Faith to Face Another Day

This tale is part of a larger story I’m working on about a couple who meet, fall in love, and eventually travel to Venezuela to become embroiled in the political and social turmoil happening there today.

Can the main protagonists or anyone they meet stick to their convictions in this seemingly God forsaken country?  Is there a leader capable of stepping up and leading the country out of chaos as it falls apart?  Family and political intrigue develop as the story evolves.

Soon I’ll post the back story of Gabriela, the beautiful Venezuelan ex-patriot who becomes a love interest of Cliff’s.

In an earlier post titled Venezuela, I wrote about Anna, a Venezuelan woman and her struggle to survive.  Sarah, and Anna loom large later in the story.

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Chapter 1

Eden

Her father was no John F Kennedy and her mother was no Jacqueline Kennedy.  But if there was such a thing in West Hamlin, Lincoln County, West Virginia, they would be it.

Clinton Brogden, Sarah’s father, was a small town lawyer.  Energetic, tall and slim, Clinton had a presence more associated with a big time, big city lawyer.  His smarts and good looks had taken him about as far as a small town lawyer could go without delving into politics.  And his charisma would make that move easy in a few years.  Sarah’s mother, Loraine, eventually found Clinton’s advances irresistible.  That and the fact that he was persistent.  When Clinton set his mind on something he doggedly stuck with it until he got it. Fifty years later when Loraine’s name is mentioned, inevitably, someone will add, “Yes, and she was a beauty.” Sarah’s sisters, one 2 years older and one a year younger, were pretty, genuine, and intelligent.  They say there’s one in every family, so you would think Sarah would be a bit of a misfit, a little chubby, or not so intelligent, or maybe just a trouble maker of some sort.  No, Sarah fit right in, and most agree, the cream of the crop.

Loraine and Clinton came from humble beginnings.  They didn’t feel like there was anything remarkable about their family. They had many of the same problems as any other family.  They wanted to live in a little bigger house, wanted a newer model car, Loraine wished Clinton didn’t work so much, etc., etc.

So like every other girl getting ready for the party, Sarah had mixed feelings.  She was a little excited, a little nervous.  Cathy said there was going to be dancing.  Sarah had rhythm and she and her sisters would play their parents records and dance around the living room with Loraine and Clinton looking on.  Being silly, they would try the latest dance moves they had seen on American Band Stand as their parents encouraged them and laughed.

But dancing with a boy in front of other kids?  That would be different. That was a little intimidating.  What if she wasn’t asked to dance?  There were other girls going to the party who were much more outgoing.  She knew a couple girls who if not asked by the right boy, they were so forward, they would ask them themselves.

And Cliff, Cliff was going.  They sat side by side in Mrs. Cook’s 5th grade Art class.  He wasn’t the best looking boy in the class but there was something about him.  He was smart, and confident.  He didn’t think he was all ‘that’ either.  While some of the other boys clamored for attention, showing off and bragging, Cliff was just Cliff.  Sarah didn’t understand why most boys acted so weird around her.  She hadn’t a clue how very pretty she was.

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When they arrived at the party, Loraine walked in with Sarah to say hi to Cathy’s mom and confirm the time she should pick her up. Loraine was hoping Cathy’s mom would invite her to stay.  However, when asked, she said she had errands to run.  Cathy’s mom had to ask Loraine the appropriate number of times before she said yes.  Several moms sat in the dining room drinking coffee, some smoking cigarettes.  It was a time when ash trays were a requisite on every coffee and end table.

Cathy was picking out 45’s to play for the party.  She asked Sarah to come over and help. All the records were in sleeves with not a scratch on them.  Sarah’s family had a stack of records but nothing like this.  Cathy bragged about the sound of the brand new RCA Victor stereo.  You could stack 14, 45 RPM’s at a time.

The records they picked were:

Hey Jude, The Beatles; Honey, Bobby Goldsboro; (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay; Otis Redding; Sugar, Sugar, The Archies; Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In, 5th Dimension; Honky Tonk Women, The Rolling Stones; Everyday People, Sly and the Family Stone; Dizzy, Tommy Roe; Hot Fun in the Summer Time, Sly and the Family Stone; One, Three Dog Night; Build Me Up Buttercup, The Foundations; Suspicious Minds; Elvis Presley; You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog, Elvis Presley.

If Sarah had her way there would be more Elvis and Motown but it was Cathy’s party, Cathy’s house, and Cathy had final approval.

Cathy had a crush on Sean, two years older and dreamy eyed with long, sandy brown hair.  The party would start in earnest when Sean arrived with his best buds, Tracy and Jim, who were twins.  But for now the boys gathered on one side of the room and the girls on the other.

Sarah stood by the stereo with Sherri and Gwen, her two best friends.

“Wonder if Cliff’s coming?” Gwen asked Sarah as if she should know.

“He said he was,” Sherri answered for Sarah. Gwen and Sherri gave each other a knowing look.

“How should I know,” Sarah said trying to brush off the comment.  Sherri and Gwen gave each other that knowing look again.

The next time the doorbell rang and Cathy’s mom answered, there stood Cliff, alone, holding a birthday gift wrapped in pink paper and a silver bow.

“How cute, come in.  I’m talking about you, honey, not the gift,” she said, barely refraining from patting him on the derriere as he passed by.

Cathy’s mom surveyed the room unsatisfied by what she saw.

“You all are a bunch of party poopers,” she declared.  “Come over here Cathy,” she said to her daughter, “and dance with this fine looking young man.  You all grab a partner and join in.”

A coffee table was moved over and three other couples joined them on the make shift dance floor. Sarah was both relieved and disappointed she wasn’t asked to dance. The other couples jerked and gyrated on the dance floor to Honky Tonk Women, which was not a good dance song, anyway.  Cliff and Cathy on the other hand moved in rhythm.  The other kids may have well been dancing without partners, but Cliff and Cathy danced together.

Cathy’s mom was pleased when Sean with his friends arrived while Cathy and Cliff were still on the dance floor.  She was surprised when Cliff reached out and took Cathy’s hand and they began dancing a version of the Jitterbug.  She had taught Cathy how to Jitterbug but as far as she knew, this is the first time she had danced like that with a boy.

But what pleased Cathy’s mom most was the look on Sean’s face when he saw Cathy dancing with Cliff.  Sean was that guy who could have his pick of any girl in the school.  Cathy was way too fond of him and Cathy’s mom felt the relationship was one sided.  A little competition would make Sean appreciate Cathy more.

But when Cathy saw Sean, she ran over and jumped up on her tip toes and gave him a warm embrace.  Cliff was left standing alone in the middle of the living room floor.  He looked puzzled and a little lost.  When he realized what had happen he turned to walk over to his friends.  For some it would have been humiliating the way Cathy left him standing there without a second thought.  She was thoughtless like that and would become colder still as years went by.

Everybody was staring at Cliff as he walked off the floor.  Sarah felt a pang for Cliff and caught his eye as he walked past.  She reached out and was going to give Cliff’s hand a reassuring squeeze.  She was surprised when he took her hand and led her to the middle of the make shift dance floor.

The first minute was a bit awkward, as Sarah imagined it might be in her worst dreams, but not nearly as awkward as Sean and Cathy looked.  Sean played imaginary drums as he shuffled his feet looking off into the distance as if Cathy didn’t exist.

It may have felt like minutes, but in reality it was only a few brief moments before Sarah and Cliff began to feel each other’s rhythm.  By the time Hot Fun in the Summer Time played, Cliff and Sarah were moving as one. He took her hand and pulled her close as he whirled her around the dance floor.  The moves they did naturally wouldn’t be named for a couple of years to come.  The moms came out to watch.

As Loraine looked on, standing in the archway between the living room and kitchen with the other moms, a range of emotions played across her face.  First the stern look of an authoritarian as she saw Cliff holding her daughter almost like a lover, that melted into a look of concern and then fear and finally endearment as an overwhelming sense of love for her daughter took hold.  Her little girl was dancing for the first time with a boy and what a dance it was!

Each of the other moms glanced at Loraine at different times.  When they talked about it later, they thought the others crazy depending on when they noticed the emotion Loraine was displaying at the moment.

You only find one or two dance partners in your lifetime that can feel your rhythm as you meld into one on the dance floor.  Cliff and Sarah found that special someone at a very early age as Loraine looked on.  Sarah and Cliff danced until sweat glistened off their faces, not the least bit fatigued.  They could have, would have, danced all afternoon if left alone.  But nothing that good lasts for long.  Cathy’s mom stopped the music for the obligatory cake and ice cream.

Somehow Cliff and Sarah were separated in the shuffle as the cake was served.  They traded glances and smiles as they sat across the table from one another.  Afterward, Cliff found Sarah sitting outside on the porch swing with Sherri and Gwen.  Gwen scooted over to make a place for Cliff next to Sarah.  As he sat down he put his arm on the back of the swing.  It felt to Sarah almost as if his arm was around her.

The back porch overlooked the Guyandotte River.  On the surface of the gently flowing, green water drifted the first fallen leaves of autumn.  The mountains were ablaze with color.  Across the river a coal train rumbled and blew its forlorn horn as it approached the crossing at Virginia Street.

They talked and laughed as they watched a mile of coal cars pass.  Finally the music started again.  Sherri and Gwen jumped up and said, “Let’s go,” expecting Cliff and Sarah to follow.  But they liked the feeling of sitting so close together.  As the other girls left, Cliff’s arm came off the back of the swing, unmistakably around Sarah’s shoulder.  He pulled her close and she leaned into him.  He felt her long, flowing, auburn hair tickle his cheek for the first time.

“Mom taught me how to dance.  I enjoy dancing with you much more,” Cliff said.

“And I enjoy dancing more with you than dancing with my sisters,” Sarah replied, turning her head to look into his eyes.

It was one of those moments.  The kiss was no less inevitable than the opposite poles of two magnets being drawn together.

Even in adulthood most first kisses are awkward.  But they kissed like they danced.  Her lips were soft, his slightly parted, and they touched tongues for a brief moment in a soft embrace.  They parted then came together in a passionate kiss.  A kiss that all other kisses in their lives would be compared to.

But at their age and being the good kids they were, they couldn’t, they wouldn’t, stay there on the swing and neck.  She stood up and pulled him off the swing.

“Let’s dance,” she said softly.

“Like its 1969,” he added.

And they ran back into the house in a childish exuberance that is all too fleeting in every young life.

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“Was it a good day?” Loraine asked Sarah on the drive home.

“The best, Mom,” Sarah answered.  Sarah sensed her mom knew she had received her first kiss.

“It’s a special day, honey.  You don’t get many like this, don’t let it be forgot,” Loraine said wistfully, remembering her first kiss.

And the lyrics to the song Sarah’s dad listened to every night before he went to bed began to run through Sarah’s head.

“Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot,
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.”

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Chapter 2

Leaving the Garden

 

He sat there feeling foolish.  He tried calling again, straight to voice mail.

Looks aren’t everything, he thought.  If anyone else but Sarah Brogden had been sending signals like she had since they began communicating on Facebook Messenger, he would have cut it off long ago.  But, hey, it was Sarah Brogden.  They had that magical moment in 6th grade that would be etched in his mind forever.

She had gone on to become that girl in high school who could hardly get a date because she intimidated most guys with her stunning looks.  She had few opportunities to date nice guys, they all melted in her presence.  The smooth, suave ones who didn’t melt, were mostly the ones who only wanted her for what she could provide physically.  Just the fact they were with her enhanced their standing among their friends and provided a boost to their already over inflated egos.

So in her mind, all men were either sex crazed asses or tongue tied idiots.

Equally as unpleasant was the jealousy she encountered all her life from other women.  It was bad enough in high school when she was told by the busy bodies, who were looking to ingratiate themselves with her, what was whispered behind her back.  It became much worse after she had become a professional model.  Her success ratcheted up all that unpleasantness to an astonishing degree.  When she began to experience the same sentiments from her younger sister and eventually, for a brief time, her oldest daughter, it was more than she could handle.   How could she not be affected?

Most would gladly give their eye teeth to be as beautiful.   Most days Sarah would gladly give it away for nothing.

But it wasn’t all bad.  She had traveled the globe to exotic locations for photo shoots with the most renowned photographers in the world.  At one time in their careers, she and her husband had become the ‘it’ couple in advertising.  While not quite a household name, in her industry she was well known, respected, and highly sought after.

Friends on Messenger is one thing, but personal interaction on a trip like this?  Cliff and Sarah had lived in different worlds. Could they even relate?

But this was all wild conjecture on Cliff’s part.  His imagination was his own worst enemy.  He hadn’t seen her in person for over 40 years.  He knew nothing about her since high school besides what was on her Facebook page and what she had shared with him, which was precious little. How had time changed her?  Was she still as pretty as ever.  He had seen only one recent picture of her.  It was a selfie of her holding her dog.  He could only see half her face.  She sure looked pretty in that picture.  She seemed normal enough from their communication except…

Now he was 61 and she 58.  What would she think when she saw him for the first time?  He thought he looked good for a 61-yr.-old.  He still had a modicum of a six pack and he worked out regularly with weights.  He had been through the wringer having lost his wife a year-and-a-half-ago, and then discovered he had stage IV non-small cell lung cancer a couple months after that.  Now in remission, and having grown back his hair after the chemo, he was attempting to get his life back on track.  Still, the cancer and chemo had a lasting impact.  He wouldn’t admit, even to himself, that he couldn’t do nearly the things he did before.  At least he took solace in the fact he looked as fit as ever.  As fit in his mind, anyway.  Isn’t that all that mattered?

Why had he suggested this trip to her?  There were other women he could have invited.  But they lived in his home town he told himself.

After the break up with his girlfriend, who he started dating a couple weeks before the cancer kicked in, and dated for a year, he couldn’t handle the awkwardness of being around someone he didn’t care for but who wanted a serious, romantic relationship.  That’s the way his old girlfriend had felt about him.  He did not wish to go through that kind of hellish hurt again or inflict it on another.  In his mind, he had determined that if the cancer did not recur in another year, he would unfetter his heart and give love another shot.  During the time of his wife’s illness he had learned how to love unconditionally, exuberantly, holding nothing back.  Oh, to love that way again!  But chances are cancer would not give him that opportunity.  At least he had experienced that kind of love once.  Another year and if he was still in remission, and the prospect for a serious, romantic relationship presented itself, he would pursue it.  But for sure not now.

That’s why he chose Sarah.  She seemed like a perfect fit for a traveling companion.  She was pretty, well-traveled, was definitely out of his league, so he didn’t have to worry about her becoming infatuated, and they lived far enough apart they wouldn’t continually run into each other.  They could just be friends, imagine that between the opposite sexes?   Bottom line, he was looking for companionship, not romance.  He was betting she was, too.  Perfect fit, right?

But there were red flags.  He planned to travel to Charlotte where she lived from his home three-and-a-half-hours away in Georgia to speak at a rotary luncheon and help his son move, and proposed getting together for lunch or dinner. She didn’t get back with him until he was ready to leave Charlotte.  Sarah said she had been under the weather and in bed for days.  Then Cliff had been given an all-expenses paid week in the Bahamas with transportation in the company jet, a 33’ luxury performance boat, and a bungalow on the water with a dock.  She had said she wanted to go but stretched out the decision because she had issues with a law suit she had brought against her late husband’s doctor.  Last minute she found she couldn’t go.  And though they communicated via Facebook Messenger, sometimes several times a day, they had still not spoken by phone.  Cliff wondered if there was an unwritten rule that if you started by Messenger you stayed by Messenger, never to meet in person.

Cliff had been traveling and put a ton of pictures on Facebook, mostly to see if his old girlfriend would ‘Like’ them. He had a website his son had set up for him to blog and post the short stories, poetry, etc. he had written.  The website held Cliff’s life story.  Between the website and social media, Cliff’s life was an open book.  It dawned on Cliff how very little he really knew about Sarah.

But he didn’t feel the need to pry.  It is one thing to share willingly, quite another to be poked and prodded.  Besides, it would be much more interesting to find those things out at a restaurant with a wonderful ambiance over a good bottle of French red, her favorite, preferably from a Left bank vineyard of the Gironde river in the Bordeaux region. At least he knew that much about her.

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Where was Cliff?  Her phone was dead and she couldn’t call.  She had plugged the charger into several outlets in the airport all with the same result.  Nothing!   Her battery must need replaced.  Where was an AT&T store in San Francisco?  Without a phone she couldn’t even Google it.

