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Field Day

An excerpt from the novel Imperfect Solitude by Tom Mahony

The ridge loomed beyond an endless slope, unreachable, illusory, a rescue ship fading over the horizon. Evan Marcus clutched an oak tree and gulped air. Honeysuckle and rotting carcass wafted on the spring wind, stinging his nostrils. His stomach roiled. He couldn’t continue. Fuck this job.

Twenty feet upslope, Gordon Shaw sipped water and munched a cookie. “That’s poison oak twining up the trunk, bud.”

“Dammit.” Evan jerked away from tree. “Didn’t see it.”

Gordon snickered. “Hard to miss.”

“I’m focused on topping that ridge.”

“Focus harder. I can’t wait all day for you.”

Evan brushed off the insult. Surviving the death march was all that mattered. He was in good shape, or so he thought, but struggled to keep up with Gordon. Tall and thick, the man confronted the landscape like an angry boar.

“Let’s go,” Gordon said, resuming uphill. “You’ve wasted enough of my time.”

Lacking a feasible option, Evan followed. He alternately grasped shrubs for balance and shielded his head from rock torrents dislodged by Gordon’s footsteps. Hiking through the chaparral was like wading upstream in chest-deep water. The final stretch occupied some other dimension where time moved slower and gravity pulled stronger.

Evan crested the ridge, dropped to his knees, and puked into a manzanita thicket. The exact species escaped him as he wallowed in the dirt. He heaved for a minute before rinsing and swallowing from his water bottle.

Gordon rubbed his weathered face and scratched his buzz-cut in irritation. He looked older than his thirty-five years. “You gonna live?”

“Yeah,” Evan said. He was in shambles, but would not give Gordon the satisfaction.

“Then hurry up. We’ve got work to do.”

He followed Gordon over the ridge and into a draw sheltered by madrone, burnt orange bark flaking like sunburned skin. The draw deepened into a gorge cut by a raging creek. Vegetation thickened and the air sweetened with wet topsoil and Douglas-fir needles.

Gordon tore through the riparian tangle like a chainsaw. Evan puttered behind, enduring the burn of nettle spines and the poison oak threatening weeks of blistered misery. He lost footing in the slick channel and thudded on his ass. His spine compressed several inches. Gordon hesitated, as if mulling assistance, before continuing downstream.

The gorge emptied into a sweeping meadow peppered with valley oak, intricate branches sinuous against the landscape. Gordon studied an aerial photograph and scanned the meadow with binoculars.

“What are you looking for?”

Gordon ignored the question, approached a swale, and stabbed his shovel into the earth.

“You need help?” Evan’s words sounded feeble. Pathetic. Defeated.

“Don’t flatter yourself.”

Gordon dug down two feet and extricated a soil section like a slice of chocolate cake. He poked around the profile with a knife, sniffed a chunk, and squeezed it between his thumb and forefinger. He jotted notes in a field notebook.

Evan watched, knowing vague generalities of their mission but ignorant on specifics. They were field biologists. At least Gordon was. Evan was just a wannabe. His dreams of an outdoor career never included such physical punishment. He’d envisioned days spent creek-side monitoring a bald eagle nest through binoculars, lulled asleep by dappled sunlight and rushing water.

But, three weeks into the job, he felt battered and clueless. It was more Alabama chain gang than scientific discovery. His tenure involved shadowing Gordon like a stray mongrel, lapping up any information crumbs Gordon felt obliged to scatter. Which wasn’t much. The man despised chatter.

Gordon tossed him the shovel. “Go dig soil pits five feet apart until you reach the other side of the swale. Dig down two feet and lay the profile on the ground.”

In a weary trance, Evan began digging. The upper foot of soil was loose, but beneath that a hardpan resisted like asphalt. After the last pit, he dozed off leaning against the shovel. He awoke folding to the ground. Dazed, he looked up in confusion.

“Let’s go.” Gordon walked off, holding the shovel. “We’re done for today.”

***

They drove from the vineyards and oak woodlands of Sonoma County, past Marin’s opulent homes squeezed between tidal marsh and redwood forest, and across the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. The City smelled of salty fog and motor oil. Incessant concrete reflected the waning sun with the blinding austerity of a tequila hangover. They stopped at a market in the Richmond District to grab a snack.

Gordon disappeared down an aisle. Evan loitered near the check-out stands, studying the ingredients on a candy bar. The chemicals read like something used for uranium enrichment. He glanced up and noticed a woman waiting in line three aisles down. The candy bar dropped from his hands. It was her.

She looked straight from the field: jeans and t-shirt splattered with mud, thick brown hair sculpted, it seemed, by hurricane. The clothes contoured her slender frame. The nest of hair highlighted graceful angles on her face. Her hazel eyes were large and expectant, as if anticipating a question. She wasn’t a striking head turner, attracting gazes from across the street. But the longer you looked, the prettier she appeared, like a twilight deepening after sunset.

