Authors: Steven J Patrick
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery, #Retail, #Suspense, #Thriller
In purely self-involved-jerk terms, was it actually a bit eccentric - even perverse - to have taken this monk-like vow of isolation and chastity without benefit of the Cloth? That was too large a question for my tiny brain. All I know is it felt right when I started it and for a long time afterward.
One simple fact overrode everything else: The only area of life in which I hadn't succeeded after putting my mind to it was relationships. After seven serious attempts, I was batting .000. It seemed glaringly obvious that only a fool would look back on that dismal showing and say that it was always the other person's fault. I was the only common factor in all the disasters; therefore, I was the likely culprit. It seemed evident, too, that the solution was to step back, learn who I am, and pinpoint my mistakes if, in fact, I ever plan to try it again.
Overriding any loneliness or desire to pair off, my inability to accept defeat drove me to quit the dating scene. I've always been a good investigator because I don't color the facts with emotions. I see patterns, eliminate the static, and find the core of truth hidden in the thicket of lies, diversions, and misdirection.
Applying that to myself as cold-bloodedly as possible, I realized that I was the reason I was alone. I, period. I've always had a contrary streak, unbridled skepticism, a rooty disregard for niceties, and positively perverse impulse to rattle myself out of situations that seem too comfortable.
It's a package I have always equated with fierce, unflinching independence. I saw these things as virtues. They are in some ways. They are also the precise antidote to a healthy relationship.
Little regard as I might have for George Bush - either one - I found one of Senior's concepts very compelling: Kinder and Gentler. So I had spent the celibate years attempting a make-over - from the inside out. I worked at relaxing more, worrying less, easing off the ingrained impulse to engineer my fate, and becoming more accepting.
I didn't have any idea what, if any, the benefits of all that would be to some eventual partner but the good it did me - and anyone who had to interact with me - was undeniable.
I did one final piece of engineering: I simplified my life. I cut up my credit cards, paid off the balances, and jumped off that vicious little merry-go-round. I sold my boat - a $12,000.00 boondoggle that I lovingly restored but never actually sailed - for almost $50,000.00. Boating is difficult. Making bank deposits is simple.
I sold off the "vintage" Mercedes and the Indian motorcycle and kept the '94 Land Rover that I like best anyway. I went to my absurdly overstuffed storage unit, gritted my teeth, and boxed up anything I could possibly live without. This little purge resulted in a 12x20 space containing a tidy pile about the size of a largish refrigerator. The Childrens Hospital Thrift Store was delighted to get most of the rest. The lady at the landfill didn't seem to care one way or the other.
I cancelled 16 of my 18 magazine subscriptions, keeping only The Wine Advocate and Architectural Digest. After three weeks of piddling, I finally got around to mending the fence at the back of my yard and installing Clyde's dog door, so he could come and go as he pleased. It took him maybe ten minutes to remember where the door is and how to use it. He then spent a happy afternoon going in and out constantly, with what passes for a goofy smile plastered all over that handsome Boxer face. He's blind but he's not stupid. When something good comes along, Clyde wallows in it like any other self-respecting hedonist would.
As I sat on a bench at the terrace next to the Seattle Aquarium, enjoying the pastel shards of yet another splashy sunset, it came to me that I had made all these changes to begin with, not because I was seriously dissatisfied with my life - although the need for change was undeniable - but because I wanted to be able - maybe, someday, possibly - to accommodate the presence of someone else in it. The changes had all been positive but it was incomplete. The original point, lost in the mists of time, was not to spend the rest of my life alone.
I got up and started walking purposefully, back down the waterfront toward Occidental Square and my office.
I looked out at the sunset. God, I can't stand it when everything is fraught with symbolism.
"Okay," I sighed wearily, "Okay."
As the air cooled and the eagles stopped surfing the updrafts, Joe swept the binoculars along the near horizon, watching the evening lights' long play through the trees and along the low ridges.
It was what he liked best about his home: the isolation. Ten miles into Colville, over nearly impassable roads, 360 degree wilderness, unbroken but for a thin ribbon of county road maybe six miles to the northwest. His cabin perched on a broad shelf about a hundred yards below the summit of this hill, the tallest in this entire stretch of the Kettle River Mountains.
The cabin had been built by a rich recluse from Seattle, on land that originally belonged to the man's family. He had died 15 years ago and the cabin had been vastly renovated by a rich, eccentric Seattle attorney, one of Joe's precious few army buddies. The lawyer had paid a Colville couple to clean and maintain it four times a year.
He sold it to Joe for pocket change; less than half its market value. Joe thanked the caretakers, wrote them generous checks, and let them go. The attorney cashed out his father's estate and moved back to Thailand, to the woman who bore his son after Saigon fell. Joe hadn't heard from him in four years and didn't expect to, again.
To Joe, it was perfect. His appealingly casual persona was carefully cultivated, endlessly rehearsed, until no cracks showed. Inside, Joe had always been a curious emotional blank. He never felt any of the things - anger, lust, confusion, moodiness - that all teenagers battle; never had a girlfriend, never knew school spirit or civic pride or family loyalties. He sailed through adolescence, made good but not excellent grades, and never gave his parents a moment's trouble, although it could be said, also, that he never gave them much of anything. He was a polite, if not especially warm child and, eventually, his parents ceased to be surprised that he never showed affection, never needed consolation or guidance, and only rarely showed much interest in anything that wasn't right in front of him. They were, after all, born and raised in Finland and so had certainly known people of great reserve and emotional coolness. Their own personality meters would have read far onto the introvert side of the scale, so Joe's ultimate blandness and malleability seemed, to them, simple genetics. They were only really surprised on the day after Joe's graduation from high school, when he rose at 5:30, loaded his already-packed bags and trunk into his old Dodge, and left without a word.