They had that magical moment in 6th grade when they danced at a friend’s birthday party until their clothes were drenched with perspiration.  They shared a childhood crush for a while until something happened and Cliff seemed to become a different person.

She didn’t know him well now, but she had read his stories and lately they had communicated daily on Messenger. He didn’t seem to be the kind of person not to follow through.  In grammar and high school he was never afraid to share his thoughts, often being almost obnoxiously outspoken in class.  From his communication with her, that part had certainly not changed.  He still communicated whatever the hell was on his mind.

He had been good in sports.  In junior high she remembered the newspaper articles about him breaking records in just about every meet he ran in.  He was a starting running back on the high school football team, but the sport he excelled in most was wrestling.  She remembered how sunken in his jaws became when he was a senior in high school trying to make weight.  He had gone on to wrestle at the college level.  WVU?

But, oh, was he ever awkward around her.  She didn’t remember anyone he dated in high school.  Was he like that with all the girls?  Probably.  She imagined he overcompensated in sports just to get attention.  He could pin an opponent to the wrestling mat without worrying about stammering.  She had become best friends with his sister until… well just until.  She didn’t like to think about it.  Cliff had hung out with them on two or three occasions.  The same every time.  Awkward, awkward, awkward.  One-on-one with a girl, he was a disaster.

As far as attractiveness went, he did have one outstanding trait girls liked.  He had a nice butt.  If there was a vote for it, he would have won best butt for a male in his senior class by a landslide.

He communicated well with her now, though.  The stories he posted were certainly impressive.  And he was direct.  Some of the things he wrote, some of the questions he asked, were so direct and honest they even hurt a little.  On three occasions she didn’t Messenger him back for a couple of days.  He didn’t seem to care and he certainly didn’t apologize.  But he made her think with those questions, comments, and insights.  She needed that from someone.

However, he sounded just a bit pretentious writing about dinner with friends, his travels, and his sons.  Also, writing about his health made her uncomfortable.  Couldn’t he say he had cancer once and be finished with it?  After all, he was in remission.

Sarah remembered his sister had been very critical of their mother.  Sounded like their mother constantly belittled them to their face and couldn’t say enough good things in their absence.

The more Sarah thought about it, the more certain she became that he had mother hang ups.  He worked hard in sports to gain approval, and that seemed to have transferred to his work life as well.  It appeared he had a fairly successful career.  But how would the mother issues effect his behavior toward the opposite sex?  Easy to understand why he didn’t have confidence around women at an early age.  But once he did gain a bit of confidence, might he not try to prove his self-worth by sleeping around as much as possible?

So he could be a sex crazed ass and a stammering idiot.

Why had she agreed to come on a trip like this with someone she hadn’t seen in 40 years?  Was he a pretentious ass, would she have to fight off his sexual advances, would he still be that awkward teenager she knew in high school?  Or would he be the mature, thoughtful, caring individual that came across in most of the things he wrote?

Cliff was an hour-and-a-half-late.  Where was his ass?  She had the address to the hotel.  She would trade her ticket in for a flight back to Atlanta tomorrow.  There had to be a nice restaurant near the hotel, hopefully something high up with a view of the city.  She was wearing comfortable traveling clothes, a nice pair of jeans with sequins and a stylish rip above the knee, and a white, knit blouse that dipped low enough to show Cliff she had finally filled out.  She was hungry and didn’t want to take the time to check in at the hotel and change.

 

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What an idiot I am, Cliff thought.  If this was a business affair he would have read the signs without the interference of emotion.  He would have had contingency plans for each step along the way.  He would have made sure Sarah had some skin in the game.  This trip would have easily been a $20,000 investment.  Part of the money he could recoup.  The time he couldn’t.  Time was his biggest gift now.   Who knew when the cancer would raise its ugly head again? Wasting time pissed him off more than anything.

After paying his tab, he surveyed the room one last time just in case Sarah had somehow slipped in unnoticed.  There was the brunette at the table near the exit, but she was in her early 40’s at the oldest.  As he was leaving the restaurant, he had to walk past the brunette.  She seemed to age a few years as he got closer, but 58, no way.

 

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The guy sitting in the back of the room facing the exit walked toward Sarah.  Cliff was 60, this guy was 50 or younger.  But as he got closer she could see the crow’s feet around the eyes more clearly, but 60, don’t think so.

As Cliff came parallel to the brunette, he couldn’t help but glance her way.  She was staring at him.

“Sarah?” he said.

“Cliff?” she answered.

She jumped up and they embraced.  A single tear ran down each of their cheeks.  She was able to reach around and wipe it away before they ended the hug.  He couldn’t because his face was buried in her thick, auburn hair.

“What’s that about?” he said embarrassed, wiping away the tear with his knuckle.  And then he saw the wetness in her eyes and didn’t feel quite so awkward.

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Chapter 3

Discovery

 

They sat comfortably far enough apart in the Uber on the way to the restaurant to relieve Sarah of some of the fear of Cliff being a sex crazed maniac.  Cliff worked it out with the driver to drop their luggage off at the hotel after dropping him and Sarah off at the restaurant.  That was one of the good things about Uber.  Cliff liked the convenience of not having to take out your wallet, paying the driver, or tipping.  The driver would take the luggage to the hotel and the payment would go straight to his card.

Cliff had shared the itinerary with Sarah but didn’t go into details.  Tonight was dinner at a nice restaurant in San Francisco is all she knew.  They grew up in WV where the roads were often curvy disasters as they wound around mountains.  Cliff was surprised to find that the roads in San Francisco were mostly straight but with sections that were very steep, especially in the undulating region of Knob Hill where the restaurant was located.

Sarah was disappointed when she saw the restaurant.  It was on a hill alright, but as they drove up she could see there were trees in the back that appeared to block the view.  West Coast liberals and tree huggers she thought to herself.  She imagined the view would have been spectacular.

“Cliff Hatfield,” Cliff told the greeter at the door when she asked for the reservation.

“Hatfield, I see no Hatfield.  Is there another name the reservation might be under, Sir?”

The tone the receptionist used didn’t sit well with Cliff.  She was very pretty, had raven black hair, and was slim, with a bit of aristocratic air.

“No other name,” Cliff said politely but firmly.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I have no Hatfield for anytime tonight in my book. “  She closed the reservation book as if to say, that’s that, good try, now run along.

Cliff took a moment before he responded.  After traveling cross country and waiting on Sarah, he was in no mood to deal with a haughty receptionist at a fancy restaurant.  This was Sarah and his first evening together.  He had intended for this to be a special night.  He made the reservations 2-and-a-half months in advance to get the table.  He had worked with the sommelier to pick the wine, a very good vintage French Red from the West bank of the Gironde River in the Bordeaux Region.  There should be three red, long stem roses laying on the table that he was assured had the best view on Knob Hill overlooking the city.  He paid for the wine and the flowers in advance with a healthy tip for Roger, supposedly the manager, to make it all happen.  He didn’t want Sarah to know how much the wine cost, which was way too much, although this particular restaurant priced their wine at uncommonly low prices as a powerful marketing trick.  He had insisted on confirmation and a receipt for the flowers and wine, and had the email from the restaurant with the restaurant logo on his phone. If he didn’t get his table, the roses, and the wine, he knew heads would roll. He would sever them himself.

“I wish to see the manager, please,” Cliff said as politely as he could muster.  He knew the receptionist would ask them to take a seat and make them wait because she evidently thought he was trying to get a table without a reservation.

Cliff leaned in closer so that the couple who had just walked in, who the receptionist was already focused on, couldn’t hear.  “Now,” he said, in a voice just above a whisper.

A single word had never had such an effect on the receptionist.  “Oh,” she said as she looked away from Cliff’s glare.  Still looking down she left her station to get the manager.

Cliff’s great-great-great grandfather was Ephraim Hatfield and his great-great-great grandmother was Nancy Vance.  This Hatfield-Vance mix of genes had combined to produce Devil Anse Hatfield, Cliff’s great-great grandfather, the Hatfield patriarch of the Hatfield-McCoy feud in the late 1800’s.  Besides that, his mother’s grandfather had been a Hatfield and his mother’s mother had married a Vance.  Cliff’s mother was a Vance.  Perhaps it was the Hatfield-Vance genes recombined yet again that generated Cliff’s comportment now.

Cliff’s father, Stonewall Jackson Hatfield, was a coal miner, an easy going man, a hard working, kind person who would give the shirt off his back to help a friend.

Cliff’s mother, Lily Mae, on the other hand, was a hell raiser.  Turmoil swirled around her and she kept the family in a constant uproar.  She was one of the prettiest women in Lincoln County, and along with her close friends, often enjoyed nights out on the town.  Her father had been abusive, but instead of cowering, she fought back.  She had the same abusive tendencies but did not want to be like him.  This played out in the way she was fiercely protective of her children.

Once when Cliff was in the third grade and had been bullied on the way home, she had him retrieve a switch from the back yard.  She held him by the arm and swacked him as he danced around her in circles trying to avoid the sturdy limb.

“You think those boys hurt you?” she said between clinched teeth.  “That’s nothing compared to what I’ll do to you if you ever come home crying like that again!  If those kid’s parents don’t get control get control over them, dammit, I’ll kick their asses, too!”

As Lily Mae stood in her front yard cussing, Mrs. Thomas, the mother of the ring leader of the kids who had tormented Cliff, should have called the sheriff instead of stepping into the front yard to confront Lilly Mae.

Lilly Mae was barely 110 lbs., Mrs. Thomas was a big, raw boned woman pushing 200.  Mrs. Thomas’s big mistake came when she put her hand on Lilly Mae’s chest to hold her off as Lilly Mae invaded her personal space.  That created the perfect distance for Lilly Mae’s round house left to have maximum impact.  Lilly Mae kicked her in the ribs and stomped her in the back of the head when Mrs. Thomas landed on the sidewalk.  Then Lilly Mae jumped on her back, grabbing her by the hair and ears, and slammed her face into the sidewalk.  Mrs. Thomas spent several days in the Williamson Regional Hospital.

Because Mrs. Thomas had pushed Lily Mae first, Lilly Mae was not prosecuted, although there was a warrant issued for her arrest.

When Cliff answered the door in his pajamas early the next morning and saw the tall, broad shouldered State Policeman filling the doorway, he was intimidated.

“I need to see your mama, boy,” the policeman told Cliff.

Cliff ran into his mother’s bedroom and told her a policeman was at the door with a quiver in his voice and eyes tearing up.

Lilly Mae threw on a housecoat and Cliff and his 3 sisters and little brother followed in her wake like a brood of chicks following a mother hen.

“Ma’am, I’m officer Tolbert.  I have a warrant for your arrest.  Is someone here who can watch the children?” he said in measured tones.

“Let me see the warrant.”  Cliff expected his mother to look at the warrant and call his aunt to come over and watch the kids.

The State Policeman held out the clip board in his right hand.  She took the clip board and examined it carefully for a full minute.  She then calmly removed the warrant and handed the empty clipboard back to the officer.

Lilly Mae ripped the warrant into tiny pieces.  Then she said to the officer, “Turn around and bend over, you son of a bitch, so I can shove this warrant up your ass!”

What was the officer supposed to do, wrestle Lilly Mae to the floor and handcuff her with her terrified children looking on?  He was smarter than that.  He went back and told the magistrate if he insisted on her arrest, that the magistrate needed to do it himself.  He wasn’t messing with that crazy woman.

Lilly Mae would pick on Stonewall until he couldn’t take it anymore.  She accosted Stonewall with knives, hatchets, and hammers throughout Cliff’s early years. Stonewall would do his best not to hurt Lily Mae while protecting himself, but he may have slipped in a left hook on occasion.  Her daughters would say in later life that no woman should ever to be physically abused, but they didn’t hold the occasional black eye Lilly Mae ended up with against Stonewall.

For a plethora of reasons, including legitimate medical issues heightened by hypochondria and an addiction to Valium, she was institutionalized 3 times before Cliff reached junior high.  The last time for several months during which time she received electric shock treatments.  When she returned home, even though she could not remember her children’s names, it was a welcomed tradeoff for the several years of relative calm before she began to raise hell again.

Cliff’s natural inclination was to be more like his father, but it didn’t take a great deal to bring out the hell raising part of Lily Mae in him.

The receptionist returned with Antonio, a slim, impeccably dressed gentleman who had the same aristocratic bearing as she.  The couple who had come in after Cliff and Sarah had been seated immediately.

Over the years he had learned through his business dealings to look for a win/win.  If a deal didn’t work for both parties, it wasn’t good for anyone in the long run.  Also, he had learned living through his wife’s illness, that it was better to hear from the doctors before speculating on a new symptom.  Deal with the facts.  It’s too easy to let your imagination take you to places that lead to heartache and misery.  Through that, he learned to latch onto the good even when circumstances appeared very bleak, indeed.  So he waited to speak to the manager before letting his emotions get the best of him.

“I am Antonio.  Mr. Hatfield, I regret we’ve come to an impasse, but you have no reservation and I’m going to have to insist you leave the premise.”  As he spoke a very large, linebacker looking young man joined them.

“Hello, I’m Cliff Hatfield,” Cliff turned to the young man and shook his hand.

“Dan,” the young, athletic looking behemoth said returning Cliff’s smile.  Cliff had fairly large hands for being 5’10” but they were practically lost in Dan’s grip.  Cliff handed the young man his phone that had the email from Roger confirming the reservation and the payment for the wine and roses already on the screen. The young man who was evidently the bouncer in this posh restaurant that seldom needed muscle, saw the receipt and the restaurant logo and raised his eyebrows at the $3,600 total.

This job and jobs like it throughout college towns in America were perks reserved for elite athletes. Dan was an all-conference linebacker for Stanford and intended to apply to law school depending on what happened with the NFL.  He knew felony theft in California began at $950 but at the discretion of the DA could be charged as a misdemeanor.  A smile played around his lips when he thought of smug Antonio being charged for grand theft.  He liked Cliff’s cool headedness and confidence.

It was a similar cool headedness and confidence that drew people to Devil Anse Hatfield more than a century before.  It was difficult to make the connection between that mindset and the blood that was spilled in the Tug River Valley in the late 1800’s.  But the connection was there nonetheless.

“Be careful who you align yourself with,” Cliff offered. “You’re young with the world in front of you.  Life could turn out very good for you or not so good depending on your decisions.  Values are everything.  If you do the right things long enough, it always works in your favor.”

Who was this stranger to offer advice unbidden, although Dan agreed one hundred percent with the sentiment?  Cliff reminded Dan of his high school linebacker coach who he admired very much.

Cliff focused on Dan and ignored Antonio.  Antonio was quickly becoming flummoxed.  Antonio made a surprisingly good living at this restaurant.  He would soon open his own.  But he resented Dan who sat in the office and studied almost every night when he could be helping the wait staff.  Dan was from a rural town in Iowa and didn’t care at all for Antonio’s self-important air and smugness.

The manager snatched Cliff’s phone from the young man’s hands and slipped it into his pocket.  “I’ll give you your phone when you walk out the door,” he snapped at Cliff hatefully.  And then he looked at the young man and said, “Don’t let these con artists fool you.  Escort him out.”

Cliff looked at Dan measuring his next move.  As much as he hated to, he would have to take the kid out first, a blow to the Adam’s apple.  Then while the kid was recuperating, kick Antonio in the nuts and smash his face into the receptionist’s desk.  After that the kid would kick Cliff’s butt, no doubt.

Then Dan looked at Antonio and said, “Don’t you think you should get Roger involved?  He’s in his office,” he added.

Antonio was so apoplectic he couldn’t get a word out.  He would have Dan fired.  How could this insolent oaf question him?

Antonio paused at Roger’s office door for a moment composing himself.  Roger was manager/part owner in the restaurant.  Roger did not tolerate fools and a person had to have their business in order before getting him involved.  Antonio hardly ever asked Roger for assistance and considered the latitude Roger afforded him in restaurant affairs a source of great, personal pride.

Upon entering the office he handed Roger the phone.

“We have another con artist trying to get a table without a reservation,” Antonio waited, expecting Roger to tell him to get rid of him.

“Oh, yes, I took the reservation myself.  The roses are in the hallway fridge and Peter has the two bottles of Margaux Medoc Bordeaux in reserve, 2015 appellation no less.  What’s the problem?”

“The reservation is not in the book,” Antonio explained.