Over the past few weeks, he’d seen her in local eateries, ogling her from the shadows, eager for conversation but too spineless to approach. He learned, from a casual eavesdrop two days ago, that she did some kind of environmental work. And she was usually alone. The combination beckoned like a shaded hammock. So what was he afraid of?

She glanced over. He grabbed a magazine and pretended to scan an article, sneaking peeks at her. She again looked over. They locked gazes. He tried to act casual, but unconsciously gaped as if struggling through an eye chart. His smile felt like a constipated grimace. Christ, he was acting like a stalker. She frowned and turned away.

She purchased her groceries and walked toward him. He shifted and fidgeted, cleared his throat. Scrounged for a witty line or two. None came. As she neared, he stuttered something but she continued past.

“Hi Gordon.”

Evan turned. Gordon stood a few feet away, bag of chips in tow. His face bore a rare smile.

“Hey Sarah.”

Sarah and Gordon talked while Evan hovered like a jerk-off, fingering his magazine and eavesdropping. Perhaps he was too blatant.

She nodded toward him. “And who’s this?”

“Just some guy I work with,” Gordon said.

“Does he have a name?”

Evan extended his clammy hand. “Evan Marcus.”

She shook it. “Sarah Janss.” She gestured at his magazine and smiled. “Don’t know many men who read Female Issues.”

Evan returned it to the rack, embarrassed. “Just trying to stay current.”

“Refreshing,” she said, sarcasm hovering like ozone. “A man in touch with his issues.”

Evan shrugged. “Well, you know.”

The idiotic retort lingered for an uncomfortable moment before evaporating. She smirked, as if unimpressed by the response, her hopes for a verbal sparring partner dashed by his mediocrity.

“Looks like you guys were in the field, too,” she said. “How was it?”

He wanted to redeem himself with an embellished story of vertical slopes, Frisbee-sized ticks, veritable jungles of poison oak, but Gordon muscled in.

“Kickback day.”

“Your idea of a kickback day is moving furniture,” she snorted, checking her watch. “Well, I should go. I’ll call you later.” She turned to Evan. Freckles peppered her nose and a small scar engraved her chin. Her full lips parted in an ambiguous smile, as if she’d pegged his substance but hadn’t yet determined its worth. “I’ll see you around.”

She walked off.

He looked at Gordon. “What’s with her?”

“We’re ... friends.”

“What do you mean, ‘friends’?”

Gordon watched her exit the market. For a moment, his hulking presence vanished. He looked frail, gaunt, in need of sustenance. Tears welled up. He wiped them dry and cleared his throat.

“None of your fucking business.”

***

Gordon and Evan left the market and unloaded field equipment at the PDT Biological Consulting office down by the ocean. The place was pure corporate function: white walls, gray cubicles, indestructible carpet. A few windowed offices for the silverbacks.

Evan entered his cubicle, lost in thought over Sarah. Her parting smile shone like a beacon. He’d finally talked to her, but her vague relationship with Gordon was disturbing. His expression, watching her leave, did not imply friendship. It reeked of heartbreak and longing. Gordon, of all people. Christ. The man was everywhere, like some asshole spirit.

The rattling cubicle partition yanked him from thought. Several framed pictures toppled onto his desk. Like a prairie dog peering from its burrow, Jenna Chen, his next-cube-neighbor, poked her head over the partition. She stood on her chair and peeped over at least ten times a day, oblivious to Evan placing the pictures back on the partition as she droned on about bizarre minutiae. She was short and lean, inconspicuous in her standard shorts, flannel shirt, and ponytail, but always made her presence known.

“You’re still working here?” she said.

“You sound surprised.”

“I am, a little. Figured you’d be gone by now.”

“Why would I be gone?”

“Because of the curse.”

“What curse?”

“The curse on your position. Three weeks is the first cutoff.”

Evan felt baffled—as usual. “Cutoff for what?”

“For still working here.”

“I don’t get it.”

She frowned. “I’ve already said too much.”

“No, you haven’t. I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.”

“Nobody’s told you anything?”

“No.”

Jenna sighed and lowered her voice. “Most of your predecessors haven’t lasted three weeks. Some have survived longer, even a few months. One guy lasted nearly a year. But he was an anomaly. First time I saw you, I pegged you a three-weeker. Tops. Nothing personal.”

Evan was too confused to take anything personally. “What happened to them?”

“They couldn’t hack it.”

“They quit?”

“Some. Most got fired.”

Evan’s heart pounded. “Why?”

“They didn’t measure up.”

“To what?”

