I groaned inwardly at the joke that never got old for anyone except me. One more reason I was glad I only lived in the small northern Californian town for two months of the year. “A fair bit drier than where you are, boss,” I responded. The news kept reporting the record snowfall in eastern Oregon where I managed Steve’s guest ranch the rest of the year. I wasn’t used to him calling during my time off, but I’d anticipated it with the weather. “Are you calling for reinforcements, or are you going to have to push opening day?”
“Yeah, about that.” He sighed heavily.
His tone made my stomach drop.
“Steve?” He had always begged me to come back. I had practical experience at almost any job on the ranch and wasn’t above pitching in at the corrals, in the kitchen, even with minor repairs, but I also had a degree in business management and ran the place more smoothly than anyone he’d ever had. He routinely took his own vacation while I was at the helm knowing that I ran the place exactly as he did.
“Timmy’s wife kicked him out for good.”
I’d worked with him before. Steve often pulled his brother-in-law in at the peak of the season when he needed an extra hand. Like me, he could fill any role. Any role, my brain reminded me. He could take my role. “He’s going to be your manager?” I tried to sound neutral, but my throat had constricted making the words squeak.
“I don’t have a choice. He’s family. I have to help him out. You know we think the world of you. If you’re interested in one of the other jobs…”
“No.” I set down the heavy biography about Roosevelt’s and Taft’s presidencies I’d been reading when he called. I am a big-picture person. I do best when I have a lot to juggle. Put me on one task for a season, and I’d be knocking-my-head-against-the-barn bored in a week.
“I’d be happy to write you a letter…”
“Thanks,” I said, pressing three fingertips to my forehead. I fanned them from eyebrows to hairline in an attempt to center myself. “I’ll let you know if I need it.”
Pressing my head to my fingers again, I interrupted him. “Thanks for letting me know early.” I hit end and set down my phone. Eyes closed, I considered my next move. My savings put me in a position to be choosy about my next job, but the enormity of what was out there and how I would ever find it felt overwhelming. I suppose I was feeling the way people who are dumped feel. There’s that old saying about there being more fish in the sea, but I could never figure out how that’s supposed to help anyone figure out how to catch one of them. I didn’t have any experience dating, but I’d invested all I had in Steve’s business. And now I’d been cut loose.
I’d been with Steve long enough to feel like family. I’d thought he considered me family, but real family… Real families complicate everything.
“Madison, honey! You joining us for lunch?”
The smell of bacon hit me the same time as Ruth’s voice.
Knowing that she would have returned to the iron skillet on the stove, I descended the stairs to give my answer. “Of course,” I said, leaning against the lightweight door to the entry hall that could be shut, but never was. It had a simple gold turnlock that sent out a small circular tongue. I flicked it in and out as I looked out the window at the acres of ranch land where I’d lived most of my life.
I heard Bo at the back door, the distinct thud of his work boots before he closed it and then the run of water as he scrubbed up. He’d come into the kitchen still drying his hands with the hand towel, his thin hair askew from his felt Stetson and the quick scrub he gave his face. Ruth hated how he moved that towel. She wouldn’t be able to sit down to eat until she returned it to the hook by the sink.
“What’s wrong?” He rested his hand on mine.
“Nothing,” I said clicking the tongue back inside the door to leave it unlocked.
“Plenty to do out there if you’re restless in here,” he said, setting the towel down on the kitchen counter.
Ruth frowned at the towel. “Girl’s got a right to rest on her vacation.” I felt her blue eyes on me, but it was Bo who spoke.
“Just ’cause your body is still doesn’t mean your mind isn’t spinning.” He turned from Ruth to me. “You might as well spill it now before your mouth gets busy with lunch.”
I’d always found Ruth to be formal and reserved with me whereas Bo was intuitive to my emotional state. He’d do anything to see that I got what I wanted. That’s where the trouble was, I realized. I had to know what I wanted, and what most prominently rattled in my brain was scary. “Steve doesn’t need me back,” I said frankly as Ruth handed around plates with two pieces of toasted bread for us to turn into BLTs.
With the backs of her wrists, catlike in her movements, Ruth brushed tendrils of gray back from her stunned face. “Excuse me?”