“How the hell did that happen?” Roger asked.  “I know I put it in there myself.  Plus it’s on the computer.”  He pulled up the reservation list.  “You know how seldom I take a reservation.  That’s how I remember.  Everybody was out with the stomach bug, the one we barely squelched the publicity about.  As a matter of fact, you helped me send confirmation to his phone.”

“It faintly rings a bell.  It was so hectic.”  In truth Antonio didn’t have a clue.  “Perhaps the reservation was not carried over in the book, and when it didn’t show up there, someone removed it from the computer listing thinking the reservation was canceled.  You know how I insist everyone follows the process.  If they did, this would have never happened.”  This was a veiled dig at Roger, being part owner and general manager, Roger insisted others follow the rules but seldom went by the book himself.

“I know, not your fault.  Just make it right,” Roger said, waving Antonio off.

As Antonio left the office you would never know by looking at him the frustration he felt and ill intentions he seethed toward Dan.  By this time Dan would be back in the office studying, the lazy bum.

The truth is, Dan, one of the hardest working athletes in collegiate football, could have continued to receive a check and not shown up for work at all.   Dan felt bad enough receiving the check and the use of the ‘company car’, a brand new black Cadillac SUV with darkly tinted windows.  Even after 2-a-day practices and injuries, he never missed a shift other than for games.  This was not lost on Roger who had figuratively adopted Dan as a son; which pissed off Antonio even more.

Antonio didn’t have a company car.  And he practically ran the damn place.

Antonio stopped dead in his tracks as he walked into the reception area and Dan stood there bantering with Cliff and Sarah.  Cliff purposefully ignored Antonio for a few seconds before turning to him.

“I spoke with Roger.  We do not know what happened concerning the reservation, but we will find a way to accommodate a very special evening for you and your most lovely companion.”  Despite what was brewing underneath, if nothing else, Antonio was the consummate professional.  He meant what he said.

“Thank you,” Cliff said simply without elaboration.  He had fingered several $100 bills from his money clip and palmed them surreptitiously so that only Antonio and perhaps the snooty receptionist could see the bills, and hopefully the denomination.

“That’s not necessary,” Dan said under his breath as they ended their “bro” hug.

“I know.  If you don’t need it, pass it on.  Bless somebody.”

Dan already had someone in mind.

Antonio and the receptionist would have something else to commiserate about after work.

Cliff and Sarah were seated on the veranda with a breathtaking view of the city.  The trees were spaced far enough apart and expertly trimmed so most tables had only a slightly impeded view. Sarah carried her extra jewelry in her purse.  She was freshening up and changing jewelry as the Hatfield/Antonio feud brewed.  Although not dressed as she would have otherwise, she was nonetheless, the most gorgeous woman in the restaurant.

“I haven’t been this hungry in a long time,” Sarah said as she listened to the waiter describe the night’s special offerings.  She had noticed on the way to the table the appetizers seemed to be served in rather small portions.

“Great, then let’s order 2 or 3 appetizers.  I’m so hungry I think 3 day old road kill would taste good right about now.”

“Yuck,” Sarah said.

“Don’t knock it till you try it,” Cliff replied.  “A good cook can make almost anything taste great.  How do you feel about seafood?  We could start with the local oysters, which are somewhat renowned and that’s arguably an understatement.  How do you feel about the cucumber avocado rolls?”

“That might be good,” Sarah offered, looking at the waiter for advice.

“Excellent choice either way,” the waiter said.

“Hmm,” Cliff was thinking out loud, “wonder if the chef would brush a thinly sliced sourdough baguette with a balsamic reduction from a steak order he already has on the grill and top it off with avocado?”

“Let me check with the chef,” the waiter obligingly offered.  The word had gone out to make it a special night for this couple.  No doubt the chef would sling something together even though he would complain bitterly about it.

When the waiter left, the sommelier arrived.  He presented the bottle of Chateau Margaux of the 2015 vintage to Cliff for inspection cradling it in a purple silk cloth.  Cliff nodded his head in approval as he read the label on the bottle.  He poured a hefty slug in Cliff’s wine glass and waited on Cliff’s approval.

Cliff swirled the wine in the glass noticing the rich red color and how the legs drained.  The fruity fragrance with tobacco undertones was pleasing. Cliff was surprised when he tasted it.  It tasted rich but not heavy and he liked that he could taste the alcohol content.  He would have been disappointed had he spent so much on nothing more than a celebrated fruit drink.

“Strange how the fruit undertones, especially the blackberry, combine with the tobacco, earthy fragrance to give such a totally satisfying taste.”

He looked at Sarah and smiled.  The smile held that I-got-lucky look a teenager gives a friend before the friend begins to insist on details.  Nothing alcohol in nature had tasted so good since the night Cliff lost his virginity to Sally Lawrence drinking Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill.

“What?” Sarah asked.

“Taste it and you’ll understand,” Cliff said.

When the waiter finished pouring, Sarah buried her nose into the glass and took a sip.

“Oh, shit,” Sarah smiled looking into the glass.

“Well put,” the waiter agreed. “2015 Chateau Margaux is an appellation all other wines will be compared to for a generation.”

Cliff and Sarah took another sip and gave each other a look like they had just shared a delightful, dirty secret.  In truth, the only thing obscene about the experience was the price of the wine.

The waiter returned with a negative decision on the appetizer.  “Our chef is very exacting and while the recipe sounds delicious, he says he would need to experiment with the proportions of each ingredient before he lets it out of his kitchen.  He would tremendously regret disappointing you if it missed the mark.”

“I could whip it up in 3 minutes if I had the ingredients,” Cliff told Sarah.

“Gerard did leave that option open,” the waiter said.  Actually, Gerard the head chef, had said, “Tell the son of a bitch he can prepare it himself if he doesn’t like what I have on the menu!”

“I always wanted to see how a high end restaurant operated behind the scenes.  C’mon, Sarah, let’s at least look,” Cliff said, just a little piqued.

The kitchen was chaotic.  It reminded Cliff of an ant hill with the ants dashing this way and that with no apparent purpose.  Yet Cliff knew in nature each ant had a job and served their purposes perfectly.  Cliff guessed you just had to be an ant to understand the order.

Sarah held closely to Cliff trying to keep out of the way of the kitchen staff.  She would intermittently bend down to whiff the aroma as they walked past the different dishes being prepared.

Cliff had been vice president of production for a major boat manufacturer.  His mind whirred as he tried to make sense of the floor layout.  He watched as employees dodged each other as they traveled for different ingredients in each dish.

It only took one walk through for Cliff to realize that the kitchen would benefit greatly from a cell layout.  An oven, a stove, along with an area for whatever vegetables that went with a particular dish should be arranged in a horseshoe shape.  Several cells of this nature should be set up.  Everything would be available within arm’s reach for the cook preparing that particular type of order.  There should be two containers of each item in the dish or dishes being prepared in a particular cell.  When one container was emptied, it would be traded for a full one that had been prepared in a central location.  One or two people would be food deliverers, circling the kitchen with a cart.  They would only have to replace the empty containers which would be labeled with the contents of the container and the station number it came from.  Someone fresh off the street could do that and it would free up the cooks to do their jobs.  Customer waiting time could be cut down to cooking time alone; improving throughput, decreasing waste, and increasing profit.

Cliff and Sarah joked and had fun dodging the kitchen staff.  It was obvious to Sarah these people gained great satisfaction from their work.  Each of their creations took on profound meaning.  To them, each dish was a work of art.  She imagined they felt something akin to what she felt when she captured the light, the mood, and ultimately the beauty of a moment in a photograph.

Sarah thought they were headed for the exit, back into the dining area, when Cliff grabbed a tray and handed it to her.  As they circled back through the kitchen he grabbed a several sourdough baguette still steaming fresh out of the oven, snatched a couple of chanterelle mushrooms, a red chili, and a piece of what appeared to be cream cheese or perhaps brie and placed them all on the tray.

“What are you doing?” Sarah asked.  She couldn’t believe Cliff was actually going to try to put together an appetizer.  It would create a mess, taste awful, interrupt the flow of the restaurant, if there was a flow to this crazy madness, and piss off the chef.  Pissing off the chef could already be checked off their to-do-list, if that was him watching them with a scowl from across the room.

“Hang with me 3 more minutes,” Cliff said, beginning to slice and dice the ingredients.  He cut the baguettes into ½” slices on a 45 degree angle.  He took a basting brush from a balsamic reduction meant for the steak dishes and dabbed it on the sourdough.  Then he expertly cut slivers of the cheese and put them on the bread and covered them with slices of avocado and chanterelles.  He then took spices from a rack seemingly at random and sprinkled them on a napkin, mixing them up and tasting them with his pinky.  When he was satisfied with the taste, he poured the spice mixture into his left palm and used his fingers from the right to carefully sprinkle the mixture evenly.  He grabbed a handful of some kind of grated cheese that sat on a nearby table and sprinkled it on as a finishing touch, and to hold it all together as the cheese melted.  He then loaded the concoction onto a bread pan that had just come out of the open face oven and shoved it back in.

He left the pan under the open flames for less than 2 minutes before he pulled it out wearing a huge oven glove.  He put the oven glove back exactly where he had found it.

Cliff quartered one of the baguettes as the chef and the waiter, who had just come back into the kitchen, approached them.

“What the hell is going on here?” the chef glowered with his arms folded.

“Hey, Holmes, you said if the son of a bitch wanted something that wasn’t on the menu to let him prepare it himself.”  It was obvious the waiter enjoyed pissing off the chef.  “Antonio says Roger screwed up their reservation and put the word out to make up for it.  And you know Roger… and Antonio.”  The Chef snickered at the mention of Antonio.

The waiter popped one of the pieces of Cliff’s quartered concoctions into his mouth.  He looked at Gerard, the chef, with that same look Cliff had given Sarah after that first sip of wine.

“What?” the chef asked, as he pick up one of the other quarters and bit into it.

“I’m impressed,” Gerard said after a few seconds.  “What do you call it?” he asked as he and the waiter ate the other 2 quarters of the baguette Cliff had sliced.

Cliff thought for a moment.  Finally he replied, “I’m originally from the border area between West Virginia and Kentucky.  The thought started off with something my grandmother used to do, but, then I started rifting on the ingredients at hand, and came up with this.  Call it what you like.”

“First time you made this?” the chef asked.

“Yes,” Cliff answered.

“Call it Hillbilly Avocado, Chanterelle Baguettes,” Sarah suggested.

“You would think the balsamic reduction would feud with avocado and chanterelles but the complexity combines to create a very complex but complete taste,” the waiter said, mocking the sommeliers.

“That reminds me, we have a crazy, wonderful bottle of wine waiting for us at our table.  Thank you for indulging us.  You are making our night very special,” Cliff said as he took Sarah by the hand with his left, and holding the plate in his other hand, began dodging the staff as they exited the kitchen.

The oysters arrived the moment they got back to their table.  They were shucked to perfection, with the meat intact and full of liquid, and sat in shells with wavy flutes that appeared more delicate than their Eastern counterparts, the oysters Cliff and Sarah were accustomed to.  They each lifted an oyster, tipped it up and slurped it down, savoring the salty oyster liquor.

Cliff raised the glass of 2015 Chateau Margaux toward Sarah and she touched her glass to his.  “Salud”, they said in unison.

“Are we going to stay with seafood as an entree or do you feel more like a steak?” Cliff asked.  “If we’re staying with seafood, I’ll order a bottle of 2008 Domaine Ramonet Montrachet.”

“Gee, Cliff,” Sarah said taking the wine list.  “We could support an orphanage for a year on what we’re spending on wine tonight.  But… it looks like the little street urchins are going hungry because I feel like the lobster, mussel, clam, and crab paella.  I saw them preparing one in the kitchen.  It’s huge.  We could share.”

“Let’s do it,” Cliff said.

He picked up another oyster and tickled the oyster lip to gain purchase on it with his lips before slurping it down.  Sarah smiled at Cliff with a twinkle in her eye as she picked up an oyster and sucked it down with an embellished slurp.

“I can’t believe what you did with these baguettes,” Sarah said, after she bit into one.

“They turned out ok,” Cliff said.

“I didn’t know what to expect on this trip, Cliff.  To tell you the truth, I still don’t.  But I gotta’ say, so far so good.”  Sarah toasted Cliff and the waiter poured the last of the French red from the bottle into their glasses.

Cliff ordered their food and then said to the waiter, “We’re staying in France but we’re taking the train from Bordeaux to Burgundy.  A bottle of the 2008 Domaine Ramonet Montrachet, please.”

“My congratulations on a most excellent choice, sir,” the waiter said.

As the alcohol kicked in, the conversation moved past the trivial and they began to reveal more intimate aspects of their lives they seldom shared with others.

“What happened to you in Junior High,” Sarah asked.

Cliff had gotten over talking about his childhood and early adolescent struggles years ago, and was able to share freely.

“My parents fought like cats and dogs.  They were on and off again, especially after grade school.  Us kids got shoved off to relatives for months at a time when mom had her nervous breakdowns.  I was grandma Hatfield’s favorite, but took the brunt of a lot of verbal abuse when we were with my mom’s sisters.  My mom’s dad, Grandpa Vance, was a drinker and abused his family and screwed up that side pretty bad.  I don’t know when it started, but the Bible talks about the sins of the father being passed down to the 3rd and 4th generations.  Well, I say amen to that.

“You were best buds for a time with Anne Lou (Cliff’s sister), didn’t you guys talk?” Cliff asked.

“We did, and I knew she held hard feelings toward your mom, but she kept that part of her life to herself,” Sarah said, reaching to hold Cliff’s hand.

Cliff drew it away and continued talking.

“I was a decent athlete, not because of talent, but because I was in better shape and worked harder at it than my competitors.  Coach Adkins, our football defensive line and high school wrestling coach, says I was a better running back than a wrestler.

“If I had been turned different, if I didn’t have the influence of Grandma Hatfield and my dad, I’d probably be in jail right now.  I think it was Grandma Hatfield’s prayers that saved me. “

“Anyway, as my wrestling career took off, I was state champion in the 145 lb. weight class in high school if you remember (somehow, Sarah was unaware of that), and came in 3rd in the NCCAA wrestling tournament my senior year in college (by that time Sarah was immersed in her budding modeling career and was again unaware).  With that success, I slowly recovered from the family funk.   But more confidence brought on new challenges.  I took full advantage of my notoriety and slept with an indeterminate number of women.  There was a part of me that reveled in it, but eventually I became disgusted with myself and began to pray about it.  Long story short, I asked Jesus into my life, met my wife, and was faithful to her from the moment I laid eyes on her until her last labored breath.  We had a great marriage and raised two well rounded boys, although neither will hunt and fish with me any longer.  You know the story how my wife died from a brain tumor.  Now I’m just looking for a friend to spend time with.  I’m trying to finish strong.  I could have 20 yrs. or 2 weeks.  My biggest dilemma is whether to continue to spend money like it’s going out of style or risk running out in a few years.”

Hmmm, Sarah thought, so he was a tongue tied idiot and a sex crazed asshole.  He matured rather nicely, though.  She thought about that first dance with Cliff, her very first dance with a boy, and the way he was then, and how he had become a bungling idiot in high school, all he had been through, and who he seemed to have matured in to.  What a trip for the poor guy.  Although she felt great compassion, she wasn’t buying it entirely, not just yet anyway.

“What about you,” Cliff asked.  Considering what she shared on Facebook and in their texts, he wasn’t expecting her to share much more than she had already.

“You knew me,” Sarah said.  “I was the baton twirler.  My father was a lawyer and eventually elected judge and eventually to the State Senate.  Mom and Dad both died of cancer.”

She pulled out her phone and showed Cliff a series of pictures of her and her father from the time she was a skinny little girl until just before he passed, tall but bent, evidently very ill.

