Protected Contact
  Seven Stories by Julie Stielstra
  1  Protected Contact
2  Posthumous
3  Little Deaths
4  Begin with Lilies
5  I Never Saw the Sea
6  The Heron
7  Requeening
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  November 2017 Fiction Issue
 

The Heron

Alicia Tremain padded into Jack Bevier’s office for the interview in stocking feet, the cuffs of her jeans marbled with mud. Jack stood up and offered a hand.

“I left my boots outside,” she said. “I took a little walk around already.” Her thick-knuckled grip was warm.

“Glad to meet you — please, sit down,” he said.

She carried herself like a woman who had once been young and slim. Now she was neither. There was an attentiveness around the eyes, her jawline and wrists still trim and clean, but the waist of her jeans bit deep when she sat down . She had more gray in her short cap of brown hair than Jack did.

“So,” he said, “You’re interested in the campground host opening. Would it be you and… anyone else?”

“Afraid it’s just me,” she said. “Me and my dog, if that’s okay.”

“Dogs are fine, with the usual rules.” He ticked them off: “On leash, pick up waste, not left unattended.”

“Of course,” she said. “No problem.”

“Usually we have couples hosting...”

“Sorry,” she said. “If my ex-husband had liked camping, I might have been married to him a bit longer. Maybe. Look, I’m a high school English teacher with summers off, a very well-behaved dog, and a popup tent camper. I’d like to hike and bird and read and fish a little, and to do that I’ll be happy to check people in and out, make sure the bathroom has toilet paper and light bulbs, pick up trash, sell firewood and tell people to pipe down at night. For what, four weeks, right? I could take people out to look at birds if you wanted. Will that work?”

Well, honestly, that just about covered everything, Jack thought. He skimmed through the printout of her email — grammatical, everything spelled right. He looked at her over the tops of his reading glasses.

“Have you done this before anywhere?” he asked.

“Nope. But if you show me how to work the RV waste disposal, I think I can do pretty much anything else you need. I deal with teenagers every day, this’ll still be a vacation. Our school is done just before Memorial Day. I could come down for the holiday weekend and cover the rest of June.”

This was a gift. He managed visitors on his own most of the year before the volunteer hosts came in for the summer, but Memorial Day was always hectic. The Forsters had had to drop out of their June stint when Beth had a stroke over the winter. He’d be glad of the help.

“Does someone live in that nice stone house over there?” Alicia asked, looking out the office window.

“I do,” he said.

“Lucky you. My condo overlooks a grocery store parking lot.” She sighed. “My family camped here when I was a kid, and I can’t tell you how it feels to drive in here and think, god, it even still smells the same. When do you think you can let me know, one way or another?” Jack got up.

“You want to take a walk up to the campground and I’ll show you the host campsite?” he said. “Dogs invited. Here, here’s the handbook of everything a campground host needs to know and my phone numbers. I’ll work Memorial Day with you, and we’ll go from there.” Alicia jammed her boots back on in the doorway and retrieved a polite blue-eyed Australian shepherd dog from a small silver truck. Jack waited as she rooted under the seat for a leash.

Alicia pointed out her little popup nosed into the trees.

“Any chance I could have that site again?” she asked.

“Hosts usually take that one.” He pointed out a huge concrete pad next to the bathhouse.

“I like the little path down to the fishing pond next to this one,” she said. “Sorry, unless you want me to be up front there…”

“Naw,” he said. “You can have that one. They’ve all got the same hookups anyway.”

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They sat in cheap aluminum lawn chairs that creaked. Jack dangled a can of beer in his fingertips. Alicia leaned forward into the firelight to poke up a fallen stick. Tamsin, the dog, dozed on a folded sleeping bag next to her. Monday evening, the holiday weekend campers were mostly gone, with just a half dozen big RVs tethered up here and there.

“So how’d I do?” she asked him. “That didn’t seem so bad.”

“Just fine,” he said. It was true. She was pleasant and sensible, handling the chat and paperwork with friendly efficiency. The dog never left Alicia’s side. She wore a six-inch leather tab attached to her collar — “So technically, she is on a leash,” Alicia had said. “It’s just not attached to anything else. But she thinks she’s leashed.”

They drank their beer.

“Last night,” Alicia said, “was an owl night. A Night of the Owls.”

“We got those around here,” Jack said. “They scare people sometimes.”

 They’d scared the hell out of Gina the first time she’d spent the night with him. She’d laughed at herself afterwards, saying it just went to show what a city girl she was. She told him she admired his outdoorsiness (that’s what she called it), how he knew the names of trees and how to do things with chainsaws, and his flannel shirts and curly gray beard. And she really had spruced up the house, the state park’s house — arranged new kitchen flooring, painted the living room (though he talked her out of stenciling wisteria below the ceiling), bought him a handsome dark patterned rug for in front of the fireplace. She even got someone in to fix that upstairs shower he hadn’t used in a year — that had shamed him a little. He could have fixed it himself, but he’d have had to tear a hole in the wall and then patch and retile, so it was easier just to use the one downstairs. She was a marvel of efficiency, always with plans. He’d agreed to spend one weekend a month in the city, go to a movie, shop, overspend at a fancy restaurant, drink too much in noisy clubs where Gina knew everyone and the music didn’t even start till practically midnight. He found himself barely able to wait till he got home again. She started to complain about the drive to work when she stayed over, he found reasons not to be able to get away for the weekend. He called less frequently, and she stopped responding. He gave the Carhartt jacket he’d bought her to Goodwill.