“His brother-in-law needs the job.”
She bristled crisply as she made her sandwich. Bo stood mutely when she snatched his plate back without a word to load up his two pieces of bread. “At least he paid you well all those years. You’re not hurting for money until you find something else, are you?”
“Because if you’re not…”
“No. I’ve got some savings set aside. Now I have to figure out what it means”
“What it means?” Ruth wiped her hands on her apron before shoving Bo’s plate into his midsection, forcing him into motion. “Why wouldn’t it mean finding another place to manage?”
I delivered my sandwich to the table and returned to the stove to pour two coffees. I set the doctored one by my spot and a steaming black cup in front of Bo.
He nodded his thanks but sat with his forearms on the table on either side of his plate, making up his mind about what to say. “She doesn’t have to manage.” He turned his bright blue eyes on me. “You don’t. You could find your own place, be your own boss. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?” he said, looking pointedly at me before he picked up his sandwich and took a bite big enough that he’d polish off the lot with five more.
As he chewed, Ruth sat with her hands on her lap, her sandwich untouched. “You want to buy a place? If you want your own place, stay here. We’re not getting any younger, you know, and we would love to have you here.”
“You two are still plenty young, and you’ve got all the help you need.” I bit into my sandwich and looked out the window at their ranch hand’s double-wide trailer. I spent a lot of time as a child right there watching out the window, waiting for him to come home. It mattered more to me when I was young and still wanted my father, but he never stopped working. I’d seen him fold a sandwich in half and tuck it in his breast pocket to eat in the saddle. Even when the ranch fed him, like when they did a branding party, he’d stand with his plate. When forced to sit, he inhaled his meal without a single comment and found any reason to excuse himself from the table.
I used to think that he was on the go to get away from me. As someone who had put in five years for an employer, I now considered the possibility that he worked all those hours to make himself indispensable. My father had given Bo and Ruth a good twenty years. I was pretty confident that they would always take care of him, but if they sold where would that put him, or us, if I accepted their offer?
“Madison’s in a position to explore her own dreams, not get stuck with a bunch of cattle,” Bo said.
“I would miss booking the trips and sharing a piece of beautiful country with people. I’m good with people,” I agreed. I’d always been better with people than Steve. Even though I’d never felt like I could truly call Bo and Ruth’s place home, or maybe because I always felt that edge of being a guest, I had a knack at making people feel at home on their vacation.
I’d never been entirely home, not where I lived, certainly not where I worked. Not for the first time, the home I didn’t really remember came to mind, the one in the background of the faded square pictures my father had from when we lived in Quincy.
My brown eyes rested on Ruth, the woman who raised me. If I’d been theirs, I would have had blue eyes. I hated how often that basic fact of biology reminded me that I was an outsider. With my average height, short brown hair and androgynous build, I was used to being overlooked. Ruth had kept her eye on me for most of my life. It wasn’t really fair to her that I didn’t think of the ranch as my home, but it wasn’t. It was a sanctuary, but it wasn’t mine. Suddenly, all I could think about was a place that could be.
“You should talk it over with Charlie,” Bo said.
I nodded, knowing he was right even though Bo and Ruth’s opinion was much more important to me.
Hands deep in my coat pockets, I walked the fence line. If I were Charlie, I’d have brought tools in case I found some loose wire, but I wasn’t working anything but my mind. Steve’s call had opened the entire world to me, yet one property immediately spoke to me. I’d grown up listening to Charlie talk about the place he’d worked up in Quincy. For a while, he talked like he’d go back and make a go of it as owner instead of ranch hand, but over the years the dreams shifted to memories, and then he stopped talking about them altogether.
During my business program at Chico State, I based every project on the property that had once been Hot Rocks Cattle Co. I ran numbers on how many head of cattle I’d need to sell to stay in the black and how long it would take to raise up the numbers, how much capital I’d need to wait out lean years, paying for feed and vaccinations before the cattle ever started earning their keep. I went as far as to find it listed, and month after month when I scrolled through the pictures online, I could hear it calling me. I’d considered telling Charlie about it, but I would have had to initiate the conversation, which has never been my strong suit. By the time I graduated, I was saddled with student loans, not the money to figure out whether my college degree could revitalize an old fallow ranch.