“Mom passed 20 years ago, Dad 8 years.  Dad was an exceptional man.  Oh, how I miss him! My sisters all married well and their kids are mostly married and providing lots of little grand nieces and nephews.  I was lucky with a great agent right out of high school and got busy modeling right away.  Most people are surprised when they learn I earned a law degree on the side and worked for the government for a time after I started having kids.  But I kept my shape and got pulled back into modeling after several years, mostly for beauty products that photo shoots could be done for in the studio.  I enjoyed the work for Uncle Sam, but it’s not something I wanted to do long term with my daughters growing up. As you know my husband was a model.  He was beautiful.  We were the “it” couple for a while in advertising when a couple was needed. He continued to work right up until he died 6 months ago.  He fooled around always.  He was gold when I was with him, but soon as he was out of eyesight, it was as if my daughters and I never existed.  For whatever reason, we continued with the marriage. It’s not like we stayed together for our girls, he was never much of a father. I guess it would be more accurate to say we just never bothered to get a divorce.  I have an apartment in New York and still go into the office of my modeling firm when I’m there, which is less and less as the grandkids grow older.  I was the managing partner for 12 years.  But I have capable people to handle the day to day now.    My grandchildren are so much fun!  I have a home in Raleigh where my daughters  live.  My oldest, daughter’s husband is a novelist and professor in the literature department at Duke.  My youngest is a wild child, God bless her heart, and still sowing her oats.”

Cliff listened intently.  He waited for her to say something about her father being disbarred and going to prison for 5 years for election fraud.  Everybody in Lincoln County loved Clinton Brogden, and her mother like herself, had been a world class beauty.  Clinton didn’t do anything the other politicians weren’t doing.  He was at the wrong place at the wrong time and eventually found himself wrapped in a web of lies and deceit while attempting to cover up a crime that he could have probably plead out of.  And she hardly mentioned her mother.  What was up with that? And Cliff always had a sneaking suspicion that Sarah had a thing for other girls. One evening he had hung out late with Sarah and his sister smoking pot and drinking her dad’s bourbon.  She and his sister disappeared for an hour at one point.  When they returned, their hair was up in towels and they seemed super relaxed.

When Cliff asked where they’d been and asked, “Shower?” They looked at each other and smiled mischievously.  If it hadn’t been his sister he would have asked for details.  As it was, he simply felt embarrassed.

But, hey, that was Sarah’s business.  He knew she had been a model but had no idea she was partner in a modeling agency or that she had earned a law degree.  It was curious to Cliff she hardly mentioned her mother and that she was still unabashedly daddy’s little girl.

Cliff asked about Sarah’s grandchildren, and like most grandmother’s she pulled up pictures on her phone and talked effusively for a few minutes before she caught herself.

But truthfully he was more intrigued that she had earned a law degree.  And worked for the government?

“I was recruited while I was still in law school.  A lot of doors were open because of my looks… and my grades,” she added.

“Yes, smart and pretty are no doubt a winning combination,” Cliff agreed.

“They wanted me for my face more than my law skills.  It turned out to be exciting work but not something you want to do when you have small children.”

“I’m intrigued,” Cliff said, leaving the question open, wanting to find out more about that part of Sarah’s life.

Sarah hesitated a moment.  Finally she gave him a level stare and said, “I was a spy, an operative for the CIA.”

“Go on,” Cliff said deadpan.

“Yeah, right,” Sarah laughed.  “I was little more than a clerk in the AG’s office.  Occasionally I would take part in entertaining some of the high powered lawyers we dealt with.  Made a lot of good contacts in that job.  A couple of them ended up financing my modeling firm initially.”

Most of the time people will exaggerate a story.  There was something about the way Sarah shared that made Cliff suspect there was much more to the story than she was telling.

They looked at each other across the table smiling.  Sarah had no intention of telling Cliff the other things she did for the government.  How she had traveled to exotic locations to gather information from unsuspecting men (she didn’t feel it was cheating on her husband when she was doing it in the service of her country) on a range of concerns, from business to political matters.  After all, business and politics were pretty much the same.  In the end it all came down to money and power, right?

Except for men like Cliff.  She had read articles he had written on his website about what people inherently need from work.  He called it ‘Right Work’.  According to him, it was all about integrity, and values, and finding your purpose in life.  What he wrote, she knew in a perfect world was the way it was supposed to be.  That’s how she wanted the world to operate.  But somewhere along the way it always got screwed up. She wondered if there was anyone anywhere who would not succumb to greed, power, and lust for very long when temptation presented itself.  Even Cliff.  Especially Cliff on the lust part she was beginning to hope.

Sarah’s attention was drawn from Cliff’s eyes to the table which was positioned to the side of Cliff.  Sarah had more of a straight-on view, Cliff needed to turn his head to see the 2 men who sat there.

“They’re Venezuelan,” Cliff said.  “I’ve been trying to ignore them since we came out of the kitchen.  I caught a couple of phrases only a Venezuelan would use.  ‘Chamo’ and ‘Chama’ is a dead giveaway.  And they keep saying things like, ‘que arrecho! Que fino mi pana! Que hembra’, referring to you I’m sure.  I had a roommate in graduate school who was Venezuelan.  Crazy, crazy stuff going on in that country.  My friend’s son was injured in a protest, almost killed.”

Cliff turned to the men and made sure the 2 men sitting at the table next to them could see him and raised his glass.

“Que se joda Chavez y que se requete joda Maduro (Screw Chavez and double screw Maduro),” he mouthed out loud so they could read his lips.  The men setting across from them were evidently body guards.  Cliff took those 2 men and 2 other men setting several tables away all as body guards.  If the rude, loud mouthed Venezuelans had been like 99% of their countrymen, they would have raised their glass in agreement.  But their faces soured which turned Cliff’s stomach.

As he often did during a study break, Dan took a minute to survey the security screens.  Dan was aware of the seating and where the body guards sat when guests were accompanied with muscle.  He saw Cliff raise his glass at the table to the side and slightly behind him and Sarah, and how the 2 men setting against the wall had shifted menacingly in their seats.

Cliff stood and nodded to the other 2 body guards setting several tables away.  They appeared to be the protectorates of someone at the table of old men near them.  Those body guards took it as a professional courtesy that Cliff was warning them something was about to go down.  They stood simultaneously just as Dan walked into the room.  Dan took a position behind and slightly to the right of the Venezuelan’s muscle.

Dan nodded to Cliff and when Cliff looked at the old men’s body guards they nodded, too.

Sarah picked up her purse and slipped her hand into a side pocket and fingered the safety off the bear spray and found the trigger.  It was white and shaped like a small pistol which made it almost impossible to spray herself.

The Venezuelans had no idea what they had gotten themselves into.  It all came down in an instant and they gave each other a “oh, shit” look.

Cliff had done well to ignore them as long as he had.  When they got Sarah’s attention it was the last straw.  The Lilly Mae part of Cliff was about to open a can of whup ass.  But Cliff still had a thread of Stonewall keeping him from stepping over the edge.

Cliff walked to the Venezuelan’s table.  He spoke in broken but passable Spanish.  “Please, continue to enjoy your dinner, have a wonderful evening.  But if you make one more pass at my date, or if I hear one more lewd comment in Spanish or English coming from this table, I’ll take care of both of you personally while by associates handle your friends.

The older of the 2 men made a motion with his hands as if to say “Calm down,”   and then said something in Spanish in a very conciliatory tone Cliff didn’t quite catch, but was able still interpreted accurately.

Cliff walked back to the table and sat down and smiled at Sarah as if he had just returned from a friendly conversation with old friends.  “Now that that’s out of the way, where were we?”

“Who the hell are you?  Just when I think I have you figured out, you scare the hell out of me.  And I don’t scare easily,” Sarah said.

“I was picking up bits and pieces of their conversation since the time they were seated.  I ignored them until they got your attention and that really got on my nerves.  I’m wonderfully cool headed until I’m pushed over the edge, then the Lily Mae comes out in me.  It ain’t pretty, I know.”

“Did you know the 2 guys were their body guards,” Sarah asked, implying he didn’t know what he was getting into.

“I knew that, I didn’t know Dan would be there to back me up.  I like that kid.”

“He seems to like you, too.  You seem to have that effect on a lot of people.”  Sarah smiled.  Cliff smiled back.

They enjoyed the rest of their dinner immensely.

At the hotel, Sarah was pleased to find Cliff had booked their rooms side by side.  Cliff held Sarah’s door open and she walked halfway into her room and turned, more than half expecting Cliff to follow.

“Sarah,” Cliff said from the door, “it’s late and I’m beat.  I’m still not 100% after the chemo.  I had a wonderful time tonight.  We have a limo at 9:00 that’ll take us to where we’re catching a helicopter that’s flying us over San Francisco, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate, and then on to the best vineyards in the Sonoma and Napa Valleys.”

Sarah had not intend to sleep with Cliff…tonight.  But she wanted him to at least try.  She found herself toying with the neck of her blouse thinking what it would be like to have his strong arms wrapped around her body.

She walked back to the doorway and grabbed his collar pulling his face close to hers.  She touched her nose to his and hesitated, inviting a kiss.

“Want to meet in the hotel restaurant for breakfast at 7:30?” Cliff asked, not pulling away.  Sarah thought about suggesting they have breakfast in bed, but waited, fairly certain Cliff would suggest it.

He gave her a brief tap on the lips and said, “Join me in the restaurant downstairs in the morning or we can pick you up something on the way.”  And he left for his room next door.

Did he still want only companionship, Sarah wondered?  After tonight, Cliff was an enigma.  Such a nice guy but at the same time a powder keg waiting to explode.  Sarah wondered if he was the same way sexually.  A wonderfully big explosion she told herself, she guessed, she hoped.

The next morning Cliff was surprised to find Sarah in the hotel gym at 6:30.  Cliff did 30 minutes on the elliptical while Sarah did the stair stepper.  Sarah left to get dressed to meet him for breakfast.  While she was readying herself, he spent another 30 minutes doing abs, benching, and curling.  Cliff had always been in shape.  The doctor explained his body stored fat internally, around the organs, including in the circulatory system; hence the appearance of being slim and in shape but still needing the triple bypass surgery.  It was in his genetic makeup.  The same with the cancer.  There was nothing he ever did that put him in a high risk category for either lung cancer or cardiovascular disease.

A limousine waited to take them to the heliport.  Cliff worked it out so that they would share the chopper with one other couple.  A private chopper had not been available.  The gentleman looked to be in his 80’s, she much, much younger.  Mid-40’s was a good guess, still beautiful but with the bloom fading from the rose, unlike Sarah who was older but still had a flush of youth about her.  The other couple were quiet.  Sarah in an attempt to make small talk asked where they were from.  “East Coast,” the lady shared with a nondescript eastern, European accent, but offered nothing more as they pressed close to the windows as the helicopter hovered over Alcatraz.

After flying over San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, they toured 4 of the most exclusive wineries in the Napa and Sonoma valleys.  At the last winery, as they waited for their host to arrive, a live duo was playing 60’s music.

As they began to play Hot Fun in the Summer Time, by Sly the Family Stone, Cliff looked at Sarah and asked, “Is there any significance in this song for you?”

“I can’t believe you remember the first song we danced to after all these years.  Forty-eight years exactly, Cliff.  I know because it was at Cathy Adkin’s birthday party.  I wished her happy birthday on Facebook this morning.”

Cliff took Sarah by the hand and they danced right there by their table.  They were shocked when the couple they shared the helicopter with stood up and danced, too.  The old man’s nimble moves insinuated a much younger fellow.

Their host arrived as the song finished.  He and the staff applauded more for the couples dancing than for the band.  Cliff and Sarah would have danced again given the opportunity, but they had a vineyard to tour and wine to taste.

On the flight back, Sarah nestled into Cliff’s chest and he nuzzled his cheek to her forehead.

It would have been the most natural thing to do, for Sarah to tilt her head inviting Cliff’s kiss.  But after last night, she wasn’t sure he would have responded.  She felt so comfortable, so safe in his arms.  This was a man who had loved a woman unconditionally, exuberantly, and been faithful for 25 years.  Had his wife realized what she had in Cliff?  There was a part of Sarah that wanted to pull Cliff closer and never let him go.

Cliff wanted to feel Sarah’s soft lips pressed against his.  He wanted to kiss her passionately.  He imagined what would follow at the hotel if he had.  He sensed they had already formed a soul tie.  He realized he was kidding himself when he thought they could come on this trip and not form a close emotional bond.  Either that or end up utterly disliking each other.

But Cliff wasn’t ready to fall in love again.  His old girlfriend, who he had met a month to the day after his wife had passed, said from the very beginning that she wasn’t interested in a long term, serious relationship and that she would never marry again.  But she saw him through 6 rounds of chemo, and afterwards when he should have begun to feel better, a month passing kidney stones; which was as bad, maybe worse, than the chemo.

After being together several months, Cliff hoped his girlfriend had changed her mind.  But by the time his doctor announced he was in remission, it had become obvious that his girlfriend didn’t reciprocate his feelings.  For Cliff, recovering from the chemo was not nearly as painful as recovering from a broken heart.  How much could one man take?  Cliff knew how great love could be.  Now he was reminded how much it could hurt.  With Sarah, it was not that he was afraid to fall in love again, he would always choose to love.

But choose was the key word.  He made a very good choice when he chose to marry his wife.  He never regretted it, not even for a second.  But he didn’t choose to fall in love with his old girlfriend.  It just happened… at one of the most vulnerable times of his life.  Still, even though it ended in heartache, he was tremendously thankful that she had been there to help him through the cancer and chemo.

Looking back, Cliff blamed only himself for the heartache.  His girlfriend made the hellacious time of chemo bearable.  Who was he kidding?  There were parts of the experience that were downright wonderful because of her and his friends.  However, that still didn’t make the relationship with his girlfriend right.

And now, Cliff intuitively knew the time wasn’t right with Sarah.  Maybe later, and maybe never.  So be it.

But Sarah hadn’t been through all that Cliff had been through.  She wasn’t as wise as Cliff.  She was ready to let nature take its course.  “Kiss me, you fool,” Sarah thought as she remembered a line from Gone with the Wind.  She wanted to turn her head and look on Cliff’s face, to read his mind, but dared not, afraid of what she might learn.

She was no Scarlett O’Hara and Cliff, bless his heart, was no Rhett Butler.  No, at this very moment, in her mind, Cliff was far superior to Rhett.

They spent the evening on the waterfront.  Cliff had booked a guide who knew the area well.  They synced their phones and the driver followed when they decided to walk.  When they came across a bar that specialized in high end bourbons, Cliff went a little crazy over the selection available.  He ordered a double of Black Maple Hill Reserve 16- Year-Old Small Batch and a double of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 year.

“You can’t get Maple Hill Reserve outside California.  I tried to get a bottle a few years ago and couldn’t do it.  I’ve had Pappy’s on a couple of occasions.  I want to try them side by side.  Pappy’s purported to be the best bourbon in the world with Black Maple Hill 20 Year a close second.  Would you like to try it?”

“You know me, I’m stuck on French red.  I hope you’re not one of those redneck boys from back home who want to fight when they get drunk,” Sarah said, just a bit apprehensive.

“At heart, I’m a lover not a fighter.  I tend to become more affectionate when I drink,” he said.

Cliff took a sip of the Pappy, smacked his lips, and followed it up with a hit of the Black Maple Hill Reserve.  Then he turned up the Black Maple Hill Reserve and downed it to the last drop.  Without hesitation he did the same to the Pappy.

“Well, then, Cliff, let me get you another,” Sarah said, looking him dead in the eyes.

Cliff shuddered and said, “Ah, it hurts so good!”

Sarah had a vodka and tonic.  If she could match his mood, his level of intoxication, the evening would be more fun.  But that’s the last drink they had.  They danced when the music and the mood struck.  Sarah and Cliff forgot the crowds around them.  It was as if they were 10-yrs.-old again.

But after a couple of hours the buzz began to wear off.  Instead of having another and dancing all night, Cliff insisted they call it a night at 11:00 PM.

Tomorrow would be another busy day he promised without sharing the surprise.

They lingered at the door of Sarah’s room longer than the night before.  It was obvious Cliff had no intention of following Sarah into her room or inviting her to his.  Later, both thought of the other as they tried to quiet their racing minds as they lay in bed alone.  Cliff was tempted but held resolute to his convictions.

This feeling was new to Sarah.  She had become adept at fighting off men’s advances, able to parlance an advance from a man without shattering his fragile ego.  Cliff’s behavior was something new, something totally unexpected.  Perhaps that is what made her want him more.

____________________________________________

Chapter 4

Good and Evil

 

A shiny red Mercedes SL 550 waited for them the next morning.  They would drive up the Pacific Coast Highway, take a quick side trip to the redwood forest, then he would prepare lunch on a deserted stretch of beach, and they would watch the sun set from the veranda of a beautiful little bed and breakfast overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

“I like your choice of rental car,” Sarah said the next morning in front of the hotel.  “I almost bought a SL 550 but ended staying with a new model BMW.”

