Tom Mahony, Imperfect Solitude
Publisher: Casperian Books, 2010
Length: 210 pp.
That changes when Richard Headley, a wealthy developer, takes an interest in Evan’s career and requests him personally for the biological assessments of his properties. Yet what seems like a blessing at first soon finds Evan in conflict with his principles, and he must confront everyone, including himself, before all he values is destroyed.
The ridge loomed in the distance. Evan Nellis clutched an oak tree and gasped for breath. Honeysuckle and rotting carcass wafted on the spring wind. His stomach roiled. He couldn’t continue. Screw this job.
Twenty feet upslope, Gordon Shaw sipped coffee from a thermos. “That’s poison oak twining up the trunk, bud.”
Evan jerked away from the tree. “Didn’t see it.”
Gordon smirked. “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, just wanted to survive the field day. He was in good shape, or so he thought, but struggled to keep up with Gordon. The man was tall and thick and confronted the Northern California mountains with a grudge.
“Let’s go,” Gordon said, resuming his trek uphill. “You’ve wasted enough of my time.”
Lacking a feasible alternative, Evan followed. He gripped shrubs for balance and avoided rocks dislodged by Gordon’s footsteps. Hiking through the chaparral felt like wading upstream in deep water. The final stretch occupied another dimension where time moved slower and gravity pulled stronger.
He crested the ridge, stooped over, and sucked wind. Gordon rubbed his weathered face and scratched his buzzcut in irritation. He looked older than his thirty-five years. “You gonna live?”
Evan grunted. “I’m fine.” He wasn’t, but wouldn’t give Gordon the satisfaction.
“Then hurry up. We’ve got work to do.”
They were field biologists. At least Gordon was; Evan remained a wannabe. His dreams of an outdoor career had 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 seemed more chain gang than scientific discovery. His tenure involved shadowing Gordon like a stray dog, lapping up any crumbs of information the man cared to scatter.
They descended into a canyon thick with madrone, burnt orange bark flaking like sunburned skin, the shamelessly phallic buckeye in full bloom. Evan kept pace as Gordon tore through the riparian tangle. At the base of the canyon, Gordon studied an aerial photograph then scanned a meadow with binoculars.
“What are you looking for?” Evan asked.
Gordon ignored the question, approached a swale, and stabbed his shovel into the earth.
“You need help?”
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
Gordon extracted soil 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, privy to generalities of their mission but ignorant on specifics. They were searching for sensitive biological resources: endangered species, wetlands, rare habitats. How sniffing a dirt clod helped locate them, he didn’t know. His days of college slacking returned to haunt him. Those ditched classes apparently contained relevant information.
Gordon tossed him the shovel. “Go dig soil pits five feet apart until you reach the edge of the swale. Dig down two feet and lay the profile on the ground.”
Evan mustered his fortitude and began digging. He tore through the topsoil but a subsurface hardpan resisted his effort. After the last pit, he catnapped leaning against the shovel and awoke folding to the ground. He glanced up in confusion.
“Let’s go.” Gordon walked off, holding the shovel. “We’re done for today.”
Evan watched him retreat. Fatigue vanished. Defiance erupted from somewhere deep, remnants of the better man he used to be prior to his father’s death. Just remnants. Nothing more.
He stood and dusted himself off. “Fuck you,” he muttered.
* * *
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 fog and motor oil. The Presidio’s lush greenery yielded to the sprawling concrete of the Richmond District. They stopped at a market 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 away. She looked straight from the field: jeans and T-shirt splattered with mud, thick brown hair sculpted, it seemed, by a hurricane. The clothes contoured her slender frame and the frazzled hair highlighted graceful angles on her face. Her hazel eyes were large and expectant. She wasn’t a striking head-turner, but the longer he looked, the prettier she appeared, like a deepening twilight.
He’d seen her in neighborhood eateries over the past few weeks, ogling her from the shadows. He’d learned from recent eavesdropping that she did some kind of environmental work. And she was often alone. The combination beckoned, but something held him back. Something he’d lost the day his old man died. Something perhaps gone for good.
She glanced in his direction. Evan grabbed a magazine at random and pretended to scan an article, sneaking peeks at her. They locked gazes. She scrutinized him as if struggling through an eye chart, then frowned and turned away.