Working for Steve gave me more than the opportunity to pay down the loans and start a nest egg. He kept horses and cattle, but he invested in cabins to rent to guests who wanted a taste of ranch life. Over the years, he found a steadier income from the paying guests and invested in activities that attracted more customers—campfires and cattle runs, trail rides and roping lessons, anything to generate a little more cash.
Bo and Ruth ran a more traditional place, one very much like Hot Rocks, and though they were well-established, I watched them run their numbers in the months leading up to spring sales, always worried about whether they would make it through the winter. With a new door open in front of me, I spun the possibility of turning an old cattle ranch into something like the guest ranch I’d managed for Steve. It wasn’t listed anymore, but after sitting on the market for so many years, I crossed my fingers that they had simply taken it off, putting me in a good position to pitch an offer below their asking price.
The sun was sinking over the heifer pasture when Charlie rattled up the drive in his dear old “Love Machine,” a faded orange pickup he’d had since before I was born. When he saw me out at the corrals, he gimped over to me instead of his trailer. His hips had never worked right after a cow hooked him in the yards. He drew his brows together, never one for many words.
“Hey Charlie,” I said. Hands tucked into his high vest pockets, he waited for me to continue. “Wanted to let you know I’m heading up to Quincy tomorrow.”
His gaze left me and traveled over the cattle that were in his charge. Though he didn’t chew tobacco anymore, out of habit, he ran his tongue along the inside of his bottom lip. “You want to see her, do you?”
“I want to look at that property you always used to talk about when I was a kid,” I said, dodging his question.
His hooded eyes came back to me. Uniformly dark, they were difficult to read. He took off the small-brimmed gray felt hat he wore until blazing hot days forced him to switch to straw. He slowly turned it in his beat-up hands, a hatband I’d braided him in junior high still circling the crown. I liked him better with the hat on. His cheeks and neck were dark and leathery. I had the same gold undertones and tanned easily, though looking at how constant tanning took a toll on his skin, I was more careful to wear long sleeves and slather on sunscreen. Without the hat, his ghostly white forehead drew my attention away from his eyes. He had hardly any hair left, but he pawed what he had down. “What for?”
“I won’t be going back to Steve’s. I’d like to run a place, and I don’t have any better ideas of where to start looking.”
“It didn’t make it before.”
“I know that.” I could make it work. I knew what it was like to be abandoned and was prepared to give the place my all.
“You’d run cattle?”
“I was thinking of outfitting it more like Steve’s.”
He scratched a hand across his stubbly face. “Old place didn’t have buildings for that.”
“If the ranch house is big enough, I can start out with lodge rooms.” A big fire didn’t need anything more than a handful of kindling to get started. I knew how to build a fire from a tiny spark. The spark is the key. Once I got the fire going, I knew I could add the bigger logs that made up my dream.
“You’re talking a lot of cash.”
“I’ve been saving some.”
He nodded and squinted as if it would give him a better look at the future.
“You don’t need my blessing.”
“No,” I agreed. “The address would be nice though.”
He turned without a word and walked ahead of me to the trailer, letting the screen go as he passed through it, unconcerned about whether I was following him or not. I caught it and swept it back open to follow him into the dim space. It was tidy, mostly because he had no clutter, no pictures on the dark wood-paneled walls. On one of the kitchen cupboards, he’d pinned a free calendar. The picture displayed was of a Fourth of July parade in town, a handsome pair of Clydesdales pulling an old-fashioned fire truck, American flags everywhere.
He’d gotten it from a local bank and had forgotten all about it after seven months. It was frozen in a July almost ten years before. Charlie scribbled some notes on a pad of paper. “Don’t know the street number, just how to get there.” He ripped off the sheet and slid it across the counter, replacing the pen to the pad and turning to the kitchen to make his dinner. “You hungry?”
“Still full from lunch.” It was a half-truth which would do. The day had unsettled me, and I didn’t feel up to sitting across from my father at the tiny kitchen table watching him try to hide his desire to read the newspaper and struggle to find a way to talk to me.