“I’ve got a tired old Ford F-150.  It pulls my flats boat and it’s good for getting around in the woods.  I gave our oldest son the family SUV after my wife died while he was a senior in college.  I was about to trade the truck when my wife passed and just never got around to it,” Cliff answered.  “I will eventually buy a new vehicle but I’ll keep that truck.

“It’s just dawning on me that this trip is nothing unusual for you.  It’s a bucket list trip for me.  But for you, anything less would have been below par, I think,” Cliff said.

“We both crawled out from under the same rock.  Don’t make me to be something different,” Sarah said.  “In ways I was blessed a little more than some others.  But sometimes those blessings carry a curse.  I think I deserve more credit for not letting the blessings do me in than for any intentional thing I did to improve my lot in life.

“Cliff, I have lived high on the hog,” Sarah said, exaggerating her hillbilly accent she had worked so hard to lose all those years ago, “but I wouldn’t characterize my life as a good life.”  Sarah took a deep breath.  “My relationship with my husband, the back biting and jealousy in my profession, what I did working for the government; those things were rough.  A lot of that makes for an unsettling life.  And then you wake one morning in a penthouse apartment and ask yourself, was it worth it?”

“And did I invest my life in something that makes the world a better place?” Cliff offered.

“Pretty much.  I’m proud of the business I created.  I’ve been able to help some of those girls.  I enjoy photography.  And I’m comfortable financially, but it seems like something, somehow, is missing.  I can’t put my finger on it,” Sarah said.

“My family didn’t appreciate the gold mine we were setting on until my wife’s diagnosis.  Relationships and love is what makes the difference, Sarah.  My wife and I finally realized how much we were loved by our friends and family through tragedy.  We came to appreciate what we had built as a family. Right after the diagnosis, I thought life was over as we knew it.  Thank God it was.  We began to live deeper and better than ever before.

“And, Sarah, I don’t mean to sound all religious, but God was right there with us through it all.  How can people, not only survive, but prosper emotionally through that kind of pain and turmoil?  We did.  That to me proves as much as anything else that God exists and how much he loves us.  Loves all of us, Sarah.”

“What are we doing here, Cliff?” Sarah asked, the fact that they were so different congealing solidly in her mind, a thought that concerned her from the very moment they had begun to communicate again.

“I don’t know about you but I’m having a great time,” Cliff replied.  “Let’s enjoy the moment.  I got involved way too soon with someone after my wife died.  It didn’t end well for me.  I don’t want to instigate a bad decision on your part to satisfy a momentary physical need I have, or to satisfy an emotional need we both have with something that will eventually turn sour.  Companionship, friendship is what we have.  We’re forming a soul tie that could last a lifetime if we don’t turn it into something that it should never have become in the first place.”

“Humph,” Sarah uttered involuntarily.  “You’re the kind of man every woman dreams of until they get him, Cliff.  There is a part of you I find fascinating and a part of you that is utterly frustrating.  I imagine we’re about to embark on a frustrating but magnificent journey.”

Indeed, they were.

Cliff checked the trunk to make sure it had been loaded with the supplies he had requested; a fishing rod and tackle, a sand flea rake, a cooler with cheese and bread, paper plates and plastic utensils, a blanket, and a small hibachi grill and self-lighting charcoal.  And 2 very expensive bottles of wine, one white, one red.

When planning the trip, Cliff struggled with the decision whether to drive north or south from San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway.  Driving south, there would be congested stretches but more attractions, although the views would still be grand and the ocean would be warmer.  But as Cliff thought about what he wanted from the trip, a secluded drive was more appealing.  Driving north, as well as dazzling ocean vistas from dizzying cliffs, sections of the road cut inland up through redwood forests. That’s the route Cliff chose to take.

Like everyone else in the history of the universe, Cliff and Sarah were not prepared for the sight as they rounded a curve and suddenly found the Pacific Ocean laying before them stretching infinitely off into the horizon.  In the distance, the thin ribbon of highway stretched like a snake high in a tree on thin branches around the cliff face, disappearing into nothingness far, far up the coast.

Cliff had a similar experience one time before.  It was his first trip with his sons after retiring.  They visited the national parks in the southwest.  As they drove nearer the west rim of the Grand Canyon, traffic picked up.  When they finally found a parking space, they dodged through crowds to reach the rim of the canyon.  As they approached the rim, the crowd parted and Cliff realized why people came to this place from all over the world…even though it was chocked so full of people.

You could live a full life having never having seen the Grand Canyon, but when you do, you know you’re somehow much better for it.  It ranks right up there with boot camp, marriage, having kids, and losing a loved one.  Until you’ve done it, you just don’t know.

Cliff pulled off the road, opened the trunk, and pulled out a camera from his luggage.  It was a Sony A7RIII.  Sarah folded her arms and shook her head when she saw that 2 of the 5 lenses he had brought were Cannon.  When Cliff saw her reaction he picked up one of the felt lens cases and held it up.

“The A7RIII is the best camera body on the market for the price, and I can still use my Canon lenses with this Metabones adapter.  I didn’t like crawling in the dirt trying to frame a picture.  Canon doesn’t offer a tilt screen.”

“Canon has a wireless system via your phone built in.  You have full control of the camera and you don’t have to crawl in the dirt.  I think it’s better than bending down to look into a tilting screen,” Sarah explained.  “I grew up with a Canon.  I can’t imagine changing.”

“I just about quit using my camera when I bought my latest IPhone.”  Cliff stood back after he had the camera and glass laid out on the back seat of the SL 550.  “Take a picture of me leaning on the car with that in the background,” he said, referring to the panorama in the distance.

Sarah chose the lens and assembled the camera with deft fingers.  She took a minute to familiarize herself with the touch controls of the LCD screen.

Cliff was wearing a white Columbia, long sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up to just below his elbow, with the top 2 buttons left open.  His jeans were form fitting and grey, and he wore a pair of grey, suede-like loafers and dark sunglasses.  As he leaned against the car, a sudden breeze pressed his shirt against his body and the shadows accentuated his broad, full chest and slim waist.  For a moment Sarah thought about asking him to remove his shirt but refrained. Geeze, and this guy’s 61, she thought.

Sarah found everything about Cliff attractive.  She was sure he knew she was available for more than simple companionship.  She didn’t want Cliff in the usual romantic sense.  All she really wanted was for him to overtly show his desire for her.  That was the way all other men reacted to her.  She knew how to play that role.  Cliff was an enigma.  She was becoming frustrated.  And now did Cliff want trophy pictures with her?

“So far you haven’t taken the first photo on this trip, Cliff.  What gives?” Sarah asked.

“You haven’t either,” Cliff said.  “You’ve led the most public life of anyone I know personally, and you’re also the most private.  If you wanted your picture taken with me you would have said something.  But imagine we take a bunch of pictures and I somehow end up in a serious, long term relationship again.  Can you imagine how my love interest will feel when she sees the pictures of us together, sharing what we’ve shared?  She will always be wondering in the back of her mind how she stacks up to you.  Once a picture or a story I’ve written is out there, they have funny ways of showing up in unexpected places.  If something crazy between us happens, there will be plenty of time for pictures.”

“Ok, you are 100% correct.”  Sarah was relieved.  “I’ve received too much grief from being in the public eye.  I hate when old friends paste my pictures on social media.  You wouldn’t believe the comments I get.  I appreciate your discretion. Just one picture for me, though, on my phone.” Sarah snuggled comfortably into Cliff’s embrace, held out her phone and took the selfie.

There were other views, all incredible.  One of them was Sarah sitting next to Cliff, her pony tail waving in the wind in the cherry red with black accents, Mercedes SL 550 as they traveled up the coast.

It was a different world when they left the coast and snaked their way up winding highway 101 into the Pacific Coast Range, and encountered the first towering redwoods in the Humboldt State Forest.  On the way in, they passed 2nd and 3rd growth forests, younger trees, still impressive.

“Answer me this,” Cliff asked Sarah as they reached the old growth forest with towering cathedral like trees, “would the sky stay up there without the redwoods holding it up?”

“The thought never occurred to me until just now.  I don’t think so,” Sarah mused.  “If the sky didn’t fall something worse would happen.  It hurts my heart having seen clear cuts and now seeing this.  Imagine the grandeur of this continent before colonial times.”

“It’s amazing what people will do for a buck.  It effects not only us, but our children and generations to come.  What will our grandchildren think of ours and previous generations?  On the bright side, redwoods are the tallest and fastest growing trees on earth. And some of those big ones are over 1000-years-old.  It is scary flying over the country and seeing how much the landscape has been altered.  I wonder how long until things are so far out of kilter it effects the environment in ways we haven’t imagined,” Cliff was thinking out loud.

“Hush.  I don’t want to think about it.  Let’s just enjoy where we are and what we have for today.  Who knows what tomorrow may bring.  Who knows what might happen in the next hour,” Sarah said.

“‘Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry’, Ecclesiastes 8:15,’” Cliff quoted King Solomon in the Bible.

They pulled onto the Avenue of Giants from highway 101.  It was awe inspiring to Sarah but for Cliff it was like being in a holy place and he could feel the presence of God.  Cliff parked in one of the many pull offs.  Sarah opened the door and walked to the base of one of the ancient trees.  A tree that was hundreds of years old when Columbus asked King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to finance his exploration for a new route to India.

Cliff sat for a moment, overwhelmed by the feeling of gratitude and love he felt toward God.  Friends at times had compared him to Job, but Cliff had no such thoughts. Each turn in life’s journey; his wife’s illness, the tumor recurrence, his triple bypass surgery, his wife’s passing, and then his cancer diagnosis, and going through chemo and a month of kidney stones, God was right there with Cliff.  Parts were painful and horrifying, but other parts, Cliff felt, were some of the best times of his life.  Cliff’s faith, and God’s faithfulness, especially in times of turmoil, had made those hard times bearable, meaningful; some of the finest times he could remember.

Cliff took a towel from the console and wiped his eyes.  Sarah didn’t notice Cliff’s emotional condition because she too was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the trees herself.

As Cliff was climbing from the car, a red Jeep with a lift kit, and huge off road tires and the top down, screeched to a stop and parked in the spot next to the Mercedes.  There were 10 other spots where the driver could have parked.   Cliff was cut off from the view of Sarah.  It reminded Cliff of what a predator might do when they had singled out their prey.

The driver got out of the Jeep and made sure the sound of the corner of the Jeep door scraping against the Mercedes was audible.  He looked at Cliff with an evil smile, asking, hoping for trouble.

Sarah had been trained well when she worked for the government.  She was taught to always evaluate a situation and make a measured judgement before responding.  Evidently rednecks looking for trouble, both over 6’, a NMMA and a mixed martial arts gym sticker on the front bumper.  Both men probably in their mid to late 20’s.  They wore t-shirts and were muscled up.  Sarah reached out and leaned against a limb, trying to judge whether she could break it off to use in case Cliff couldn’t talk their way out of trouble.  As she leaned against it, she heard it give way and crack.  Seemed it would break cleanly.

This would be a rare moment Cliff would use a gun… if he had one.  He was not in a fighting mood after being overwhelmed by the cathedral like holiness in this place.  How could he diffuse the situation?  Not with threats.  There were 2 of them and they seemed to be itching for a fight.  While there was very little traffic this day, someone could still drive up and park nearby at any moment.  So he didn’t think they intended to rape Sarah here, and he didn’t think they intended to kidnap her either.  They just want to pick a fight, failing that, to intimidate, Cliff reasoned.

Cliff walked around the car as the biggest one, the driver, sat on the hood of the SL 550 and made it a point to audibly grind his gritty, mud-caked boot into the front bumper.  Cliff’s preference by far would have been to stall until another car pulled in and perhaps the interlopers would have left.  But the guy kicked Cliff in the ass as he came around the car on his way to Sarah, unleashing the Lilly Mae in him.  It wouldn’t have mattered if Cliff was looking down the barrel of a .45, he still would have hit the S.O.B.  Cliff breathed a quick prayer, “Lord be with me,” as he pivoted on his toes to give his swing maximum impact.

This guy was used to intimidating defenseless tourists, it was sport for him and his partner.  He did not expect Cliff to turn around and hit him harder than he had ever been hit before, all in one swift motion.  His nose was broken and was suddenly pouring blood.  This infuriated the young man.  He stood just as Cliff hit him again with a round-house right and then kick in in the groin.  As the big guy bent over in pain, Cliff would have kneed him in the face, but thought twice about bloodying the knee of his pants.  So he kick him in the side of the head with the sole of his feet and the young man toppled over holding his crotch, blood dripping onto the asphalt.

Cliff looked around expecting the other guy to attack him.  He saw Sarah lean against the branch breaking it off.  She flipped it around in her hands in a baton twirling move and deftly smacked the other man in the back of the head as he came toward Cliff.  Sarah whacked him, oh so hard, twice more before Cliff could reach her.

“Stop, you’ll kill him!” Cliff shouted as he ran toward her and got between Sarah and the interloper.

The guy had landed in front of the Jeep.  Cliff grabbed him by the back of his jeans and pulled him over to his friend who had his head in the pavement, bleeding profusely, still holding his nuts.

The Jeep keys were still in the ignition.  Cliff drove the Jeep over the curb to the edge of the woods and put the vehicle in neutral.  He removed the keys and threw them in the woods and then pushed the Jeep over the hill.  It went 25 yards before slamming into a boulder.

Cliff went to the 2 guys still slumped in front of the Mercedes.  He leaned over them and grabbed the biggest one, the driver, by the back of his head, pulling his blond, curly locks so he could look him in the eye.  “You have no idea who you’re dealing with or what you’ve gotten yourselves into.  Who knows what may happen if I ever encounter you again.  My Father is apt to rain down heaven and hell on you as it is.  I’ll put in a word for you.  I give you no guarantees but my Father is merciful.  I suggest you tell whatever authority shows up that you exhibited bad judgement and your vehicle ended up over the mountain.  They’ll fill in the blanks.  You won’t even have to lie.”

Cliff had intended to leave before the police arrived but the fight was completely gone out of these guys.  He didn’t want them coming after him and Sarah, so he had put their vehicle over the mountain.  But the fight was so far gone from them, he decided to stay.  He wanted to make sure they didn’t tell the authorities some cockamamie story that he and Sarah would have to worry about later.

Cliff pulled his phone out and called 911.  A park ranger was there within 5 minutes, an ambulance arrived 20 minutes after that.  Cliff told the ranger the guy’s vehicle evidently ran over the barrier and down into the woods.  Cliff stood behind the ranger as the young men repeated the story.  The ranger had received complaints about these guys before from tourists.  The ranger shook his head wondering how anyone could be so stupid.  The ranger smiled to himself, serves them right, he thought.

Perhaps not the whole truth was told, but in the end nobody told a lie.  The first responders were still administering to the foolish young men as Cliff and Sarah pulled away.

“They deserved worse,” Sarah said.

“I’m glad I haven’t always gotten what I deserve,” Cliff countered.  “I thought you were going to kill that guy.  Remind me never to get on your bad side.”

“Who knows what those guys intended?  I couldn’t believe it when you hit the big one.  You not only broke his nose, you completely destroyed it.  He’ll need plastic surgery to get it straight again.  He wasn’t a bad looking guy… until he messed with a Hatfield.  Remember when I said you never know what the next hour may bring?  My gosh, you really don’t,” Sarah was still jacked from the encounter.

“That was a lucky shot on my part.  Don’t kid yourself, it could have turned out way different.  Who knows what would have happened if you hadn’t had my back.  Thank you,” Cliff was sincerely appreciative.  He knew better than to hit that guy, but his Lilly Mae genes kicked in and he couldn’t help himself.  His mom had known it wouldn’t end well for her either when she picked fights with Stonewall, but she couldn’t help herself, and did it anyway.

“Who knows,” Sarah said.  “Maybe it was an answer to his mother’s prayers.  You heard what the ranger said.  Those guys will think twice before picking on a tourist again.”

“No doubt, the Lord works in mysterious ways,” Cliff agreed.

They followed the Eel River back to the coast.  In different places cars were parked by the road and fishermen stood waist deep in the river hauling their lines, fly fishing for fresh run salmon and steelhead.

Cliff made Sarah uneasy on the drive back to the coast.  His focus was on the river, not on the road.

“You want me to drive,” Sarah asked as he drifted into the oncoming lane for the umpteenth time.

