Leonard stood. “You want to go up to the house and cool off Ruth?”

“That would be nice.”

They left the tent. “Why don’t you go inside,” Leonard said. “I have to show Dennis something.”

“What?” she asked, not wanting to be left out. The sun hammered at them. “Aren’t you worried about skin cancer?”

“Skin cancer,” he roared. “My god, I’m more likely to be eaten by a mountain lion!” He crossed the driveway and they followed him into the shade under the oaks where a canvas tarp covered the remains of the doe. “Hold your nose Ruth, and look at this.” He lifted off the tarp and he and Dennis squatted down around it.

“That’s a big one,” said Dennis.

“Look at the neck.”

Dennis poked his fingers into the bloody crumpled fur. “That’s a big cat.”

“Hertzler’s seen it down on his place.”

Dennis shook his head. “They’ll have to shoot it then. Too bad.”

“Do they though?”

“Look Leonard, I know how you feel about this but I’m no game warden.” They headed up to the house. “These days I feel like the sheriff of Nottingham. That’s not what I set out to be.”

Inside it was cool and smelled of pine. The room was a big loft with a wall of screened in windows, shaded by the over hanging thatch roof, overlooking the lake. To the right was a living room area defined by floor to ceiling bookshelves, with a big woodstove and ceiling fan turning quickly, and a couple of easy chairs and a couch covered with red muslin arranged on a cotton rug around a low oak coffee table. Directly in front of her was a long dining room table with three high backed chairs and to the left was the kitchen, with a doorway leading out onto the porch. The rafters of the cathedral ceiling were exposed and amber with age. The wide plank pine floor was worn smooth and unpolished but swept clean. She took an open wooden stairway to the next floor down. Here there was a hallway running along the windows and to the right, built into the hillside, were bedrooms. Their room was a small, spartan space. She sat on the edge of the flat futon and undressed, put on a black bathrobe hanging for her on the back of the door and padded to the shower down the hall. The water was frigid; she gasped and seized up as it struck her but soon she was dancing around beneath the cold jet. She toweled off, brushed her teeth and returned to the room to lie down. When she awoke it was early evening. The hills were glowing with low reflected sun and the lake was striped orange, blue and black. Bugs banged into the window screens, big hornets and grasshoppers.

Upstairs Dennis and Leonard were seated in the kitchen, a sweating pitcher of iced tea between them, munching on dried strawberries.

“I’ve got it coming from every side,” Dennis was saying. “So I need your help here.”

“I try to stay out of things,” Leonard said.

Dennis spread his hands and shrugged. “Sure, me too, and they made me sheriff. But the time comes when you have to take sides. What we’re offering you is a civilised life. You GMZ folks can choose as you like of course, but when the shit comes down, there’ll be no neutrals in Iroquoia.”

Leonard stared out the window and ate a strawberry. “And the Amish?”

“The Amish have already cut a deal. They’re the seventh nation.

They’re exempt from military duty, but they pay taxes, help to build roads, things like that.”

“Well the others will certainly do that.”

Dennis shook his head skeptically. “I dunno about that.”

Ruth got a glass out and sat down with them. “How far will twenty five million bucks go around here?” she asked, drinking down the sweet, minty tea. “Cause that’s what I’m walking around with. You gonna keep the muggers off of me, chief?”

“I’m not a chief, ma’am, and god help me if I ever am one.”

“Was that your pay out?” Leonard asked. He looked like he had just swallowed an ice cube.

“That’s just the half of it.”

Dennis whistled. “Well, I wouldn’t say that out loud around here.”

“Why not? The whole world will know by the end of today.”

“The whole world who watches t.v.,” Leonard said. “There’s a lot of world out there that never sees a paper, much less t.v.”

“Yeah, well the town crier will carry the news if Monozone gets a council seat.” She scowled.

“Ruth works for Monozone,” Leonard explained.

“I don’t know what the fuck a Monozone is, but it sounds lucrative.”

“You’ve heard of Genetel?” she asked.

“Sure.”

“Well, we just got bigger.”

“So they approved transcryptasine?”

“Bingo.”

The three sat musing on what twenty-five millions bucks can do.

“Ruth,” Leonard said, addressing her now as if Dennis weren’t there, taking her hand in his, “why don’t you get out? Isn’t now the time? You could come live here.” “They’d track me down in a second. There’s no secret about this place.”

“Isn’t it right Dennis that they have no jurisdiction here?”

He rolled his eyes. “What’s a jurisdiction exactly? I’d say, whoever has the greatest firepower has jurisdiction. Fugitives come up here expecting us to hide them out but if a police convoy pulls in or a fleet of armored hovercraft, what’m I gonna do? It happens all the time. We have to be realistic.”

“Sovereignty must mean something,” Leonard said.

Ruth shrugged. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“That’s o.k.,” Dennis said. “I didn’t mean to stay so late. I want to make it back before dark.”

“You’re cutting it close,” Leonard said. “If you stay the night we could go out and look for that cougar before sun up. I figure we could tag it with a BioWatch bug and track it.”

“Where are you gonna get that around here?”

“I get all that stuff from Cornell. It’s part of my contract, isn’t it? To track and preserve wildlife.”

“Just another reason to stay indoors at night.” Dennis looked at Ruth and said, “I don’t want to be in the way.”

“It’s no problem, is it Ruth?”

Ruth was expecting this. Wearily she said, “No, no problem at all.” It was the usual, Leonard so self-involved he had forgotten all about her. She wondered which of old Jason’s sisters or daughters he was fucking and if a beard would keep him off of her. But that was unfair, jealousy was unfair.

“I’ve got a venison tenderloin and some rice,” he said.

Dennis stood. “I don’t know. I’m curious about that mountain lion, but I think we might as well kill it and get it over with. And I meant to tell you, there’s a group of uh, pilgrims I guess you might call ‘em, coming through sometime today or tomorrow.”