I couldn’t remember eating with my father. As far back as memory went, I’d eaten up at the house with Bo and Ruth. Ruth picked me up from school. It was less of an interruption to her day. At first, I’d hang my backpack by the door and help in the garden or kitchen until my father came to collect me. If he’d ever tried to pull me out and talk to me about my day, I had no recollection of it. No wonder I preferred to spend my time with Ruth and Bo.
The trailer always felt dark. I couldn’t understand how the two places could feel so different. Even when I turned on every light, I still couldn’t chase away the darkness. I’d had my own small room in the trailer, with my twin bed, bookshelf and desk. Unlike the room I had up at Bo and Ruth’s, it never felt like it was mine. Now I realized it was warmth I was reacting to because I could crawl into Ruth’s lap and ask her to read a book to me nestled against her chest, something I’d never do with Charlie.
Bo and Ruth had never had any children and welcomed me as if I was their own. For years, I stayed at the house as long as I could, going back to the trailer to sleep down the hall from Charlie, listening to him turn pages late into the night and waking to the sound of the percolator that popped and gurgled before sunup. When school kids started inviting each other for sleepovers, I wanted to be able to do the same, but I didn’t want them to see where I lived. That’s how I got my room in the main house. Bo sought me out, gently prodding around what was bothering me. I told him about the sleepovers and how I didn’t want to have to show my friends the trailer.
The main house sat on a hill shaded by poplars on one side with a generous garden on the other. They had rooms to spare in the large two-story place, inviting with its generous porch and gabled windows. They gave me my pick, and Ruth helped me decorate. We chose the paint color together, and Bo took me shopping for all the supplies and taught me how to cut the edges and roll without splatters. Ruth knew things about dust skirts and what looked nice on the wall, and by the time it was finished, and I could invite the other kids to play, it didn’t feel like lying when I said it was my house.
I never considered how Charlie felt when I started sleeping in my bed with the pretty eyelet comforter. The adults must have talked about it when I started asking for sleepovers. Eventually, they weren’t sleepovers anymore. All my clothes came up to my room, and I always slept there. Some nights, I looked out to the trailer after I’d turned out the light. More often than not, his truck wasn’t parked in front. I’d stand there wondering where he was at my bedtime. If I’d been there, would he have left me by myself?
Now standing in the living room as an adult, it still felt lonely. I don’t know that I’d have stopped by to tell him about my road trip had I not needed directions. When I arrived home, I always made sure to say hello and catch up with him, and I always said goodbye before I left, but we were stiff around each other, like distant relatives.
I’d talked about going back to Quincy before. Picking out a dress for a dance, getting my first bra, when I first started my period: there were plenty of times that I thought about my mother. When I tried to talk to Charlie about her, he got even more taciturn. The most he’d ever shared was that she wasn’t fit to be a mother, that Ruth was a better mother to me than I could have ever asked for. I knew he said that out of honesty and not to make me feel guilty, but I quickly learned that I wasn’t going to get anything more specific out of him. He let me keep the pictures he had of her holding me when I was a newborn and some of me as a toddler. There weren’t many. I never found any pictures of a wedding.
My albums were full of either Ruth or Bo holding birthday cakes out to me, or beaming in the background as I opened Christmas presents. Charlie was in plenty of these pictures, but in the background looking like he’d rather be somewhere else.
By the time I was old enough to drive the nearly two hours to Quincy to meet my mother, I had no desire to do so. I’d written to her when I was a kid, but I’d never had a reply. What parent can simply let her child slip away?
I looked at my father. How could they both?
The directions lay on the counter. I picked them up and nodded my thanks. “G’night then Charlie.” We didn’t hug, and he didn’t see me out. I let the screen slam behind me.
I’m used to mountain roads, and the stretch up Feather River Canyon is one of the prettiest I know. I left the sweeping pastures of Paradise to follow the curve of the river itself, hairpin turns carved out of rock face on one side and a drop down to the water on the other. As I climbed in elevation over the long drive, I watched for black ice in the shadows that the weak winter sun wouldn’t have a chance to thaw.
I never had trouble driving in weather. When I first started working for Steve, he’d ask someone else to run errands if it was raining assuming that nobody from California knew how to drive in the rain. Years went by before my record overrode that assumption. I slowed before curves, accelerating out of them, hardly touching my brakes.
