He lied all the way down and put his hands behind his head looking up at the sky.
“When you get settled over there, Rookie, would you please turn off the light?” Thankfully, I could reach it without having to climb back out of my bunk.
“May we change the subject?” I waited a few moments to make sure there were no objections, since I otherwise would have his unspoken approval. “Today was really long, and I feel like I learned a lot about you, and about fish, and about sunsets and stuff, so how about if I ask you something more innocuous?”
“My favorite color is green.”
“Okay, maybe not that innocuous.” But I did make a mental note. “Unless you’re too tired?”
“Okay, so what’s the best vacation you’ve ever taken?”
I knew this activity would include long stretches of silence as he carefully thought through his responses. I waited a while before he answered, and in the meantime, enjoyed a beautiful view of the Milky Way out the top of his tent. “When I was nine, my parents took me to Banff to go skiing.”
“How beautiful. That must have been fun.”
“Yes.” I expected a question in return, but nothing came. Maybe he expected me to ask another question, or maybe was already sleepy. Perhaps I’d try that ‘saying nothing’ Wyoming approach.
“What’s your favorite movie?” He was still awake. How about that?
“My favorite old film might be a tie between a couple, but my favorite modern movie is Safety Not Guaranteed.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“Safety Not Guaranteed.”
“It’s a time-travel movie of sorts. It’s about believing in someone when everyone else thinks they’re crazy because something magical and completely bizarre just might happen. So what’s your favorite movie?”
“You’re not allowed to ask the same question.”
“Okay,” I tried to think of something similar and recalled our earlier discussion. “What’s your favorite drink?”
“You know what is in a rusty nail.”
“I do. Drambuie. I know someone who used to drink them.”
“Is that your question, because I’d hate for you to waste your turn on a one-word question.” I wouldn’t call the sound he made a chuckle, but he seemed to appreciate my take on his rules enforcement.
“Okay, what do you drink when you’re alone?”
“Who says I drink alone?” Of course I did, but I wasn’t going to admit it out of the gate.
“You can’t answer with a question.”
Ugh, with the rules already! He really was rather funny.
I wasn’t proud of it, but it didn’t do any good to be untruthful at this moment. “Red wine, usually something heavy like a cabernet, but shiraz works just as well. But not merlot.”
“What’s the worst Christmas present you ever received?”
“Were those for your ski trip to Banff?”
“Are we bending the rules now?”
“Yes.” I had a hunch he wanted to explain the details rather than enforce the rules, so I allowed the exception.
“No. When I was fifteen, after Dad died, Mom had a tough time making ends meet. I was growing fast, and I’d outgrown my last pair, and she couldn’t afford new boots and Christmas presents, so she wrapped them up for me and that’s what I opened on Christmas morning.”
“I bet that was a bummer as a kid.”
“Mostly it made me sad for her because she could have just given them to me and that would have been okay, but it meant something to her to have a gift for me to open long after I stopped believing in Santa Claus.”
My intent to enjoy a light-hearted conversation transformed just like that, and I almost started to cry. I enjoyed our playful banter in the darkness, but the tone of our exchange changed and I wanted to give him an understanding hug.
“What was your first car?” I appreciated his tossing another question out so quickly, he might have wanted to move on, too. Twenty years later and I still felt sorry for him.
“Her name was Eleanor. She was a Chrysler K car. She was boxy and unattractive, but pretty dependable.”
“Those were ugly cars.”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“You named your car Eleanor?”
“I name all my cars. Does your truck have a name?”
He paused. “Truck.”
“You name your cars, you name the fish. I wonder what else you name.” I don’t think the Lumberjack really wanted to know that.
“Okay, my turn. What are the eggs for?”
“The eggs in the cooler in the truck.”
“Ohhhhh,” he moaned deep and slow and low.
“What?” As usual, a long pause preceded his response.
“I wanted to have breakfast for us that was quick and easy and full of protein, ready to go, so I hard-boiled a dozen eggs, and for safe keeping, put them back in the carton. When I packed up the food to bring along, I grabbed the wrong carton. This morning when I first woke up, I cracked one against my hand and it ran all over the place.”
I could not help it. I giggled. I actually giggled. Out loud.
“I’m glad you find that amusing. I suppose the chocolate fiasco is along that same vein.”
“It sounds exactly like something I would do, but for what it’s worth, the chocolate on my pillow last night was really precious and thoughtful.”
“Don’t expect the same tonight. There’s a rumor that the chocolate might have a more soup-like consistency now.” He reverted back to the inquiry at hand. “Where were you born?”
“Outside Phoenix, my father was stationed at Luke Air Force Base.”
“You’re a military brat?”
“No. In fact, I never knew my father. He and my Mom split up just after I was born.” When this game began I never intended telling my life’s story as part of the plan, but he told his Mom and Dad story, so fair was fair. If he knew my own military connection, maybe my comments today wouldn’t sting as harshly. “Do you want to hear the long, well longer, version of this story?”
“My brother died in 1971 in Vietnam. He was nineteen and joined the army, just to rebel a little against my Air Force father I guess. I think after Mark died, their relationship was never the same.
“My Mom was forty-five when I was born, and I don’t know if I was a mistake or a last-ditch chance to save a marriage that was really already over, but my father didn’t want any more kids, or maybe he just didn’t want a daughter, so when I was a baby, Mom and I moved to New Mexico, so I sort of grew up there.”
“Single moms,” he mused. “She raised you by herself? I get that.”
“Actually, no, she died when I was six, so my grandparents raised me. Not her parents, my father’s parents.”
“You never saw your father when you lived with them?”
“He died before I went to live with them – cancer, I think. But my grandfather was a World War II veteran, so he used to tell me stories about his time in Africa. He was twenty-five when he enlisted, right after Pearl Harbor, and I loved listening to him regale me with his stories about what the war was like. It’s probably where I developed my love for history, and classic movies. Anyway, I am sure he glossed over his experiences in battle considerably for a young girl.
“He was seventy-six when he died, and I remember watching The Best Years of Our Lives together just before he passed. I was sixteen, and I think of him every time I watch that movie. He reminded me of Fredric March – he drank a little too much, he danced silly with my Grandma, and he was absolutely in love with her until the day he died.” I debated whether or not I was rehashing old arguments, but I decided to share what I was thinking anyway. “I was lucky he made it back, or I would have never had a man like him in my life when I was a child.”
“Sounds like a good man.”
“Yes, very much so. Although to my grandmother’s dismay, he taught me how to make a rusty nail.” I rambled on long enough. “So to answer your question, I was born in Arizona, but grew up in New Mexico and Texas.”
I wanted a new topic, maybe something less depressing, more philosophical. “Do you believe in God?”
“That’s hardly innocuous.”
“Depends on your answer.”
“I used to.” He waited a moment, then changed his answer. “No. I don’t.”
“Me either.” I found it unusual, most people would probably say something about a higher power or a cosmic force or believing in miracles or hoping something happens when we die. He, however, was straightforward and I appreciated that. I made a mental note that whatever he asked next to be equally forthright.