“You mind if I make a couple of casts.  I bought a license online and spent stupid money on a bunch of trout and salmon stamps.  Just a few minutes.  I’m cooking for us on the beach and if we’re not careful it’ll get late.  I hate the thought of coming all this way, though, spending money on licenses and not taking a minute to fish,” Cliff said.

“Okay,” Sarah said, a bit unsure.  Her grandfather had been a fisherman and hunter and had been famous for saying, “one last cast a hundred times before finally giving up.”  She hoped Cliff wasn’t the same way.

Cliff pulled into a wide space by a bridge where no other cars were parked and no one else was fishing.  He opened the trunk and pulled out the spinning rod and tied on a lure, a rooster tail, he called it.  He tucked a plastic box of lures into his jeans in the small of his back.  They picked their way down the steep bank to the water’s edge.

“You ever fish, Sarah?” Cliff asked.

“My grandfather took me and my sisters when we were little,” Sarah answered.  “I’ve been on a couple guided trips during photo shoots with a photographer friend.  She caught a few.  I mostly watched and took pictures.  It was beautiful scenery and made for great composition.  Capturing the colors of those native cutthroats was something else.  Beautiful fish.”

Cliff made a couple of casts.  “Here, you try it.”  Cliff handed her the rod.  He started to explain how to cast a spinning combo when she opened the bail and cast the rooster tail capably across the stream.

As the lure came out of the swiftest part of the main current and entered an eddy, a large steelhead slammed the lure.  The drag screamed as Sarah reeled frantically.

“Don’t reel.  Let the fish fun, when it stops put pressure on and lift the rod.  Then lower the rod as you reel and take in line.  When the drag starts to scream let the fish run and don’t reel.  Let the fish wear himself out,” Cliff instructed.

“Here, you take it.”  Sarah tried to hand the rod to Cliff.

“No, you catch it,” Cliff told her.

“I’ll lose it,” Sarah cried.

“Big deal, we’ll probably have to throw it back anyway.  You can only keep hatchery raised fish.  All wild fish have to be released,” Cliff explained as he stood close to Sarah.  “That’s it, keep your rod tip up.  You’re fighting it like a pro!”

The fish was fighting in the middle of the stream, between the rapids on each end of the 50 yard pool.  There was a huge fallen cottonwood at the lower end of the pool making it impossible to follow the fish downstream unless someone decided to take a swim in the cold mountain water.  If the fish decided to go further downstream, it would be lost in the swift water of the shoals.  Cliff held his breath each time the fish approached the lower rapids but the fish would turn at the very last moment, fighting its way back upstream, and breathed again.

On the fourth run downstream the fish went through the chute into the rapids.  Cliff was depending on the rod and reel to catch fish at the beach for lunch.  But Sarah was rapidly getting spooled, all the line would be lost.  There was no way to control the fish in the heavy current.  Just before Cliff reached out to take the rod from Sarah to break the line, Sarah waded into the icy, cold water of the river. Chest deep, she began to dog paddle around the huge cottonwood.    What could Cliff do but follow?  Neither Cliff nor Sarah bothered to kick off their shoes.  The cold took their breaths.  Between the cold and exhilaration when their breaths did come, they came short and quick.

When Sarah got around the tree she stumbled to the bank still fighting the fish.  The pool they were in now was longer and much calmer but there was timber washed into the eddy on the other side of the river. If the fish got into the brush, it would surely be lost.

“It’s just a matter of time, Sarah.  If the fish stays out of the trees washed in the river on the other side, you got him.  Keep pressure on him,” Cliff told her hopefully.  The excitement kept the pain of the cold at bay.

Again the fish fought to the lower end of the pool and at the last moment turned and swam on the other side of the river in calmer water.  It was obvious the fish was tiring but it still had a lot fight left.  As the fish approached the limbs on the other side of the river, Cliff told Sarah to apply pressure with her finger to the spool to keep the fish out of the limbs.  Sarah moved downstream and turned the rod to the side, bending it into a sharp ‘U’, in an attempt to keep the fish from traveling the last few yards to the limbs.

Sarah grabbed the spool with her right hand to keep the line from going out.  They could see the fish flash in the water as it became hung up in the limbs.  Cliff had given instructions to put a 16 lb., high tech spectra fishing line on the reel with a 20 lb. fluorocarbon leader.  More than enough heft to catch the 2 to 5 pound fish he intended to catch from the beach for their shore lunch.  But not enough to hold a 30 lb. steelhead tangled in a tree in a fast flowing stream.  Cliff cringed as he waited for the line to snap.

Cliff couldn’t see the fish anymore.  Was the fish loose and the line caught hopelessly in the branches?  Sarah took a few steps up the river along the edge of the water.  As the line became slack her shoulders slumped and she looked to Cliff with utter disappointment.

Cliff felt it, too.  He felt her pain.  She had fought that fish like a pro.  He held her in much higher esteem for having followed the fish in the river.  What manner of woman was this?  He wanted to run up to her and kiss her and hold her tight.

And then the line became tight again as the fish worked its way free from the branches and headed downstream.

“Oh my gosh!”  Sarah exclaimed.  “He’s still on!”  That magic moment Cliff was feeling, when almost anything could have happened between them, passed as Sarah turned to follow the fish down river.

But the fish was spent.  Sarah gained line as she pumped the rod.  As Sarah walked backward the last couple of yards to bring the fish to Cliff, who stood ankle deep in the water in his grey suede loafers, a voice came from behind them as the ranger from the earlier incident approached.

“Wow, that’s got to be at least 25, maybe 30 pounds!” the ranger said as he walked up to Cliff.

Cliff easily removed the barbless hook from the lip of the trout.  “It’s missing its adipose fin.  It’s a hatchery fish.  You can keep it if you’re licensed properly,” the ranger said.

“I am licensed and have a steelhead and salmon report card in my wallet, probably wet.  But Sarah doesn’t have a license,” Cliff admitted.

“Hey, one license, one rod.  How could you not offer to let her make a couple of casts?  Right?” the Ranger said smiling.

Cliff pulled out his wallet, which was hardly wet at all on the inside and handed the officer his license and was pulling out the California Steelhead Report Card, which must be filled out after each catch, when the officer waved him off.

“You’re good,” the Ranger said.  “I’m late for a meeting.  I really stopped just to say thank you.  We placed surveillance cameras in several of the parking areas trying to catch those guys harassing tourists.  We’ve had several complaints but no one willing to press charges.  It blew me away when I watched the surveillance footage on the SIM card in my computer.  My wife goes to church with one of their aunts.  I’ve personally prayed for those guys with my wife.  We were sure they’d eventually hurt someone.  Turns out you all were an answer to prayer.  Those were some humble dudes after you kicked their butts.  My wife called a few minutes ago and told me the big one actually called his aunt on the way to the hospital and prayed with her for the first time since grammar school.  You put the fear of Jesus in those guys!”

“Praise, God!” Cliff said enthusiastically.  “The Lord indeed works in mysterious ways.”

The Ranger wasn’t sure whether Cliff was sincere or not. Sarah knew he was.

As the ranger walked away he looked back over his shoulder and shouted to Cliff, “Don’t piss her off, Mr. Hatfield.  She swings a mean club.”

Cliff still knelt holding the fish gently by the jaw, never having taken it out of the water.  “Okay to let him go?” Cliff asked Sarah.

“After all I did to catch that fish?” Sarah asked incredulously.  “I don’t think so.”

“But wouldn’t it make you feel good to know that it’s still swimming in this river?” Cliff said.

“It’ll make me feel better when we’re sitting on the beach eating it.  That way a part of it will be with me forever, Cliff,” Sarah said smartly.

“Good enough,” Cliff said and hefted it from the water.  He laid it in the sand and reached through the gills.  He grasped it firmly to keep his fingers from slipping and being cut on the raspy, sharp gills and wrenched the gills free.  “That’ll let it bleed out.  Improves the taste,” Cliff explained.  “Not all that necessary on freshwater fish, but can’t hurt.”

Cliff gutted the fish and washed it out before leaving the stream.

When they got back to the car, Cliff put up the roof, turned the car on, cranked up the heat, and put the seat heaters on high.  As the car warmed, Sarah sat inside while Cliff filleted the steel head on one of the plastic garbage bags he had packed in the trunk.  Cliff’s fingers were turning blue and his teeth were chattering when he finished.  By the time he got in the car with Sarah, they were both almost dry.

“Give me a minute to warm up and I’ll drive us somewhere we can change,” Cliff told Sarah.

“I’ve got to get these clothes off, Cliff,” Sarah almost whined.  “These wet underwear are killing me.  Why not change under the bridge?  The anti-erosion mat is almost like AstroTurf.  It’ll be cleaner than a gas station restroom and more private.”

“What if somebody comes by?” Cliff countered.

“We’ve been here for an hour and nobody but Yogi Bear has come by yet,” Sarah said, referring to the park ranger.

“Don’t look when we’re changing,” Cliff said.  He realized he sounded like a little girl.

“What, you think I’ve never seen a grown man naked?” Sarah asked.

“You’ve never seen this grown man naked…this cold,” Cliff added.

“Grow up Cliff,” Sarah said.  “Every man with a little wang claims shrinkage.  Don’t make excuses.”  Sarah wasn’t playing fair, Cliff thought.  In truth she was still a little miffed he hadn’t made more avert advances toward her, she intended to be a bit cutting.

Cliff gave Sarah a defiant look and punched the button on the key fob to pop the trunk as if to say, “I’ll show you, Bitch”, but in truth more like, “I’ll show you, Smarty Pants, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah!”

Cliff needn’t worry about shrinkage as he watched Sarah hurry across the road and climb down the bank to get under the bridge.  Her white slacks had become opaque when wet and he could see her pink dental floss like thong almost as if she was wearing nothing at all.  How could he have not noticed that before?  She had removed her sports bra in the car.  Her cold, erect nipples were apparent against the thin nylon material of her top.  At 58 how did her breasts defy gravity so?  Best boobs money can buy, Cliff would have thought if he was thinking straight, if his mind hadn’t already been taken over by another part of his anatomy, which was now straining against his jeans.  As Cliff removed his pants he turned sideways so he could see Sarah getting undressed.  She turned also.  But instead of shouting don’t look, they turned toward each other a little more to offer the other a better view.  Cliff made it a point to pull his black polo underwear down slowly, so Sarah could see his penis spring up and hear it slap against his abdomen.

Oh, my, Sarah thought.  Just short of being uncomfortably long for her with plenty of filling girth.  He had thick thighs and a very nice butt, not the butt of a 61-yr.-old man; a flat stomach with a visible six pack and a well-defined, cut chest.  And his arms, his arms!

They stood facing, drinking in the sight of each other.  Cliff’s penis throbbing noticeable with each beat of his heart, Sarah becoming more welcomingly wet with each moment, a dew forming around her labia, ready, desperately needing to feel Cliff sliding into her.

Sarah reached down and wrapped her hands around his girth.  Sarah was on the uphill side at the perfect height for her submission, ready to guide him….

[What I deleted is just too graphic to share with anyone but my wife.  Suffice it to say, Cliff and Sarah came very close, but did not seal the deal.]

Tires skidded on gravel as a car slid to a stop on the narrow pullover on their side of the road, just before the bridge.  Cliff and Sarah wrenched themselves apart like 2 magnets, still not separated far enough in time or distance not to feel the irresistible attraction.

They dashed to put their clothes on and had made their way from under the bridge before the 3 men had slipped into their waders and put their rods together.

“Beautiful river,” Sarah said as she and Cliff walked past the unsuspecting men.

When they got in the car Cliff squeezed Sarah’s hand and pulled her closer, the center console in the way.

“Just drive,” Sarah whispered into Cliff’s ear.

They were back by the seaside in no time at all.  They had the impression of being in a different world again, still hearing the echo of the song their bodies played under the bridge on that lonely stretch of highway winding down through the gorge of a wild river, coming out of that primeval forest to this glorious coast.

“It’s another hour to where we’re staying tonight.  Do you still want to stop for a seaside lunch?” Cliff asked.

“It’s so beautiful.  We’re here, who knows if we’ll ever get this chance again.  How can we not take at least an hour for a walk?” Sarah answered.

They took their shoes off when they reached the edge of the beach and left them there. They had both slipped on heavy cardigans for the walk.  For some reason they didn’t hold hands as they walked up the wind swept beach.  There were several sets of footprints on the beach, but only one other couple they could see in each direction.  They walked north, the couple in that direction were coming toward them, not far away.  After Cliff and Sarah passed that couple, they had miles and miles of deserted beach in front of them.  The mist that hung in the air slowly thickened so that the sun was only a bright spot as it approached the horizon.  There would be no spectacular sunset on this day.

________________________________________________________________

“I am tired and emotionally spent after all that’s happened today,” Sarah said when they got back to the car.  “I’ll bet we walked 6 or 7 miles.  I never imagined we’d reach the rocks in the distance, you can hardly see them from here.  And they’re huge.  This is all so beautiful, you’d think there would be more people.”

Cliff pulled out his phone and opened an app.  “We walked 4.1 miles and were gone 1 hr. and 44 minutes.  We averaged a little over 25 minutes a mile.  If we hadn’t stopped to look at the sand fleas and the rocks we’d been a lot quicker.”

“You always had to stay a half or quarter step ahead.  You’re very competitive.  I want someone who will walk with me, Cliff,” Sarah said.  “Not ahead of me.”

“I was waiting for you to slow down or say something, which you didn’t.  A year ago I could hardly walk to the end of the driveway.  I celebrate every breath I take without a rattle or wheeze.”  Cliff took in a deep breath of fresh sea air.  “You hear that?” he asked Sarah.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Sarah said.  “You don’t look like you’ve ever been sick a day in your life.”

“Exactly,” Cliff exclaimed, and gave a fist pump.  “By the time I was diagnosed with cancer the left pleura, the pleura is the lining around the lungs, was filled with fluid, collapsing my lung.  It’s still partially collapsed, probably always will be.  Besides a lesion in my left lung, the cancer had spread.  My lungs, the pleura,  my intestines, my chest wall all had lesions.  And all the lymph nodes in my body cavity and neck were lit up on the first PET scan.  The doctor told me I would never be in remission.  It’s a bit of a miracle that the chemo knocked the cancer out.  Its 2 years since my initial symptoms.  I’m in remission for over a year, but all the doctors expect the cancer to raise its ugly head again.  Statistically, only 11 out of 100 survive 2-and-a-half years, where I am now.  Only 4 out of 100 survive 5 years. I want to enjoy life before the cancer kicks back in.  I don’t have an unlimited amount of money.  I’m not rich but I can take a couple more bucket list trips like this before I go.  Pretty pathetic, huh, when you’re hoping you die before the money runs out.  It’s a balancing act.”

Sarah found this talk about illness very distasteful.  She had lost her husband 6 months ago, to of all things, a misdiagnosed case of appendicitis.  He had been treated for diverticulitis in the previous months leading up to his emergency room visit on a weekend.  Over the phone his gastroenterologist had ordered a liquid diet, antibiotics, and imaging to be done the next morning.  The doctor had been sued previously for mistakenly performing an appendectomy when the real cause was diverticulitis.  After all, her husband had presented the exact same symptoms 2 months prior with a painful bout of cecal diverticulitis.

His appendix burst that night and sepsis ensued.  He was dead within 24 hours.  She and Cliff had put off the trip twice due to the legal proceedings in her malpractice suit against the doctor.

Life didn’t make sense to Sarah.  What had she done to deserve all of the good things that had happened to her, or the bad for that matter?  Her looks, her talent, the fact that her father had left a hefty inheritance to her and her sisters, her success at business, and her beautiful, wonderful daughters and grandchildren.  Somehow her daughters had turned out great despite the fact neither she nor her husband were there during her formative years, like she felt they should have been.  What had her parents done to deserve suffering through cancer as they had at the end of their lives?  Sarah didn’t want to fall harder for Cliff than she already had, to feel responsible for being there for him at the end, and suffer the hellish heartache and pain as she had watching her father slowly dwindle and fade away.  When her father did finally pass, he weighed less than 100 pounds, hardly a whisper of the man he had been.  He had been a strong-willed man, much like Cliff.  She didn’t imagine Cliff would go swiftly or softly into that good night, either.  At least she was spared a swift passing with her husband.

Life is all happenstance, Sarah thought.  What did God have to do with it?