That said, I’d never navigated a narrow mountain road when a tire blew and was completely unprepared for the pull of it. I braked quickly, adrenaline making my skin tingle as I checked the rearview to make sure I wasn’t about to be rear-ended. Luckily, I was alone on the road. As I looked for a decent place to pull over to put on the spare, the truck thumped through the next two turns, the rubber thwapping against the pavement. A turnout wouldn’t do. I’d be inviting a slow traveler pulling over to plow into me. The river to my right, I had no shoulder.
On the other side of the road, one of the turns had a pocket large enough for my pickup, so I cut across the lane and pulled to a halt facing traffic. I grabbed the tool kit from under the jump seat and retrieved the spare from under the bed of the truck. I assembled the tool to lower the tire, popping out the retaining clip to free it from the cable.
Bo and Ruth had given me the truck in high school, but Charlie had been the one who insisted that if a person owned a car, she should know how to take care of it. We took off the spare and tucked it back away. He taught me how to jump on the wrench to get the lug nuts loose. He showed me how to check my oil and put in wiper fluid, keeping up a running monologue about how mechanics took advantage of people who knew nothing about engines.
I stood the whole time, mesmerized by his words. I never heard him put together so many in such a short time span. I didn’t see how learning to change my own oil was going to make me any more knowledgeable and less vulnerable to an unscrupulous mechanic. However, I was happy to spend another afternoon under his tutelage, first at the store learning what supplies I needed, and later under the truck as my hands followed the instructions from the voice I’d so seldom heard.
Now examining the flat, I couldn’t make sense of how something with so much tread could look so trashed. I tossed it into the back of the pickup wondering if I should add finding a mechanic to my to-do list in Quincy. I didn’t have a choice about finishing the trip up the mountain on the spare but didn’t know if it would do to drive the round trip on it. I was about twenty miles outside of Quincy, so if I didn’t replace the tire, I was looking at putting about a hundred miles on the spare. Bo would say ask Charlie, but Charlie still refused to own a cell phone, so after I checked out the property I resigned myself to finding a mechanic.
I made the rest of the trip more cautiously, wondering what I was supposed to do if a second tire blew. I took my time, enjoying the whisper quiet of the forest. As I neared town, a small snow berm appeared at the side of the road where the plows had cleared the road, making me grateful I’d had my blowout on more level ground further back down the mountain.
Much of the way up the canyon, I’d been boxed in by sheer mountains and tall evergreens. When the road started to open up a bit, the straightaways longer, the trees thinning out, sometimes interrupted by small meadows blanketed by snow, I relaxed my grip on the wheel. I began to wonder if someone at home should have talked me out of driving up without phoning any of the realtors in the area. Irrational as it now seemed, I just wanted to see the place. The place of my father’s dreams called me.
Before I caught sight of the town, I spotted the sign for my turn to Hot Rocks. I found myself alone on the road. Evergreens again towered on both sides. Beyond the dirty snow at the edge of the road, undisturbed white stretched through the forest. Without recent snow, the trees stood in dark contrast, their needles having shed their weight. I passed Charlie’s landmarks—a bridge, water still running below, then a long narrow meadow, and finally a dirt drive leading to the property.
I swung around, pointing my truck back the way I’d come, and carefully pulled off the road as much as I dared, wishing I’d had the foresight to borrow Charlie’s big old Dodge Power Wagon. I wouldn’t have worried about angling his “Love Machine” back out of the unplowed drive like I did my little pickup. I tucked my jeans into my rubber-soled Sorel work boots and shrugged into my coat before I opened the door.
My eyes closed as I took a deep breath of crisp mountain air. I breathed in wood smoke and pine but also the richness of the land, wet under the snow that crunched underfoot. When I stopped, there was silence, not even the whisper of wind in the trees. Without a scarf, my cheeks and ears started to tingle. A very loose padlocked chain held the gate across the drive. It had enough play that I could easily squeeze through and continue over a bridge up the undisturbed snow to the ranch house, my legs and lungs burning.
Charlie had driven these roads for years from the house he and my mother shared in East Quincy. Did the owners have a bunkhouse he could have used had he not been saddled with a family? I’d found a few pictures of him at work, but they never showed the buildings. Black and whites of Charlie driving cattle astride a big bay horse. Charlie kneeling on a calf’s shoulder, immobilizing it while another cowboy applied the brand.