“To Gordon’s standards. He’s hard to please, lacks tolerance for slackers or people slow on the uptake. He prefers to work alone, but needs a field assistant to dig pits and haul gear. You might say he’s conflicted. He fires people like it’s an involuntary reflex.”

“Why didn’t anyone tell me this sooner?”

She shrugged. “Don’t know about anyone else, but I didn’t want to waste my breath. Figured you’d be gone soon enough. I’ve seen so many people drift through your cubicle that I’m wary about developing relationships. Don’t even want to know your name until you’ve been here at least two weeks. But now that you’ve survived the three week cutoff, I figured I’d tell you.”

If constantly peering over the partition and jabbering was the antisocial Jenna, Evan feared a friendship with her. “I had no idea people weren’t hacking it.”

“He’s gonna test you for awhile, see what you’re made of. Pass that, you’re golden. But you’d be the first.” She studied him like a specimen. He was average height, average build, average everything. Twenty-four years of underachievement. She didn’t seem impressed. “Don’t screw up, bust your ass, and, if you’re lucky, you might even break the curse of Biologist 1.”

***

Evan left the office and fought sleep as he drove his decaying station wagon down Highway 1. Jenna’s admonishment echoed in his head. Pass the test? Don’t screw up? He’d done nothing but screw up since meeting Gordon. Blunders in the field, bungles in the office, and now, to complicate matters, the entrance of Sarah Janss. His career hung by a fingernail.

Losing his job at PDT was not an option. It was all he had. His checking account was tomato red and the student loan, credit card, and medical bills were accumulating like pesticide. He couldn’t even afford an apartment. He slept in his car beachside most nights, eating take-out, enduring frigid outdoor showers, and sharing the public bathroom with a motley gaggle of local bums. When, like tonight, he wanted a hot shower and unprocessed meal, he drove an hour south to his mother’s house in the small coastal town of Alder Cove.

He parked opposite the home of his youth and peered into the night. The house was a modest bungalow in dire need of fresh paint. The neighborhood had changed little in the past two decades—trees taller, houses a bit more tattered, a slightly higher percentage of front yards sporting rusty vehicles hoisted on blocks.

He slid from his wagon and entered the house. It reeked of must, decades of coastal fog soaked into the floorboards. The ragged drapes were always closed, the furniture ancient and uncomfortable.

His mother’s nurse, Maria Gutierrez, greeted him with a smile. She was a gentle woman of perhaps fifty with gray hair and kind brown eyes, a longtime family friend.

“Hi Maria,” Evan said. “How is she?”

“She’s in and out of sleep. You can see her if you like.”

His mother rested beneath a pile of blankets in the bedroom. Some undefined illness had struck her months ago: headaches, malaise, other vague symptoms. She’d seen countless specialists who ran endless tests, but as yet no diagnosis. The doctors finally just put her on medication and whispered hypochondria. Somehow, she wrangled Maria out of the deal. The situation was not unprecedented. Since Evan was a kid, his mother had claimed the latest vogue illness advertised on television, scouring the medical reference on the living room bookshelf for symptoms she should be suffering. The “sickness” always resolved itself, usually in conjunction with improvements in her worldview.

Evan sat in a wooden chair beside the bed and touched her hand. Linda Marcus stirred and studied him through medicated, glassy eyes.

“Why didn’t you get here sooner?” she said. “I’ve been waiting all evening.”

“Sorry. I had to work.”

“You only visit when you need something.”

“I visit when I can. I have a job, remember? We have to pay the medical bills, don’t we?”

“We can’t pay them as it is. Our savings is gone. The insurance runs out soon. I can’t afford Maria much longer.”

Wind gusted outside. An alder branch scraped the bedroom window. He’d always loved that alder. He’d always hated this fucking room. “We’ll figure something out.”

“What?”

“I’ll get money, don’t worry.”

“Why don’t you move down here? You’re living in your car like a vagrant.”

Here we go again. A headache throbbed behind his temples. “It’s too far for a daily commute.”

“You can work in town and take care of me. That would save on nursing care.”

“There’s no work down here.”

“You can work for Mr. Phelps like your father did.”

Evan fought the urge to stand up and walk out the door. “I’m a biologist, not a carpenter.”

“Don’t get a big head. It was a good living for him.”

“He hated that job.”

“It was an honest living. Where would we be without carpenters?”

“It’s not my living.”

“He sacrificed to support us.”

“I’ll support us my way. Don’t worry about money. We’ll figure something out.”

“Your mind’s in the clouds, just like your father.” She smiled, but there was no pleasure in it. “I miss him.”

His annoyance softened. “So do I.”

“You’re all I have left.”