It was almost a visceral reaction she had to Cliff talking about his illness.  She could not relate the picture of health Cliff portrayed to the future he prognosticated.  For a moment, she saw Cliff as a bad oyster that would make her deathly ill later if she partook of it.

During the hour drive up the coast she didn’t want to feel Cliff’s arms around her anymore.  And if there was a God, she thought, He was anything but good or fair.

“What is your perception of God,” she finally asked Cliff.

“Wow, that’s a loaded question.  As it pertains to you and what we’re doing or cosmologically?”

“Cosmologically?  I wasn’t thinking cosmologically, for Christ’s sake, just in general.  But now that you mention it, how does God pertain to us, to what we’re doing?” Sarah said.  “How on earth did He pertain to us underneath that damned bridge?”

“Wow, I didn’t expect that,” Cliff said.  “I don’t pretend to know everything about God.”

Isaiah 55:8-9

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

“I don’t think we’re capable of understanding everything about God any more than a baby is able to understand everything there is to know about their parents.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Perhaps its allegory, yet many argue the book of Genesis as fact.  Regardless, the story of the fall of man, of Adam and Eve eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is clear.  When the human race obtained the knowledge of good and evil we set ourselves up to be like God, choosing for ourselves what is good for us and what is bad for us.  Knowledge, our perception what is good for us and what is evil, took the place of our dependence on God.  Most of the time, unfortunately, we kid ourselves into thinking that what is good for us is whatever feels good at the moment.  I believe God created the heavens and the Earth and there is a natural order that results from that.  We prosper emotionally, physically, and spiritually when we follow God’s plan.  I don’t believe God is standing over us with a hammer ready to pound us into the ground when we sin.  But I do believe there are consequences that follow from our actions when we get outside of God’s design.

“How does that apply to us?  Under the bridge?” Cliff continued.  “We were just doing what came naturally, but that doesn’t mean it would have been good for us, that it would have left us fulfilled and happy.  It would have left one of us wanting more, with a soul tie we would have had to deal with eventually.  I did what felt good with a woman right after my wife passed and it didn’t end well for either one of us.  If I did what I wanted, we’d still be under that bridge doing what comes naturally.”

“Yeah, me too.  Well, maybe not still yet at your age,” Sarah said.

“You may have something there,” Cliff admitted.  “But there was a day.  Anyway, I’m better once now than I ever was.”

“What!  Give me a break,” Sarah said.  “So what makes you so much better than me?”

“You’ve to to be kidding.  Absolutely nothing,” Cliff answered.  “No one is perfect as exhibited by my last remark.  The Apostle Paul said we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  All you need is a little faith, sincerely ask Jesus into your heart, let Him know you regret your sins, and ask for forgiveness.  That’s all that’s required.  Listen to that small, still voice as the Holy Spirit begins to speak to you.  Jesus died on the cross for our sins, so that we can have a personal relationship with Him.  You can’t have a relationship with someone who you think doesn’t exist.  I’ve witnessed God’s love firsthand during my wife’s illness, and again through mine.  But also in a 1,000 other ways once my eyes were opened. Yes, I experience some trepidation with my present predicament, but I also wait in eager expectation to see what God will do next.  God is good all the time!  I could go on but I don’t want to preach.”

“A little late for that,” Sarah said, peering out the window into the gathering darkness.

This trip had turned out much better and much, much worse than she could have ever imagined.  No use kidding herself, she wanted more from Cliff physically, and now she was beginning to realize emotionally, than he was ready or willing to give.  Her husband had not been willing to commit emotionally at first, but that was because he was screwing 10 other women at the time.  Eventually, I won out, and what a prize he turned out to be, Sarah thought sarcastically.

And here was Cliff.  She was available and he was holding back.  At first she wondered if he was impotent because of the drugs he took for his heart or from lasting effects of the chemo.  But she had seen firsthand Cliff was far from impotent.  And she refused to believe it was because of his faith.  How could he resist her, she who was not more than a mere arm’s length away, for a God he had never seen or heard audibly?  Was it because he thought she was a bad person?  Every man in her life, for as long as she could remember, had wanted from her what she was offering Cliff.  He was like the trophy trout her friend, who she had accompanied on a guided fishing trip on the Snake River, had cast to time and again with every fly in her box , that would tantalizingly  move over to inspect the fly, but never bite.

Cliff sensed Sarah was in this strictly for catch and release.  Falling in love again for Cliff meant for keeps, just like with his wife.  He had detoured from that route with his old girlfriend, who had seen him through the cancer recovery and chemo.   The next time he made love, if it ever happened again, which he doubted, he was determined it would be for keeps.

That is if he could make it through this last night with Sarah.  He had secretly bought another bottle of the red and one of the white before they left the restaurant that first night, and made arrangements to have them put in the car.  It was meant to be a surprise at the shore lunch he had intended to prepare earlier.  How could they not share the wine this last evening they had together.  And he was, oh, so tired.  He knew from experience his good judgement and self-control was apt to go out the window under the influence of alcohol and exhaustion.

Every ounce, every scintilla of his physical being wanted to experience the raw, visceral pleasure of making love to Sarah.  Regardless, there was the spiritual side of Cliff that knew it would not satisfy, that there was no such thing as casual sex, especially with a woman as beautiful and intelligent as Sarah.  Cliff had become much wiser suffering through the turmoil and ecstasy the last 5 years of his life.

But, ahh, how could we not drink the wine tonight, Cliff thought to himself.  You’re setting yourself up, a still small voice spoke in his head.

“Lord, help me,” Cliff said out loud.

“What did you say?” Sarah had been in that strange land halfway between wakefulness and sleep where dreams begin to float around the edges of consciousness.  In her dream Cliff was drowning and she was trying to cast a fly line to him.  She could see him floating there just below the surface looking serenely back in her direction.  All he needed to do is reach up and grab the line and she would save him.  But he made no attempt to save himself as she watched in utter consternation as he sank deeper and deeper until he was almost out of sight.

“This one’s about to get away,” Cliff said.

Sarah, jolted awake, suddenly embarrassed as if Cliff had been aware of her dream.  Embarrassment and consternation were 2 emotions Sarah was not accustomed to.

“The day, the day is about to get away from us,” Cliff said.  “I had intended to make a shore lunch for us and I have a bottle of the Red and one of the White that we had at the restaurant.  It was meant to be a special surprise.  But we’re so tired I’m afraid we’re going to fall asleep as soon as we get to our room.”

“You mean rooms,” Sarah said.

“It’s a bungalow with queen beds and a pull out couch in the living room.  I thought by this time we’d be comfortable sharing closer quarters,” Cliff explained.

“Yeah, I think so,” Sarah agreed.

“I’ll whip up sushi and sashimi using your fish when we get there.  No need to cook anything.  We have a garden salad and pasta with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing in the cooler.  Oh, and a loaf of French bread,” Cliff remembered.

“I hope it’s quick,” Sarah said, “I’m famished.”

“Famished, that’s New York for what we call real hungry down on the Guyandotte.  Right?” Cliff said.

“I’m so hungry I could eat a mess of possum and turnip greens,” Sarah joked using her hillbilly accent.

“Don’t knock it till you tried it,” Cliff replied seriously, but of course Sarah took it as jest.  Cliff’s father had a coon hound while he was growing up.  The dog did not discriminate between coon and possum.  Whatever the dog treed, they ate, not at all different from the previous generations of Hatfield’s growing up along the Tug and Guyandotte rivers.  Cliff learned to cook from his grandmother and his father.  They could make just about anything taste good.  Except maybe rattlesnake.  That’s the one wild dish Cliff didn’t care for.

“You’re an enigma, Cliff,” Sarah said.  “A connoisseur of exotic foods from fine wine to possum.  You’re killing me.”

The last few minutes of the drive it had become so foggy they couldn’t see the light to the hotel until they parked.  It lent the place an eerie, mysterious feel.  The ambience reminded Sarah of the lyrics to Hotel California.  Sarah began to sing as they waited for someone to answer the bell at the front desk.

Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night.

The receptionist arrived before she could start the second verse.  He was an older, distinguished looking gentleman, who gave the air of owning the place.  He was very efficient and was about to share the hotel amenities and local attractions when Cliff stopped him short.

“We’re leaving early and dinner is taken care of,” Cliff explained.  The gentleman seemed genuinely disappointed.

“Too bad about the fog.  Shame you can’t enjoy the view from the veranda on your bungalow.  One of the best views in Northern California,” he said.  “And it’s a full moon tonight.”

“That’s what I’ve been told,” Cliff said.  “Maybe it will clear up and we’ll get to enjoy it for a few minutes in the morning.”

“Probably won’t burn off until around 11:00.  But you never know,” the old man said.

Then Cliff added, “By the way, I couldn’t find you on the internet.  If my cousin hadn’t gone on and on about this place, I would have never come.”

“I wish you were staying longer,” the old gent said.  “My wife and I are in love with this place and this area. It’s so beautiful, we didn’t feel right keeping it to ourselves.  If you had a little more time, you’d understand why we don’t need to waste money on advertising.”

“I’m intrigued,” Sarah said.  “I wish we could stay longer.”

The old man stared at Sarah.  “You look familiar.  Have I seen you on television?  Maybe on the cover of one of my wife’s magazines?”

“If you remember one of my pictures from the cover of a magazine, you have a very good memory,” Sarah said.  “My last magazine cover was 20 years ago.”

“Well, I can’t imagine you were any more beautiful then than you are now,” the old man said matter of fact.

“Thank you,” Sarah said sincerely.

Sarah and Cliff bumped shoulders as they walked side-by-side on the sidewalk to their bungalow.  The old man had offered to help with the luggage but Cliff declined.  Cliff struggled pulling the cooler, which had wheels, and his carry-on suit case, plus carrying a plastic bag of groceries.

The fog was thick and tinged with the saltiness of the Pacific.  A ships bell clanged from somewhere up the coast, the sound clear and crisp in the moisture of the pea soup fog.  As he fumbled with the room key, Sarah switched on the light of her iPhone, which was really of no help, but went well with lyrics of Hotel California which she picked up from where she had left off.

“There she stood in the doorway;
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself
‘This could be heaven or this could be Hell’
Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor,
I thought I heard them say”

They stepped into the bungalow and Sarah dropped her luggage and threw her arms open wide and began to dance around the room singing,

“Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place (such a lovely place)
Such a lovely face.
Plenty of room at the Hotel California
Any time of year (any time of year) you can find it here”

Cliff opened the cooler and pulled out the wine as she sang and danced.  He worked on uncorking the Red first as Sarah continued to sing,

“Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends
She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys, that she calls friends
How they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat
Some dance to remember, some dance to forget”

Cliff poured Sarah’s glass and lifted it to his nose.

“So I called up the Captain,
‘Please bring me my wine’

Cliff handed her the glass of 2015 Margaux Medoc.  She ceased singing for a moment to savor the taste of the wine and then turned up the glass.  Cliff estimated that was about a $250 slug of wine.  He scolded himself for thinking that way.  Sarah smacked her lips and began singing again, handing Cliff the empty wine glass.

“He said, ‘we haven’t had that spirit here since nineteen sixty-nine’
And still those voices are calling from far away,
Wake you up in the middle of the night
Just to hear them say”

Sarah danced into the main living area with Cliff following with the wine and poured her another glass.

“Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place (such a lovely place)
Such a lovely face.
They livin’ it up at the Hotel California
What a nice surprise (what a nice surprise), bring your alibis”

Sarah danced into the bedroom with the 2 queen beds with Cliff still in tow.

“Mirrors on the ceiling, (which there was)
The pink champagne on ice
(which there was with a bouquet of beautiful red roses)
And she said, ‘we are all just prisoners here, of our own device’
And in the master’s chambers,
They gathered for the feast

Sarah turned and clutched Cliff by the collar and pulled him close and sang with gusto,

“They stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can’t kill the beast”

She kissed Cliff hard and then released him, shoving him onto the bed and continued to sing as she danced into the bathroom.

“Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door”
 

Sarah shut the bathroom door, removed her pants, and sat on the toilet continuing to sing, now with a slight strain in her voice as she relieved herself.

“I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
‘Relax’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!’

 “Cliff, please bring my luggage into the bedroom and shut the door.  I’m going to shower while you fix dinner.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Cliff said.  He did not expect that kind of performance from Sarah.  It seemed out of character for her.  Well, we all tend to get silly when we’re tired, Cliff thought.  It was endearing, disarming.  He hoped that was the extent of it.

After Cliff delivered their luggage to the bedroom, he needed to go back to the car to retrieve the fillet knife to slice the steelhead into thin strips for the sushi and sashimi.

Cliff hit the key fob to open the trunk of the Mercedes and ducked his head in to retrieve the fillet knife.  What a shame to leave this fishing equipment, Cliff thought.  He had a plethora of fishing gear at home, which would have been a major hassle to pack and ship to and from the west coast, not to mention the cost.  That’s why he had paid to have the equipment waiting on him when the car was delivered.  While his head was in the trunk, a vehicle pulled into the parking lot.

Cliff heard loose pebbles on the pavement crunch as someone walked around the Mercedes.  He quickly stuffed the cased fillet knife in his hip pocket as he took a step back from the trunk and turned to meet the intruder, crouched in a half wrestling stance.  Still on edge from the morning altercation, the Lilly Mae in Cliff was triggered once again, and he was instantly ready to open another can of whup-ass.

A lady in her late 60’s, in one of the complimentary hotel housecoats, approached Cliff.  He instinctively looked behind him and then relaxed.

“I didn’t mean to alarm you,” the lady said.  “My husband said he checked in an attractive couple and the lady reminded him of one of my photographs.  But let me introduce myself.  I’m Dana Miller, my husband and I own this place.  I have a friend in the fashion industry that my husband says looks just like your companion.  He’s only seen her pictures and couldn’t remember her name when you checked in, and didn’t want to ask her.  He’s funny that way, and getting funnier, if that’s what you want to call it, the older he gets.”

“Yeah, I resemble that remark, myself.  Her name is Sarah Brogden,” Cliff said.

“Oh my, I haven’t talked to Sarah in, what, 10, 12 years?” the lady said.  “I’m a photographer and worked with Sarah way back when.  We chummed around together for a while.  The General, Hal, my husband, says she’s still beautiful.”

“That she is,” Cliff agreed.  “It seems the General has an eye for beauty.  Were you a model, too?” Cliff asked.

“No, no modeling for me.  People don’t realize how catty and cutthroat modeling can be.  I was a photographer.  Photographers have much more control over their careers.  Photography was hard enough.  People don’t realize the sacrifice models have to make.”

“You’re beautiful, I imagine you had offers,” Cliff said.

“You’re too kind,” Dana said.  “Tell Sarah I have to see her before she leaves.”

“We’re leaving early.  Okay if she calls you tonight?” Cliff asked.

“The General is an early riser, but I’m a night owl.  Tell her to come see me.  Just tell her to dial “0” before she comes over.  I’m owner/operator tonight,” Dana joked.

“I’ll do that,” Cliff promised.

There wasn’t much for Cliff to prepare except for slicing the steelhead, rolling the rice, and wrapping the rolls in seaweed.  In minutes he had sashimi and rolls made in nigari, Maki, Temaki, and Uramaki styles.  He buttered the bread, sprinkled it with garlic salt, and put it in the microwave for 1 minute.  He opened the bottle of 2008 Domaine Ramonet Montrachet, poured himself a glass and poured Sarah another glass of the 2015 Margaux Medoc.

While Cliff waited for Sarah, he finished his wine and poured himself another glass.  Before he sat the bottle down, he turned it up and drank several health slugs.  He sat the bottle down just before Sarah walked into the room.

She wore silky, pink pajamas.  The top 3 buttons of her top were open.

Cliff tried not to linger as he looked at what was proudly obvious underneath the top.  He imagined how it would be to hold her and feel the silk slide against their bodies.

“Oh, my gosh, I’m famished!” Sarah exclaimed.  She put sashimi and an Uramaki roll on her plate, a healthy portion of pasta, and tore off a piece of the bread.  Sarah dabbed her finger into the wasabi and wiped it off on top of the Uramaki roll.  Then she doused it all with teriyaki.  Before she dug into what was on her plate, she took one of the thin slices of sashimi off the plate Cliff had prepared and popped it in her mouth.  She threw her head back and closed her eyes as she savored the raw fish.

“That was worth the swim,” Sarah said after she swallowed.  “I earned that, didn’t I?  I kicked that Steelhead’s butt.  I don’t know if anything has ever tasted so good.”