I never learned these people’s names. Charlie never took me to Hot Rocks with him, and when I’d unearthed the pictures as a teen, he’d quietly tucked them back in the box without a word. In contrast, Bo would have joined me cross-legged on the carpet to reminisce about the horse in the picture or talk about how the sales had been that spring. Maybe it was Charlie’s unwillingness to talk about it that built the mystery for me and fueled my desire to return.
The master house came into view, and I stopped at the bottom of the large turnaround drive to take in what a guest would see on arrival. I imagined the wraparound porch would beckon travelers year-round, an escape from the snow or the heat of a summer day. Though I was really more interested in the property, I tromped up to the porch and stomped the snow from my boots, peeking in the dark windows at an empty living room and a few dusty bedrooms. The sight cheered me. The place didn’t seem to be waiting for anyone to return after winter.
The back door angled toward the barn and corrals. I couldn’t fathom where the cattle would have been kept. The holding pen might have held a few dozen head. Bo’s could take a few hundred. I knew from Bo that Charlie had helped him grow his herd, that he’d shipped his heifers up to be bred to the bull at Hot Rocks until he’d become established enough to buy his own. My mind started spinning with the possibilities when something beyond the pens caught my eye.
A small movement. My body tensed as I felt eyes on me. Again I felt how alone I was. Was there cell phone coverage here? How long it would take for someone to track me down were something to happen to me? I relaxed immediately when my eyes finally sorted out the white body against the background of the snow. The huge white horse held my gaze a few ticks before he moved. I caught myself holding my breath, illogically trying not to spook him. Dumbfounded, I stood rooted as he walked to me, his gait as sound as it was slow.
“This your place?” I asked conversationally when he reached me, butting my red-cold hands with his muzzle. I ran my hands over his coarse, dense winter coat, and they welcomed the heat caught under his long yellowed mane. He smelled like home to me, all dusty saltiness. Age revealed itself in his pronounced withers and hollowed-out hind end, but he was clearly being fed, no ribs sticking out as I ran a hand over his barrel. “You’re keeping an eye out? I promise I’m legit, on my way to talk to a realtor about the place. You happen to know if it’s for sale?”
He swung his head around as if surveying the place with me. I checked the snow. Aside from our tracks, the place was pristine. I hadn’t seen any other residences that he could have popped over from and found myself worried about the stray. It didn’t feel right to put him in one of the pens if he was due back to his own home, but it didn’t feel right to leave him either.
I chewed the inside of my cheek as I stroked the broad expanse of his forehead. He was a good-sized animal, easily sixteen hands, and built for work. “What’s your story? I hate to leave you here.”
It was impossible that he understood me, but suddenly he was walking again, this time back toward the house and the road I’d trudged up. When I didn’t follow, he stopped and looked back at me. Like I said, impossible. “What? You’re going to walk me out?” He waited, so I followed. When I reached him, I put my hand on his withers and steadied myself from slipping.
When the trees opened up to the small meadow, and I spotted my truck safe by the side of the road, I realized how privately tucked away the main house was. Even when I turned around for one last look, with the slow curve of the road I could barely make it out. At the gate, I slipped through, pausing once more to pat the big horse.
“You’ll be okay?” I fussed.
In answer, he turned and walked away. I shrugged and carefully picked my way over the short bridge to the road, afraid of ice. When I climbed into the cab and looked for my friend, he was nowhere in sight.
I sat in the truck for a moment trying to decide what to prioritize, the tire or the realtor. I mused that what came to mind first probably answered my question. As I rounded the bend to follow the highway through town, I felt like I was driving back in time, grand brick buildings lining both sides of the now one-way street. Following the reduced speed limit, I registered a handful of businesses, an appealing café. A bank and a bookstore. Before I knew it, I was leaving the business area, the buildings more sparse and then suddenly those, too were behind me. I didn’t see a reason to stop at the big shopping center on my right and found myself heading up a hill, the familiar evergreens again lining the two-way highway.