She purchased her groceries and walked toward him. He gathered his courage, conjured up a witty line and placed it on standby. As she neared, he opened his mouth to speak but she continued past. “Hi Gordon,” she said.
Evan turned. Gordon stood a few feet away, bag of chips in tow. His face bore a rare grin. “Hey Sarah.”
They talked while Evan hovered nearby, fingering his magazine. She nodded toward him. “And who’s this?”
“Just some guy I work with,” Gordon said.
“Does he have a name?”
Evan extended his hand. “Evan Nellis.”
“Sarah Janss.” She shook his hand and gestured at the magazine. “Don’t know many men who read Female Issues.”
He returned it to the rack. Found his old game. “There’s an article on beauty makeovers I’ve been dying to read.”
“Oh yeah? You don’t look the makeover type.”
He pointed to his face, covered in mud and grime. “I’m obsessed with pore hygiene.”
She laughed. “I can see that. Mud mask, right?”
Gordon cleared his throat in irritation. The banter faded to awkward silence.
“Looks like you guys had a field day, too,” Sarah said. “How was it?”
Evan wanted to relay 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 and checked 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.”
“Count on it,” Evan said.
She nodded and walked off.
He looked at Gordon. “What’s with her?”
“What do you mean, ‘friends’?”
Gordon watched her exit the market, his face blank and distant, hand absently tugging chin. A second passed. Two, three, five. A voice barked over the loudspeaker and broke the moment. Gordon regained his composure and cleared his throat. “None of your goddamned 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 and ruminated over Sarah. He’d finally talked to her, but her vague relationship with Gordon was disturbing. Gordon’s expression, watching her leave, reeked of desire. Great. That cantankerous meathead, of all people, entwined with Sarah.
The rattling cubicle partition yanked Evan from thought. 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. 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. Thought you’d be gone by now.”
“Why would I be gone?”
“Because of the curse.”
“The curse on your position. Three weeks is the first cutoff.”
“Cutoff for what?”
“For still working here.”
“I don’t get it.”
She frowned. “I’ve already said too much.”
“No, you haven’t,” Evan said. “I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.”
“Nobody’s told you anything?”
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.”
“What happened to them?”
“They couldn’t hack it.”
“Some. Most got fired.”
Evan’s pulse quickened. “Why?”
“They didn’t measure up.”
“To Gordon’s standards. He’s hard to please, lacks tolerance for slackers or people slow on the uptake. He wants to work alone, but needs a field assistant to dig pits and haul gear. You might say he’s conflicted. He fires people like 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 don’t even want to know your name until you’ve been here at least three weeks. But now that you survived the cutoff, your stock has risen.”
If constantly jabbering over the partition was Jenna in antisocial mode, Evan dreaded a legitimate friendship with her. “I had no idea people weren’t hacking it.”
“He’s gonna test you, see what you’re made of. Pass that, you’re golden. But you’d be the first. Bust your ass and don’t screw up,” she said, head dropping from view. “And, if you’re lucky, you might break the curse of Biologist One.”
* * *
Evan fought sleep as he drove his decaying station wagon down the highway. Jenna’s admonishment echoed in his head. Pass the test? Don’t screw up? Easier said than done, especially with taskmaster Gordon huffing around. And Sarah Janss complicated matters even further.
But he would prevail. Though he boasted twenty-four years of principled underachievement, he knew when to stop loafing and buckle down. Losing his job meant disaster: his checking account was overdrawn and the student loan, credit card, and medical bills were piling up. He couldn’t even afford an apartment. He slept in his car beachside most nights, cooking lowly grub on his camp stove, enduring frigid outdoor showers, and sharing the public bathroom with a sordid crew of local derelicts. When, like tonight, he wanted a hot shower and an unprocessed meal, he drove an hour south to his mother’s house in the small coastal town of Alder Cove.
He pulled into the driveway of his childhood home and killed the engine. 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 few additional yards sporting rusty vehicles hoisted on blocks.
He slid from his wagon and entered the house. It smelled of must, decades of coastal fog soaked into the floorboards. The ragged drapes were always closed, the furniture old and uncomfortable. Maria Gutierrez, his mother’s nurse, greeted him with a smile. She was a gentle woman 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.”
Linda Nellis 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 had offered no diagnosis. The doctors finally put her on medication and whispered hypochondria. Somehow she wrangled Maria out of the deal.