“Church?” Leonard asked.

“I guess so. They’re a rough looking group, man and two women. One of the women is blind. Nice though. I think one of ‘em’s a christian. They’re walking to Onondaga.”

“I’ll take them as far as Ganudasaga in my boat if they want. Wouldn’t you like that Ruth? We could do some fishing. Camp out the night and come back the next day.”

They looked at her. She felt like an alien invader. What will the lady want to do? She didn’t want to be seen as prissy, afraid of a boat trip, of dead deer and wriggling fish. She chewed a strawberry. It was soft and sweet. It made her feel good inside. “Sure,” she said. At least after they got rid of the Handsome Lakes they’d be alone.

After dinner the three pilgrims arrived. After settling them in Dennis and Leonard retired to their rooms and she sat up in the living room with an oil lamp watching the news on her computer. There was a message from Owen Bradlee. His face was smoothed out, painted, a put on job. “Bryson,” he said jocularly, with lips pursed into an ironic smile, “just wondering how you’re doing. Try to keep cool and don’t work too hard.” He held up a Manhattan and winked, then pulled out the cherry by the stem and munched it. “Sweet dreams.” The picture zeroed out.

She replied, “Gone fishing. See you in two months.”

In the morning she awoke early, with the first light, but Leonard was not at her side. She never awoke this early at home, but here it was the coolest time of day. The air smelled good, of blossoms that only open at dawn, of wind chilled in the shadows of gullies. Upstairs the coffee can was out and the water was hot, quick to return to a boil. She padded barefoot, wrapped in a green sarong, out onto the porch to watch the morning and read her detective story. There was this huge state of siege in her nerves she hadn’t even been aware of before but now that they were starting to release she could feel them. All of her preoccupations continued but they were less frequent. She seemed to have minutes of abstraction where she thought of nothing at all.

It took most of the day to reach Ganudasaga at the north end of Seneca Lake. The three passengers sat in the bow as if in prayer. The man was quite large, dressed in old denim and a blue button down work shirt and the women, one of whom had cataracts, wore long grey dresses with loose sleeves.

Seneca lake was huge and deep. They spent the afternoon fishing in spots he liked. At its widest point one could barely see the opposite shore. The sun was intense; she dove overboard a few times to cool off. The air smelled good away from the rotting vegetation of the shores. She caught a big trout, 2 kilos, and he caught three small bass and a four-kilo salmon. An hour before dark they pulled into a cove, tied up the boat and prepared a campsite, working quietly and quickly. She sat on a barkless fallen tree, cursing the insects under her breath while he gathered wood and built a fire. They grilled and ate the trout and watched the sunset, bleeding out into a puddle of inky lake water. He got boards of cedar out of the boat and planked the bass and salmon, smoking them in the fire and wrapping them carefully up to stow away in the boat, so they wouldn’t attract bears. After a few glasses of grappa they lay down in the tent and talked things over in the dark, to the sound of croaking bull frogs. She told him about everything but hesitated when she got to the part about Owen Bradlee.

“So how exactly did state take over?” he asked.

“They sent in Owen Bradlee.” He tensed up. She could feel it. Immediately she felt a rush of guilt. Of all her lovers Owen was the one who pissed off Leonard. There was something about him, probably the length of time they were together, how it had almost become a second relationship as opposed to an occasional fuck.

“That bastard is back?” He sat up.

“Look, you haven’t been any better.”

They stayed like that in the dark, she on her back, a root digging into her hips, he upright, head brushing the top of the tent, for minutes.

“I need a cigarette,” he said. She joined him outside of the tent. He poked the embers with a stick and blew on them, lighting a hand rolled cigarette off of a coal. The strong tobacco odor filled the air.

“Can you roll me one?” She asked. He handed her his and rolled another.

“We’re not exactly an ad for the nuclear family,” she said.

“I love you, Ruth. Always have.”

“Look, let’s not start now. We’ve made it this far in our lives, living as we do.”

“Or wasted them. Ever feel like that?”

“Not really. But,” she hesitated, making sure it was the truth, “these days I have some questions.”

“Those bastards you work for, Owen Bradlee, Monozone. What good do they bring you or the world?”

She hated when he became self-righteous, better than the world around him. Everyone did what they had to do and not everyone had the luxury of living in isolation. “Every time a sick person takes a Euphoric and gets to work or stays with a lover or doesn’t kill herself we’ve done some good.”

“Is that what it’s about though? Haven’t we both pursued dreams we thought were for the good of someone or something but really served no other purpose than to feed our egos? I remember, or at least I think I remember, a time, maybe a month or two, when you were my dream. I thought we’d get a chance to know each other and to be together. You were just this slightly demented, really hardboiled kid in her twenties who liked to drink a lot. I felt like there was this bottomless meaning to you, something I could never hope to plumb but in the process of trying would find out what it was to be alive. And it seems to me in the forty years we’ve been together, I’ve felt that over and over and yet you weren’t there. And then, there were all those times I felt like you were after the same thing but I wasn’t there. For once I’d like to feel that we’re in the same place again, together, that it isn’t just an old man’s fantasy of youth.”

They were both exhausted and stared into the fire. He didn’t expect or receive an answer. She touched his shoulder and it relaxed. They each smoked another cigarette and crawled back into the tent. In the dark, she reached out and took his hand, stroked his forearm. He rubbed her belly, between her breasts and brushed his fingers in her pubic hair. Slowly they aroused each other, stroked and kissed their way back, not in time or space so much but back into their minds to the place where they met. Brain stem resonance hummed between them. Age, depredations, insults, history vanished for a time and they made love as the moon rose full above the hills and an owl hooted in a nearby tree.

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