A rush of butterflies swept through my belly. I had anticipated being able to turn around and swing back through town and had no idea how I’d do that now, back on a curving hill that did not invite a U-turn. My hands tighter on the steering wheel, I reached the crest of the hill and found another stretch of town on the other side.
The sight of more businesses ahead didn’t allay my anxiety. I vowed to stop at the next mechanic I spotted. I coasted down the hill and into the straightaway with two-way traffic. On the left, I recognized the open bay doors of a shop and turned, smiling at the small sign that read “Rainbow Auto.” The mechanic was busy with a customer, so I dropped the gearshift to neutral, pulled the hand brake and released the clutch to wait for them to finish.
Waiting in the warmth of my cab, I tucked my hands under my thighs. Though the chill from my hike had faded on the drive into town, the tips of my fingers still tingled. The garage looked more house than business. I pressed my head to the cold driver’s side window, staring at the second story perched above the second bay door. The curtains suggested that it was a living space.
A wall of split firewood stacked neatly between posts blocked my view, but somehow I knew that in the summer with the porch cleared of wood, there would be pretty cut glass in the upper half of the front door. I shut my eyes and the image of my young parents standing in that spot flashed in my memory.
I’d seen this house before in a small square photograph.
My father’s left arm draped around my mother’s shoulder, and an infant me stretched out along his right forearm. He held me as casually as some would hold a football, my face cradled in his hand and my limbs hanging down loosely.
I’d unknowingly come back to the place that I would have grown up in had Charlie stayed with my mom. My body felt icy cold.
I compressed the clutch and started to put the car in reverse, but the mechanic’s eyes had found me, and I felt stuck having idled there as long as I had. The customer handed her keys to him, a big guy with a lumberjack beard and ball cap. It struck me that they were the same height, but while he had a heavy bulk to him, broad shoulders under his jean jacket, she was lithe in a well-cut business suit. Styled almost-blond hair framed her face—wispy bangs and sculpted eyebrows—this was a woman who took care with her appearance. She spoke with her hands and easy large smile on her face. Her posture suggested homecoming queen, the girl everyone liked and everyone wanted to be seen with. Having always got her way through school, it made perfect sense that she would continue to use her skills in the adult world.
She continued to stand in the shop when the lumberjack got into her SUV, and I waited for him to pull it onto the blocks, surprised when white lights signaled that he was backing up. He maneuvered around me in the small driveway and disappeared into the traffic behind me. I sat uncomprehending as the homecoming queen approached my truck.
What the fuck, I thought eyeing the woman in her black truck, not wanting to deal with anything in my business getup. Figures that someone would show up in the five-minute window I had opened up to get Guy’s Suburban back to him. She continued to sit there even after he left, forcing me to leave the relative warmth of the shop.
“Can I help you?” I asked her. I squinted into the cab, and she stared at me without speaking. Great, a space cadet. She opened her mouth like she was going to speak but looked back at the house. She seemed lost. “Shop’s not technically open, but if it’s something simple…” I prompted, cold and ready to get inside and into some warm clothes.
“You live here?”
I turned to look at the house. What the hell did that have to do with anything? “Yes.”
“Look, I wasn’t planning on working today. I’m obviously not dressed for it. Did you need directions?” My feet were starting to freeze in my pumps, corporate drag for the monthly small business meeting at the Chamber of Commerce.
This got her brown eyes to focus on me instead of the house. Maybe she was high and drawn to my sign. I heard my friend Hope’s warnings about putting Rainbow in my business name.
“I…” She stared at the open bay door as if she were trying to remember why she was parked in front. “I got a flat on my way up the canyon. I’m on the spare right now and wanted to make sure it’ll get me back home.”
“Which tire are we talking?”
“This one.” She pointed down at the front driver’s side.
I quickly read the information on the tire. “You’ve got a standard tire there, so you’re fine driving on it until you can fix the flat. If you’re worried, you can pull up on into the garage. I can check the pressure for you.” I stepped back and let her put the truck in gear and pull in ahead of me, noting a small rainbow sticker on the back window. Well, that changed everything. I decided she must be in awe of how bold I dared to be with my signage in a small town.