The situation was not unprecedented. Since Evan could remember, his mother had claimed the latest vogue illness advertised on television, scouring medical references for symptoms she should be suffering. The “sickness” always resolved itself when her worldview improved. But she’d taken this one to a whole new level.
He sat in a wooden chair beside the bed and touched her hand. She stirred and studied him through glassy eyes. “Where have you been?” she said.
“Up in the city.”
She sat up and adjusted her ratty bathrobe, frayed and worn like a dog’s chew toy. She’d spent most of her life in it. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“I’ve been working. We need to pay the bills.”
“We can’t pay them as it is. Our savings are gone. My health insurance expires soon. I can’t afford Maria much longer.”
Wind gusted outside. A redwood branch scraped the bedroom window. He’d always loved that redwood, always hated this room. “We’ll figure something out.”
“I’ll find the money, don’t worry.”
She sifted through a stack of newspapers on the nightstand and pointed to an article. She followed the news obsessively, looking for something to worry over. “Did you know the sun will engulf us in five billion years? We’ll all be toast.”
He grinned despite himself. “I think we’ll be toast long before then.”
“But it’s a depressing thought, isn’t it?”
“A lot of things are depressing if you think hard enough.”
She gazed out the window, shaking her head. “It’s a frightening world.” She turned to him. “Why don’t you move down here so I can see you more? You’re living in your car like a bum.”
Here we go again. “It’s too far for a daily commute.”
“You can work in town and sleep in your old room. That would save on nursing care.”
“There’s no work down here.”
“You can work for Mark Phelps like your father did.”
“I’m a biologist, not a carpenter.”
She frowned. The lines on her face like canyons viewed from space. “Don’t get a big head. It was a good job.”
“One he hated.”
“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, thin and bloodless. “I miss him.”
“So do I.”
The old man had died six months ago in heavy seas. The circumstances were sketchy and rather suspect. Evan questioned whether it was a simple boating accident, wondered if he’d purposely sailed to his death. His dad had wanted escape. From what? Evan felt a hot surge of anger and resentment, suppressed it before it overtook him. “Are you feeling any better?” he asked.
“No. 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 grunted. “They’d be the first.”
“That’s for sure.”
“Hey.” She smiled and slapped his hand. “I’m the only mother you’ve got. You’ll just have to put up with me.”
“I know I’m difficult.”
“So do I.”
They laughed. It felt like a salve.
She sighed. “I’ll try to lighten up and think positive. It’s just so hard with all that’s happened lately. But I’m glad you’re here.”
Was he glad? The place seemed 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. Not much, but a decent 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 gonna be fine.”
“Am I? How would you know? You’re never here.”
* * *
After she fell asleep, Evan showered, ate, and drove the half mile to Solitude Beach. He never slept in the house; too much history there.
The night felt cool and moist. A crescent moon dipped through fractured stratus. Light onshore wind rustled the Alder Creek hardwoods. The creek trickled nearby and waves broke in the distance.
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. The coastal air was conducive to thinking. He’d slept here hundreds of times, made all his big decisions sitting beside Alder Creek or floating in the ocean. His dad had taught him to surf here. Taught him a bunch of things.
Evan had spent weeks after the memorial service surfing and moping around. Emotions were present but dead, like frostbitten flesh. He relished the cleansing anonymity of the beach. Life seemed manageable after a night on the sand or a day in the ocean. His dad had waxed spiritual about Solitude Beach before his death, rambling about the natural elements manifesting a higher power. He only seemed happy when he escaped his life to contemplate at Solitude. Before the memorial service, Evan had bought the old man’s ideas, had been a general believer in something. But no more.
Lying there, he tried to latch onto the peace the old man found at Solitude. But the elements were in constant motion, burning their fuel toward the inevitable darkness. A beautiful illusion that would disappear in a geologic wink. There was nothing permanent to cling to.
* * *
Night deepened and the ocean breeze settled him into a drowsy trance. As he drifted off, malaise faded and optimism crept in. It slowly gelled to conviction. Despite a lack of hard data or a trace of faith, Evan was convinced he’d discover the answer to the question that nagged him relentlessly. He didn’t know why, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d find the truth about the old man’s death. Somehow, somewhere, he’d find the truth, whether he wanted it or not.
Copyright © 2010 by Tom Mahony