He drove non-stop into Portland, got a room at a local boarding house, and showed up at the army recruiting office at 8 a.m. sharp the next day. He knew the induction schedules and, within two weeks, was on his way to California, a buzzcut, new clothes, and a new life. If he'd ever thought of his parents once in the following 38 years, it was as a sort of mental post-it note, something to be dealt with later. There were no regrets.
There were letters from them - at first, after they finally reported a missing 18-year-old and waiting for the police to check it out - that reached him in boot camp. He opened the first two, mostly from the novelty of actually receiving mail, read the pleadings with a mild curiosity, and then simply tossed each new one into the trash, unopened. There were several probing conversations with his C.O., but those finally stopped, too. It amounted to one of Joe's most valuable lessons: just disengage from anything that poses no real threat and, sooner or later, it'll go away.
Whatever doesn't go away, ergo, is a threat. And Joe was, even then, well on his way to becoming an expert at dealing with those.
A cautious man by nature, Joe made an art of blending in. On the job, he dressed as the natives do, dyed his fair hair, adopted the gestures and facial expressions, smoked if smoking was the norm. In short, he offered no target, no profile that might pique an unhealthy curiosity.
The most convenient way to do this, he knew, was simply not to be seen. And the one place on earth where he felt truly invisible, by an almost cosmic coincidence, turned out to be this 1200-foot hillock, a mere speed bump in the scope of the Northwest mountains. It was the most beautiful, serene place he had ever seen. And it opened up places in his innards that he never knew of; tender places, thoughtful places. It was a side of himself he had never seen and it both delighted and frightened him.
At times, he was like a kid with a new bike, reveling in the warmth that the new feelings of perfect peace engendered. At other times, he swatted them away like gnats, angered by his weakness and vulnerability.
Over the years, he had learned to trust the mountains, to believe in the isolation, and to relax with the emotions. He vaguely recalled a term one of his platoon leaders had used to death in 'Nam: mellow.
"Mellow". He had become mellow, somehow. His quick-starting cache of aggressiveness was still there; he could feel it if he dug deeper. But it was more manageable, now, more...utilitarian. He used it, instead of the reverse.
Joe's mind was an oddly uncluttered place. He was distantly aware that other people had a million things on their minds at once. Not him. He thought of one thing at a time, resolved his feelings about it, filed them, and moved on. It had always been that way and anything that wouldn't resolve easily was quickly forgotten. So, once he realized that he was comfortable with the peace he found in his little roost in the hills, his early qualms were pushed aside.
As he scanned the horizon, Joe was floating in what other people would describe as complete happiness. He experienced it as a curious, mildly-pleasurable silence in his head. It felt okay.
Then, he saw the headlights.
The street lamps were just winking on in Pioneer Square as I walked up the west end of Jackson Street toward my office. Monday was an off day, so I hadn't been there at all and I knew I'd be too tired to remote-check my voice mail when I got home. I was due to meet up with Lee Bjornsen, my D.A. buddy, at the Pyramid Ale House at 10 o'clock, just as the Mariners game let out across the street at Safeco Field, so I decided to pick up messages on the way there and not worry about it all night.
My office shares the second floor of an old mercantile store, built in 1874, with a big ad agency and a two-man law firm. I have two front windows, restored hardwood floors, ceiling fans, and a flock of brass fixtures, all of which came with the lease. My own touch is huge black and white action photos of the Mariners: Ichiro pulling a home run back over the wall in Kansas City; John Olerud in full lay-out to rob Darren Erstad of a an easy double; Edgar Martinez's homerun swing in three panels; and the immortal shot of Junior Griffey, face lit up with a million-watt smile at the bottom of the home plate dog-pile when they beat the Yankees in '95.
The only other photo is a life-sized shot of Clyde, trotting through the surf down at Long Beach.
All the things closest to my heart, right up there for anyone to see. I've often thought that a truly perceptive person could look at that wall, my bookcase, and the contents of my pantry and know everything they'd ever really need to know about me. Fortunately, I don't know many truly perceptive people.
I had six messages: two from Scott Landry about our fishing trip in three weeks, two from Lee that I had already gotten from home, one from Clyde's vet about his next check-up.
The last one was from Art D'Onofrio, a Spokane attorney I had done a few corporate things for a year earlier. He was sitting on what he called an "odd" situation over near Colville and might need a fair chunk of my time, not urgent, at my convenience, and so on.
"Ka-Ching," I smiled. Art paid well and promptly, as I recalled. I made a note to call him in the morning and drew a red line under it.
As I left the office, Chip Carroll was just locking up at Carroll Kirk Brickhouse, the ad firm across the hall.
"Boy," I smiled, "No perks at all for senior partners, huh? You're still locking up at 9:30 at night."
Chip laughed and checked his watch.
"Gets worse," he grinned. "I told Maggie I'd be home at 8:45. And I am
the senior partner at home. I'm somewhere below the grandkids, the cats, and a potted plant or two."
"Why are you here, now that I've mentioned it?" I asked. "I haven't seen you in...a month?"