I wanted to ask him about his work, his career, how he sustained his livelihood, what he used to buy groceries, but I wanted to do it right, politely, unobtrusively. The kinds of questions I wanted to ask were not typically the kind of thing strangers, or often even close friends, asked one another in Wyoming – I read that. Nonetheless, I willingly drove to a pretty remote portion of the forest and placed a measure of trust in him without really knowing anything about him. Perhaps a few questions wouldn’t be out of line as long as I kept it limited and semantically appropriate.
I took a bite of the cobbler. It was delicious, just slightly sweet, and with a crumbly top.
“Mmm, this is good. Who made it?”
“Who made it?”
“Did you buy it?”
I caught a glimpse of the smile I saw earlier. “Me.”
“You made it?”
“Yes.” His tone implied mild insult and self-satisfaction all in one little syllable.
“Well, it’s wonderful. And a nice way to end the day.” He pinched another bite, then handed the container to me to use the fork. We passed it back and forth until I shook my head against the last couple bites. I could have eaten them, but I didn’t want there to be an awkwardness about the last bite, so I left him with more than one. When he finished, he took the fork and the container back to the truck.
As he was settling back down by the fire, I decided to broach the subject of work.
“I think you must know that I am curious about you, or I probably wouldn’t have agreed to this weekend.”
He didn’t answer, as I expected.
“And I want to ask you questions, but I don’t want you to feel like you have to answer them. Not that I think you wouldn’t, answer them I mean. I mean it’s okay if you don’t want to answer them. I won’t be offended, I just want you to know that if I ask you something you don’t have to answer, and I won’t be offended either.” I was really rambling. “This is just me getting to know you. That’s all.”
That quiet pause again. “Okay.”
And now what to ask. Where to start. So many questions, and even how to phrase each of them rushed forward in my head.
“What do you do?”
“Yes. Where do you work?”
“The place, or my profession?” I think he might have been toying with me.
“I’m an architect.” Really? Was he joking?
“I work out of my home. I telecommute.”
“You’re an architect?”
“Yes.” I waited, to be sure he really meant it.
“What do you design?”
“Some custom homes, but mostly office buildings. I often work with a space planning team, especially if it involves considerable modular space.” He wasn’t kidding. I think he really was an architect.
“I would have never guessed.”
“What did you think I did?” Truthfully, I never thought he was a lumberjack, it just became his nickname, but frankly I never knew, or really even thought about what he did.
“I don’t know. I never thought about it.”
“No, I just meant…” He smiled. He could tease. Or was he teasing about the profession? He was so hard to read, and the fading firelight didn’t help.
“How long have you been an architect?”
I could see him calculating, either the number of years, or how to perpetuate the spoof he was playing on me.
“Six years? That’s not very long.”
“I suppose not, but I have been successful right away and I enjoy having a career that offers me the chance to be creative, or at least use the creative side of my mind, as well as the analytical side.”
“What do you consider successful? The number of buildings that you’ve seen go from your paper to reality?”
“Yes, that, too.”
He returned to poking at the fire, possibly considering how much he wanted to tell me, but I felt certain he was no longer kidding about his career. I think he really was an architect, a thought that still boggled my mind.
“I took a drafting class in high school and I really enjoyed it, so when I resumed college about a decade ago, this seemed like the right field for me. I was living in Casper and without loads of experience to get hired somewhere or requiring me to relocate, I started my own architect firm and had a couple early successes, including one job as a contracted designer for a large firm in Cheyenne. Within a year, more than ninety percent of my work was with their firm. I would drive to Cheyenne a few times a week for meetings and design reviews, and while the earnings were decent, I had my doubts.”
“What kind of doubts?” I wanted to believe he possessed some sort of dead-reckoning moral compass. It would render him more trustworthy.
“I worried that I’d put too many eggs in their basket. If they ever pulled their business from me, I’d fold. I had a contract for eighteen months and after a year, I’d spent lots of time commuting, and sometimes worried that I wasn’t enjoying the creative side of my work.
“So one day when I was in Cheyenne, I met with the senior partner. His name was first in the company title, and he had founded the firm when he was my age or younger. I’d met him a few times at large client meetings and the most recent Christmas party, and he seemed like a decent guy.
“I told him I enjoyed working for him and with his firm, but I had concerns about our working relationship and the ratio of work. He cut me off before I had a chance to tell him I thought I should taper off how much work I do for the firm so I could build up other clients in advance of the contract expiring.
“He told me he’d been thinking the same thing, and I thought for certain he was going to pull the plug on my contract. Instead, he tells me how much he values my contributions, how the clients ask for me specifically, and how vital I am to the firm’s growth over the past year.”
“That must have been a relief to hear. Did he extend your contract?”
“He offered me a partnership. They bought out my practice in Casper and told me if I could set up a home office, to quit wasting my time commuting as I was more valuable designing great structures. So, I did.”
Unbelievable. I never gave his profession any thought and it turns out he enjoyed a working lifestyle many people would envy. I was also floored by how much he told me in a matter of minutes. “How impressive. I’m in awe.”
“Thank you. So now I get to work from home. I keep traditional hours during most of the week so I am available to meet with clients virtually, but I asked if I could keep a four-day week instead and he told me as long as I produce the quality of work that keeps the clients happy, I could work any schedule I like.”
How idyllic! “I’m kind of jealous. Don’t get me wrong, I adore my job with the Forest Service, but you are doing work you love, on a schedule you establish for yourself, and you earn enough to get by.” Whoops, that was one of those taboo topics in Wyoming. “Sorry, I mean you’ve done well for yourself.”
“I am very fortunate because I was able to move back here, live in a house I choose and I have the flexibility to spend my Fridays baking cobbler and frying chicken for people who deserve a nice meal.”
“You are indeed a renaissance man.”
Clearly I asked the right question. He’d told me more about himself, his motivation, his priorities and offered me a glimpse of how he’s wired, using more words than I had ever imagined he might use in one sitting. And he was an architect. Amazing.
“Thank you. Thank you for the cobbler. Thank you for letting me know more about you. I know you are not one to go one for long, or to brag about yourself, so I thank you for sharing.”
“Was I bragging?” He sounded self-conscious suddenly.
“No, you sounded like you are happy in your work.”
“May I ask you one other thing?” He looked at me and said nothing, and I began to understand this meant I had his attention and I should proceed. “Would you mind terribly if we called it a night?” I spent far too much time last time thinking about the weekend, and not enough time resting up for it.
“Of course, ma’am.” He started to stand up and I followed his lead.
“Would you like help putting out the fire?”
“I do not.” He grabbed the handle of the shovel and began smothering the fire.
“Okay, good night then.” I paused, just waiting to see if anything else would develop. When he reached over to get the jug of water to also drown the fire, I knew the moment passed.
“‘Night.” I zipped the tent behind me, and continued to hear the fire hiss.
Picking up my pajamas from the foot of my sleeping bag, I placed them next to me so I could easily find them in the dark, and then turned off the flashlight. My attempt to change clothes quietly so he wouldn’t hear what I was doing felt silly and probably never occurred to him. Once I slid out of my jeans, the evening chill caught my legs, so I finished quickly, caring less about the noise and more about the speed, then slid into my sleeping bag.
As I rested my head on the soft, feathered cushion, I felt the plastic wrapper of the chocolate still on my pillow. What a quirky character the Lumberjack was! Or should I say, the Architect? I rested the edge of the candy near my shoulder as I curled up on my side. Utterly lost in thought about my new insights on his character, I entirely forgot to look up at the glow of the Milky Way in the night sky.