She had already shut off the engine and was stepping out of the truck to remove the cap from the tire valve, making me feel a little bad about the pothead assumption. I assessed her in a wholly unprofessional manner, admiring the hair so short it stuck up a bit at her crown and would have been boyish on a less feminine face. She moved freely in clothes that had seen real work, the worn barn jacket and heavy jeans tucked into snow boots, and now seeming much more capable than at first glance.
I pulled the air hose over and checked her pressure to the manufacturer’s specs on the door, adding a pound before I held my out my hand. Long, slender fingers as feminine as her facial features surrendered the valve cap. I noted with disappointment that she didn’t register the brush of my fingertips across hers. “This tire’s good to go for a trip down the mountain, though it’d be good to get the one from the set patched up and back on for balance and wear, if it’s salvageable and you’ve got the time.”
Stabilizing herself with a hand on her cab, the woman studied my shop as if she hadn’t heard me. When her gaze did return to me, she said, “You’re not open.”
“C’mon,” I said, smiling big. “I wouldn’t turn away family.”
She furrowed her brow, so I pointed to the rainbow on her truck. She looked to her sticker and back to me with a blank expression. Okay, I thought, going back to my original take on her. She might be cute. Too bad she’s a brick shy of a load.
“I…” There was the lost look again. “I think I know this place, but not as a garage. It was a house.” She patted her pockets as if she could locate the answer in one.
I frowned. I grew up in Quincy, yet I had never seen this woman before. My parents had bought the place when my mom found out she was pregnant with her fifth kid, and we’d been there nearly twenty years. How did she know I’d converted it into a garage? Did she know that we were standing in what had been my bedroom? The humor of poking around in someone’s engine or having my hands on the intimate workings of the transmission never grew old for me. I never shared with my local clients that I worked on cars in my former bedroom, but I was tempted to tell her. If she was like most of my friends, though, she wouldn’t find it funny. Best to get back to business and move her on her way. “Did you want me to look at the tire to see if it could be patched?”
“Oh, it’s long gone,” she stated.
I peered in the back of her truck and saw how shredded it was all around the rim. “Oh, yeah. You’re pretty much screwed there.” Though she hadn’t asked for advice, I checked out her rear tires and saw that there was plenty of wear left on them. “Your rear looks fine,” I said before I realized what I was saying. For a moment, I hoped she’d take it flirtatiously. It could have led us into a conversation about what she was doing in town and how long she’d be around. Unfortunately, she didn’t react to the double entendre. I could easily see her cluelessness getting her snowed on a full set of tires she didn’t need. “You could easily get away buying just two new tires. You’ll want the new ones up front for the best steering.”
“Can’t I pair a new one with the spare and carry the old front passenger as my spare?”
Crossing my arms over my chest, I puzzled over her first logical utterance. I liked a person confident enough to speak her mind. “If that tire is in good shape, you could do that. How long have you been driving on the spare?”
“Thirty, forty miles?” she estimated.
“You said you were heading home today?”
I put my hands in my pockets, trying to ward off the chill seeping through my too-thin business jacket. To get my blood moving, I walked to the other side of the truck to eyeball the tread and then came back around to check the coding on the side of her spare. “I wouldn’t recommend driving any distance the way you’re matched up here.” As I got into the details of tires, her attention drifted again, maybe to hold up the cost of tires to the balance in her bank account. More likely, she’d gotten lost in her impossible idea that she knew my house. Whatever it was, I had to snap her out of it. She was dressed for the weather; I was not.
“How long did you say you’d lived here?” she asked in a faraway voice.
“I grew up here,” I answered curtly. Enough with the chitchat. At this rate, I’d never get my feet warmed up. I glanced at my watch as discreetly as I could and found I was now running late for my lunch date. “If you wanted that referral,” I prompted.
That finally put her into motion. “Sure. That would be helpful.”
I grabbed one of my business cards and wrote down the number of a friend who mostly did tires. With the briefest of eye contact, she took the card and slid into her cab. To my relief she immediately turned over the ignition.
“Whatever you do about that tire,” I said in parting, “don’t get screwed into a full set. You don’t need it.”
She gave me a thumbs-up as she pulled out of the bay stall, and I felt a pang of sadness. It wasn’t every day a cute lesbian in my age range visited what had been my bedroom. I silently wished her well on her journey, hoping she was safe and found herself where she needed to be.
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