He hadn’t heard the barred owls in quite a while.

“They were amazing. I had just fallen asleep, and then all hell broke loose. Right over my head, they make it sound like there’s a dozen of them, all cackling and tooting like goblins. Then they just stopped. The frogs were starting to quiet down, all those little chorus frogs, you know, and finally there was just one, one little maniac frog still whooping and singing all by himself. Then a bunch of them sang up for a minute, like they were telling him to shut up for crying out loud, and then they all went to bed. And then, a screech owl started up somewhere. So I went to sleep with quite a concert.” Jack liked listening to her talk. She just talked about things that pleased her, and reminded Jack of the things that used to please him when he thought about them. She sipped her beer.

“God love ‘em. I’ve been going down to the pond in the mornings when it’s still quiet. There’s been a great blue heron down there every day.”

“That’s Humphrey,” Jack said. Alicia chuckled in the dark.

“He has a name?”

“There’s been a blue heron down there for years. I suppose one dies and another one moves in. We call them all Humphrey.”

“He seems pretty used to people. He doesn’t even fly away. I hope he’s getting more fish than I am down there.”

“Mostly bluegills in there,” said Jack. “But every now and then someone gets a nice bass out of it.”

“Hope springs eternal. Another beer?”

Jack got up. “No, thanks. Time for me to get on home. You okay with this now? It’s gonna get muggy and buggy and rainy, and the ticks’ll be crawling….” She laughed.

“You’re talking to the DEET queen,” she said. “I’m loving it.”

He ambled off in the dark. The chorus frogs sang and sang him back down to his house. He left his bedroom windows wide open, but the owls were silent.

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In the green dusk, Jack made a last loop through the campground. Alicia waved to him from her picnic table and he stopped the truck, motor idling.

“We got the washing machine in the laundry room fixed,” he said. “I took the out of order sign off it.”

“Great,” she said. “Would you like a beer and some brussels sprouts?”

“Brussels sprouts?” He couldn’t help it. His mouth flexed down. “Well, I don’t think…”

“Ah,” she laughed. “But you’ve never had them the way I fix them. Come on, I’m having a binge, try ‘em.” Jack turned off the truck, Tamsin wagged her tailless butt and he scritched her ear. A big skillet on the campstove sizzled with glossy green halves of sprouts, their cut faces browned and smoking as Alicia scooped them onto paper plates. They were earthy, nutty, roasty, buttery and Jack ate a lot of them.

“Told you,” said Alicia. “The trick is boil them first, then cut them in half and brown them in butter.” She added a couple big sticks to the firepit and they settled in the squawking chairs. A red-headed woodpecker overhead squealed back. Alicia opened another beer.

“Today is my birthday,” she announced.

Jack lifted his can in her direction. “Well, happy birthday, then.”

“This morning I woke up and thought to myself: it’s my fiftieth birthday, and I’m alone in the woods in the middle of nowhere, in a popup camper, with one furry dog. And you know what? I was totally happy. So, thank you for letting me be here for that.”

“You’re more than welcome,” said Jack. “And thanks for the sprouts. I could even do those myself, I bet.”

“You know what else? That heron. He’s getting familiar.”

“How’s that?”

“I’ve been seeing him around the pond every morning. This morning, he was like he was waiting for me, standing right there by the log where I sit. I sat down real slowly, practically next to him, and he just watched me. Tam stared at him, and he didn’t care. So I put out my line, and got a little teeny bluegill I would’ve thrown back. But I unhooked it and tossed it over to him. He speared that sucker and gulped it down in a heartbeat, and then looked like, well, how about another one?” She laughed. “I gave him about three, I think, and then he sauntered off. I mean, the nerve! Expecting me to give him breakfast?”

“Not like he can’t catch his own breakfast,” said Jack. “It’s not good when they get too trusting, or start to depend on the handouts. They really need to stay skittish. And herons… I heard about a woman who picked up a hurt heron off the road, it’d been hit by a car. She was trying to help it, and it stabbed her in the eye with that beak and killed her. Killed her — beak went right through the eye socket into the brain. So don’t be getting too friendly with old Humphrey, okay?”