The old man disappeared six months ago in heavy seas. The circumstances were sketchy and rather suspect. Evan questioned whether it was an accident, wondered if he chose to sail off into oblivion. The old man wanted escape. From what? Evan would never know. Anger and envy boiled up. A sense of abandonment. He pushed everything back down and changed the subject.

“How are you feeling?”

“Horrible. The doctors don’t help. They overmedicate me so I’ll shut up.”

“They’re gonna run more tests. They’ll figure it out.”

“They think I’m a crazy hypochondriac.”

“Well, they can’t find anything wrong with you.”

She smiled. “They’d be the first.”

“Definitely.”

“Hey.” She laughed and slapped his hand. “I’m the only mother you’ve got. You’ll just have to put up with me.”

It felt good to see her laugh. “I’m trying.”

“I know I’m difficult.”

“No comment.”

“I’m glad you’re here.”

Was he? The place was an emotional quagmire. “Can I get you anything?”

“How about a daughter-in-law. Any prospects?”

Evan flashed on Sarah. They’d only exchanged about ten words, but it was a start. The mental scene brought him hopeful pleasure until Gordon’s bulbous head popped in and ruined the view.

“No. Not yet.”

“I’d like a grandchild before I die.”

“You’re not gonna die.”

“Everybody dies at some point.”

“You’re gonna be fine.”

“Am I? How would you know? You’re never here.”

***

After she fell asleep, Evan showered, ate, and drove a half-mile to Solitude Beach. He never slept in the house. It felt like a tomb with a nagging mummy.

The night was cool and moist, a crescent moon dipping through fractured stratus. Light onshore wind rustled the Alder Creek hardwoods. Waves broke in the distance and the trickling creek layered atop the chaotic ocean rumble in a complex harmony.

He grabbed his sleeping bag, gathered driftwood, and lit a fire down by the creek. The driftwood popped and crackled as he crawled into his bag and inhaled the sky. Maritime air cleansed his palate and tickled his nostrils.

The ocean air was, always had been, conducive to thinking. To solving problems. To dealing with adversity. He’d slept here hundreds of times, making all his big life decisions sitting beside Alder Creek or floating in the ocean. His father taught him to surf here. He grieved the old man’s death in the waves and on the beach. Or attempted to grieve. Mostly he just tried to forget about it.

He’d spent weeks after the memorial service surfing and moping around. He never cried, just felt numb. Emotions were present, but dead. Like frostbitten flesh. He didn’t dwell or seek comfort in others, preferred the cleansing anonymity of the beach. Things always seemed better after a night on the sand or a day in the ocean.

His dad had loved Solitude Beach. He possessed a scientific mind, but also a deep faith. Before his death, he had increasingly waxed spiritual about the place. Lubed by a few beers, he would ramble on about the natural elements manifesting some benevolent higher power that was neither controllable nor understandable. Incessant change in sand, wave, and wind were underpinned by infinite constancy beyond the grasp of our utilitarian brains. Riding a wave was simply tapping that power, like an electrical current. It couldn’t be explained or controlled, only felt.

The old man had only seemed happy when, for a few hours each day, he escaped his miserable job and his wife’s nagging to contemplate at Solitude. Evan had loved those moments, but no longer bought the old man’s belief. Before the memorial service, he’d been a general believer in something. Now, though, he couldn’t believe in a benevolent power that killed his dad and turned his mom into an irrational hypochondriac. He could deal with an adversity by thinking it through and finding a solution. The unsolvable issues would be ignored, shoved away somewhere. Life was short, unpredictable, and had to be maximized before death. Pick your dream and go for it.

The elements at Solitude were in constant motion, fluctuating by hour, day, season, burning their fuel toward the inevitable frigid blackness. A quiet, tortuous upheaval. The cove’s beauty was an illusion, a snapshot that would disappear in a geologic wink. There was nothing permanent to cling to.

***

That night, lying in his sleeping bag, his mind darted like a caffeinated ferret. He thought about Sarah. Their brief meeting had teased him, left him thirsting for more. How could he approach her without antagonizing Gordon? The man was his own brand of trouble. Just thinking about him, and the brutal field days ahead, filled Evan with dread.

He thought about his homelessness. Car sleeping sucked, but when could he afford his own place? What about his mother? That was a separate chapter by itself.

Despite racking his brain for hours, no solutions appeared. No problems were solved. Dawn would break just as complicated as tonight. Sleep came grudgingly, not from a clear conscience but from pure exhaustion.

Tom Mahony is a biological consultant in central California. He studied fiction writing under Jim Dodge and has an M.S. degree from Humboldt State University. His fiction has appeared in Surfer Magazine and VerbSap.

Field Day is excerpted from Mahony's unpublished novel Imperfect Solitude for which he is seeking representation.

 

Photos courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.



 


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