“I’m not trying to pet him,” Alicia said to the fire. “Not that I wouldn’t like to. Don’t worry. It’s one of the things I love about birds. They’re out there in their world, and you can read about them and look at them but you can’t have them. The other day, I went for a walk with this family up around the savanna. It was kind of half cloudy, half sunny, and there was this indigo bunting up on a telephone pole, singing away. The mom took a look through my binoculars, and just then the sun came out and lit up that bird like a sapphire. This woman, she just gasped. She looked and looked, and when she gave me back the binoculars, she was crying. She said, ‘That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’ And then I wanted to cry too. And we all waved and thanked that bunting when it flew away.” Jack’s eyes went a little warm.

“I suppose you’ve got a host for next month, don’t you?” Alicia said.

“We got a couple who’s been doing July for years,” he said, and kept talking. “He’s a biker, a Vietnam vet, a huge guy with tattoos and earrings and one silver tooth right in front. Fourth of July, when kids start trying to set off the firecrackers they’ve sneaked in, Pete just strolls over and they put ‘em away pretty quick. If they don’t, he tells them about how being in Nam left him kinda edgy with sudden loud noises, and that’s that. And he’s the nicest guy in the world. His wife treats him like a darling child. They’re quite a pair.”

“Too bad,” said Alicia. “I feel like I could stay another month. But actually, I’m going to England in a couple weeks. I always wanted to go for a summer school workshop they have for teachers at Oxford. Ten days, you stay in the college rooms, and read Dickens with a bunch of other people who are nutty for Dickens. I’ve wanted to do it for years, but my ex was so cranky about it I never did.”

“He didn’t want to go with?”

Alicia snorted. “His idea of a perfect vacation was a high-rise hotel in Las Vegas and 36 holes of golf every day and all the free booze he could get at the casinos in the evening. I did that more times than I care to remember or can even understand. Now.”

“You said he didn’t like camping.”

“Ha. There’s an understatement. One time, just once, I talked him into going to Yellowstone with me. I mean, who doesn’t like Yellowstone? Just four days is all. It rained. Except on Saturday, when it sleeted. He took down the tent, bundled it up, and stuck it in the dumpster. ‘We are never doing that again,’ he said. And we never did. I mean, it’s not like it was Passchendaele.” She sighed.

“My great uncle was at Passchendaele,” Jack said. Alicia’s eyes swiveled and gleamed.

“Really? Did he survive?”

“He did.”

“ ‘I died in hell, they called it Passchendaele,’” Alicia murmured.

“ ‘I fell into the bottomless mud and lost the light,’” Jack added. “We all knew that poem in my family. My great-uncle, he decided he’d seen enough mud and blood and death in Flanders, so a few years later he and his younger brother — my grandfather — came to the US. And here we are.”

The fire muttered and fell apart. Alicia prodded it back together with a stick.

Jack said, “My old girlfriend went to Vegas once a year with her mother. They saved all year for that trip.” And he wondered: What were we thinking, any of us?

Alicia dropped the paper plates into the fire and put the forks in the saucepan. She placed the skillet on the ground. Tamsin set to polishing it.

“In the book we’re doing for the workshop, there’s a little old crazy lady who lives in a garret. She has one cup, one saucer, one fork, one spoon, on a single shelf. I thought there was something lovely about that,” she said. Then she chuckled. “And then I thought, okay, that would be fine, but I really do need a coffeepot, and you have to have pots and pans to cook with, right, and at least two sets of sheets for when they’re in the wash, and gosh, I’d really miss my laptop. And books… so much for my garret aspirations. This is as close as I come.” She drained her beer. “I have a couple chapters to catch up, so I think I’ll call it day. I’m glad you liked the brussels sprouts. And I really would like to do this again next summer, if you’ll have me.”

Jack said,“Maybe we can have a beer for your fifty-first birthday. I’ll buy.”

Alicia snapped the campstove shut. She snagged up the empty beer cans with her fingertips hooked in the pop-top openings. Jack picked up the skillet and handed it to her inside the camper. Spare and neat it was, with sheets and blankets on the bed, not a sleeping bag. A couple fat paperbacks, their spines scored into narrow white lines with many breakings, on a ledge behind the pillows. As he got in his truck, the little camper lit up with a yellow glow, and rocked gently as the woman and dog inside it moved around. He wondered for the first time if she’d had any kids. She’d never mentioned any. Probably not, he thought.

Her last night in the park, Jack brought Alicia a six-pack of Newcastle Brown Ale, and, because he thought it would make her smile, a couple bottles of Woodpecker Cider. It did. They drank the cider. She gave him a hug, and thanked him again, and he thanked her again. She was packed.

“Who’s taking care of Tamsin when you’re in England?” he asked.

“My sister will have her,” she said. “She has one of those goofy Goldens, and corrupts Tamsin completely.” She’d never mentioned a sister either.

divider

In the morning, Jack walked up early into the campground with a bag of donuts from the bakery in town, a parting gift for the road. The site was empty. The firepit was raked. A great blue heron paced out of the trees, then stepped loftily onto the picnic table. The bird stood for a moment, hunch-shouldered and solemn. It gazed at Jack with a sideways eye. Then it opened its wings and lifted away, splattering the table with a stream of shit as it departed.

     
  © Julie Stielstra, 2017

   

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