“You go girl,” Cliff said.  “You kicked 2 butts this morning.  One with a rod and reel and the other with a redwood club.”

“Was that this morning?” Sarah said.  “It seems like a lifetime ago.”

“I know,” Cliff agreed.  “A lot happened today.  The drive and the spectacular scenery, the majesty of the redwoods, you kicked that guys butt, you caught that huge steelhead and went for a swim, (he left out the under the bridge part) the walk on the beach, the mystery of the fog, your world class performance of Hotel California.  And to steal your phrase, “oh, my gosh”, the way you look this moment.”

Sarah stopped with her sushi roll half way to her mouth and put it down.  “Really, Cliff,” Sarah said, eyes locked with Cliff’s.  “I think the best part of this day is yet to come.”

Lord, help me, Cliff prayed a silent prayer.  I did this to myself, he thought.  What made me think I could take this trip with Sarah and keep it on a friendship level?  Companionship, who was he kidding?  This was the most romantic trip he had ever participated in.  Either they would end up in bed or hating each other.  Probably both, Cliff thought.  Our fate is sealed, what is to follow is inevitable, as sure as death and taxes, he mused.

They leaned over the table and kissed the kissed they kissed as adolescents, as sweet as the first time but a 1,000 times more passionate.

Just as Cliff was ending the kiss, ready to take Sarah by the hand and lead her to the bedroom, the hotel phone rang.

“Who could be calling us here at this hour?” Sarah asked.  “How’s that for timing?”

“Oooooh, I can’t believe I forgot to tell you,” Cliff said under his breath.  “An old acquaintance of yours and her husband own this place.  She came out and introduced herself when I went to the car to get the fillet knife. That was her husband who checked us in and was so sweet with that complement about you being pretty as ever.   She said she was a photographer and you guys worked together.”

“What did she say her name is?  I worked with a ton of photographers.” Sarah said, ignoring the phone.

Cliff came around the table and kissed Sarah again.  When they parted Cliff said, “Her name is Dana…something.”  He wasn’t thinking clearly, neither was Sarah.

As Cliff led Sarah to the bedroom, Sarah said, “Not Dana Miller?”

“As a matter of fact, yes, Dana Miller,” Cliff remembered.

“Dana Miller!  She was/is the premier female photographer in the world.  Arguably the best photographer in the world, bar none.  We were close at one time.  She’s the one I floated down the Snake River with and photographed catching cutthroat.  I can’t believe it, Dana Miller!  It’s a small world.  What did she say?” Sarah asked.

“She wanted you to come over, said she’s up late.”  Sarah stopped and Cliff let go of her hand.

“I’ve got to call her, Cliff,” Sarah said, half apologetically.

“Okay,” Cliff said.

Sarah was giddy talking on the phone with Dana.  She put her hand over the receiver and turned to ask Cliff, who had by now used the bathroom and come back into the living room and was sitting on the couch, “Okay if she comes over for a glass of wine and a bite of sushi?”  Sarah asked.  “It’s late, she won’t be long.”

“No, no problem,” Cliff said.  “Who knows if you would ever see her again if you don’t take this opportunity?”

“Yeah, kind of like you stopping to fish for just a minute since we were here and who knows if you would ever get a chance to fish a west coast river again, right?” Sarah said.

“Right,” Cliff reluctantly agreed with fake enthusiasm.

“Perfect!” Sarah exclaimed.  “I haven’t seen her in years.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet about 10 or 12,” Cliff said a bit sardonically. 

“I’ll come out after I shower and have a glass of wine with you guys,” Cliff told Sarah after he had tidied the table.

In the shower Cliff looked at his junk and apologized.  “Sorry to put you through this,” he said.  “On again, off again ain’t no fun.”  Then he thought for a second.

Well, it was fun, it was exciting.  But that didn’t make it right.  That’s what got him twisted with his old girlfriend.  No way was he going to make it long term with Sarah, either.  And it would not end well, he knew.  God had been faithful even when Cliff wasn’t.  Cliff didn’t want to create another bad situation, even though it seemed inevitable, despite his own best intentions.

“Lord, help me,” he prayed again.

Sarah welcomed Dana with a long embrace.  An embrace that may have made Cliff uncomfortable had he been out of the shower to witness it.  It seemed Sarah and Dana had a history, more than simple friendship, more than simply platonic.

But that was years ago.  By the time Cliff got out of the shower, Sarah and Dana were on their second glass of wine and Sarah was telling Dana about catching the steelhead.  They finished off the 2015 Margaux Medoc and started on the rest of the 2008 Domaine Ramonet Montrachet.  When that was gone, Dana left and returned with another bottle of French red, not nearly as expensive but good nonetheless.  Before Sarah and Dana were finished reminiscing, Cliff was sound asleep on the couch.

After Dana departed, Sarah attempted to wake Cliff.  She finally gave up and covered him with a blanket from one of the queen beds.  When Cliff awoke hours later, he went into the bedroom and found Sarah sound asleep.  Cliff climbed into the other queen bed and covered up with the sheets, still wearing the robe.

“Thank You, Lord, You always make a way,” Cliff murmured and promptly fell back to sleep, relieved to be in bed alone.

When Cliff woke it was still dark in the bedroom.  What time is it, he wondered?  The clock on the night stand blinked, he neglected to set it last night. After Cliff relieved himself, he brushed his teeth. If I don’t want to sleep with Sarah, why am I brushing my teeth now, Cliff admonished himself.  I’m a double minded man, and a double minded man can expect nothing from the Lord.  “Have mercy on me, Lord,” Cliff prayed again.

On the way back to bed he parted the blinds.  The window faced the ocean.  It was still dark in the West, and neither the stars nor the moon, which would be full, were visible.  However, he could faintly see the ocean, so the fog had cleared somewhat.  There was hardly any surf at all.  Was there an East wind, would it clear the fog, Cliff wondered?

Cliff rummaged through his pants pocket to retrieve his phone and checked the time.  It was only 4:30, he could sleep for another hour-and-a-half.  He set the nightstand clock.

Cliff discarded the bathrobe as he stood in the space between the beds.  Sarah would welcome me cuddling up behind her, he thought.  How nice her body will feel beneath the silk pajamas.  He wore no underwear, Sarah would feel his manhood pressed against her backside.  Would she part her legs a bit and let him find a comfortable spot.  It would be impossible for him to lie still and sleep.  He would push against her, almost imperceptively at first to gage her receptiveness.  When she pushed back, he would match her movement.  As they began to grind with enthusiasm, he would reach around and palm her left breast, tweaking her swollen, erect nipple between his thumb and forefinger.  He would scoot over in the bed a bit, allowing her to roll over. They would lay on their sides and kiss for a few moments before she pulled him on top of her.  As he rolled onto her, he would unbutton his pajama fly.  He would be right there, ready to enter her but for the threads of her flimsy silk pajamas.  He would unbutton her top, laying it open, exposing her breasts with large brown areoles and thick erect nipples.  As he ground in to her, he would engulf as much of her breasts as he could with his mouth, sucking hard, and then gently take her left nipple between his teeth and flick the end of it with his tongue.  He would blaze a trail with his tongue to her navel, lingering there for a moment before trekking to the waist band of her pajamas.  He would move his tongue from hip to hip, working her pajamas down until he reached the top of her vulva.  Then he would tease it with a few light flicks of his tongue before rising to his knees to remove her pajama bottoms and throwing them to the side…

[Again just too racy to share.  Still nothing happens between Cliff and Sarah.]

Sarah snuggled deeper into her pillow, in her dream seeing the same scenario Cliff was imagining but with a few twists.

I’m so double minded, Cliff thought.  You make a way for me not to take that final step in the flesh, and yet I keep coming back to the place I was before.  “Okay, God,” Cliff prayed, “I’m lying down in my bed, help me to sleep, let the dreams come, take me to a different place.  Help me to do your will.”

He grabbed one of the over sized pillows and grasped it firmly.  Cliff concentrated on one body part at a time, consciously relaxing, starting with the toes on his left foot.  He was dreaming before he got to his knee.

And what a dream it was, not at all the dream Cliff anticipated.  In many ways a much better dream than hoped for, but troubling still.

________________________________

In his dream, Cliff was deep in a wooded hollow in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Virginia, in a place he had been before, nearby his hunting cabin on the West Virginia/Virginia border.  He was familiar with this little creek that had its origin back on Jack Mountain.  He was very thirsty.  He laid on his belly and drank deeply from the cool mountain stream.

It was just before fall and the first cold front had moved through bringing a refreshing wind, the oppressive heat of summer pushed to the south for a few days.

It dawned on Cliff he should be checking the mast (the nut crop on the hardwood trees and other wildlife forage) for the upcoming hunting season.  The wind was moving the limbs and the sunlight blinding, so that he couldn’t discern whether there were nuts on the trees or not.  It was still a few days before the squirrels would be cutting the scaly bark hickory which are the first nuts of the season to mature.

He traveled upstream, soon he should come to a forest access road that traversed the base of the mountain.  He hadn’t gone far before he was thirsty again.  He lay beside the stream and drank deeply once more.  When he lifted himself to his knees, he realized he had been at this very place previously.  Was it years ago when he came to hunt here as a child with his father?  He looked around trying to remember when that was.  Then it donned on him, this was the very same place he had drunk from earlier in the day. He had not strayed from the stream, how was it that he had doubled back?

As he continued further upstream, the thick tangles of mountain laurel began to encroach upon the bank, making it necessary for Cliff to walk in the middle of the stream.  Besides from being wet, it was easy going until he got gravel in his shoes.  Then there were spider webs across the stream to contend with.  He ducked under some and knocked others down with a branch.  He came to a fallen tree that spanned across the creek into the thick tangles of mountain laurel on both sides.  He crawled and clawed his way through the branches of the blowdown.  Then in just a little while, the woods opened up and he returned to the trail beside the creek.  He was burning with thirst.  He lay on his belly beside the stream to drink deeply yet again.

As he peered into the clear water to the pebbles on the bottom of the brook, they looked strangely familiar. With a start he sat up.  This was the place he had drank from before.  How had he ended up here…again!

How frustrating!  He should have reached the forest access road by now.  He had to find another way.  The trail beside the stream was wide at this place, but who knew what lie ahead.  More, and more, and more of the same, he was certain.  There was a narrow game trail that came out of the mountain laurel from across the stream that seemed to lead in a general upstream direction on Cliff’s side.

Cliff drank as much as he could hold before he left the stream for the narrow trail.  He heard water sloshing in his stomach.  After he had traveled a little ways, he wondered about the wisdom of leaving the stream.  At least he had water there.  How long before the burning thirst returned?  The anguish of ending up in the same place again and again kept him from turning back.

This is hell, he thought, to wonder through eternity making no progress toward his goal.  Was this the way it was going to be for him, the burning thirst, walking with gravel in his shoes, ending up in the same place again, and again, and again in a never ending loop?

The narrow trail meandered through the flat woods to a low ridge.  The oak, maple, and hickory here were towering, cathedral like, and Cliff realized the leaves had a bit color as if it was early fall.

In this dream it seemed Cliff was traveling through time as well as space.

When Cliff topped out on the low ridge, he saw the brilliant, yellow leaves of a hickory in peak fall color not far in the distance.  Traveling toward the tree, he noticed many hickory nuts and acorns on the ground.  He looked up to identify the trees from which they had fallen.  Now he saw that all the trees around him were laden with nuts.

Cliff saw a grey squirrel sitting on the lowest branch of a huge old oak holding a large acorn in its paws.  He won’t need to eat many of those to fill up, Cliff thought.  He could see nuts in the trees and nuts on the ground.  As he took a moment to observe the woods, other animals came into view.

There were deer feeding ahead to the left, 2 does, 3 fawns, and a heavy antlered buck.  A flock of turkeys were picking at the acorns.  The wildlife would look in Cliff’s direction occasionally, but did not appear in the least alarmed.

As Cliff approached the huge hickory, he could see the leaves were almost iridescent, as if they were emitting light on their own.  He noticed a jumbled stack of rocks just beyond the tree.  As he walked up to the rocks, he saw the rocks were carefully stacked with a very thin layer of mortar between.  He realized it was a well.

It had been awhile since he last drank.  He was thirsty again, but not with the desperate burning thirst from before.  He leaned over the rocks to peer into the well.  A cool breeze emanated from its depths.  Was there water in it?  How to retrieve a drink?

Cliff circled to the uphill side of the well, and there he found a bucket with a rope.  He lowered the bucket and let it fill just a bit, so it would be easy to lift.  Cliff lifted the bucket tentatively to his lips.

No water had ever tasted so good.  He drank deeply, and as he did, he felt the water permeate his entire being.  His body was refreshed and much, much more.  It was if his very soul was being restored.

He realized he had been carrying a lot of junk he didn’t need.  He discarded heavy layers of sweat laden clothing, he wasn’t aware until now, he had been wearing.  No wonder he had become dehydrated so quickly.  He sat and removed his shoes.  It alarmed Cliff that he had been walking so long with his shoes full of sand and gravel.  It could have caused real damage to his feet.

Cliff let the bucket down again and heaved it up full.  He drank again deeply, fully.  Then he lifted the bucket high and dumped the remaining water over his head.  Layers of dirt and sweat that had accumulated over years were washed away.

The old man is washed away, Cliff thought.  He did not know what lay ahead on the trail, but he knew he had the strength to face it.  He had been cleansed by the water from the living well and he need not ever thirst again.

Cliff left the well thinking the rest of the journey would be easy.  The woods were open and there was game all around.  But the journey wasn’t all over level ground and parts were steep, very steep.

I can do this, Cliff thought to himself, but after the experience at the well, he was surprised the trail wasn’t easier.

“I have the strength to this.  One foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other,” echoed in his mind as he climbed the mountain.  He realized his Sequoia was parked on the forest access road, once he reached it, he was home free.  Oh, just to get to the road!

As Cliff struggled up the mountain, he realized he did indeed have the strength to make it to the road, but the journey was not going to be a piece of cake.  Faith, have faith.  He could make it, and enjoy the journey, if he could just dispel the fear of the journey.  The woods were beautiful, the game was plentiful, and the trees were laden with nuts.  He was not thirsty, he felt strong.

“But what happens if the thirst returns, what if I’m not where I think I am, and I don’t  find the road?” he wondered.  A part of Cliff knew if he continued to let the fear of what ‘The might be’ rule his mind, it would make the journey miserable, practically unbearable.

“Faith, have faith, I have given you strength,” a still small voice told him. “I will never leave you or forsake you.  If I take care of the animals and trees in this forest, will I not take much better care of you?  You know I love you, you don’t doubt that.  But still, you do not trust me.”

“Lord, give me faith,” Cliff prayed as he continued up the mountain.

___________________________________

Cliff woke from the dream exhausted.  He lay without moving, trying to adjust his thoughts as he began to remember the dream.  It was one of the most vivid dreams he had experienced, and he knew it would color his thinking for the rest of his life.

As he attempted to raise his head to look at the nightstand clock, he realized Sarah had crawled in his bed and was spooned intimately in behind him.  As he craned his neck toward the clock, she snuggled closer still.  Instantly he was aware of her warmth, the softness… and the natural implications of her closeness.

The tension had been building for three days now.  His desire was intense, he yearned to rollover and take her in his arms and feel her pressed tightly into his body, just as he had imagined only hours before.

But he knew by taking Sarah, the thirst would not be satisfied and it would make a difficult journey even more complex.  He quietly crawled out of bed and went into the bathroom, taking his suitcase with him.  When he came out of the bathroom he was fully dressed, ready physically and mentally for the journey home.

Sarah was sitting, propped up in the bed with pillows behind her when he returned.

“Cliff, I’ve decided to stay a few days with Dana.  You don’t mind, do you?”

“Not at all.  It’s beautiful here.  You’d be crazy not to,” he said.

When Cliff came around the bed to retrieve his phone, Sarah scooted to the edge and caught him with her legs.  He turned and she grabbed his shirt with both fists and raised to kiss him.

Even after drinking most of the night, her breath was sweet and the alcohol not apparent.  But as sweet and inviting as the kiss was, and despite the mutual desire, there was no way after coming this far, Cliff was going to dip his bucket in Sarah’s well.

By the time Cliff reached the airport in Eureka, he was exhausted.  As he settled into his seat in first class, Cliff wondered what the rest of this part of his life would be like, the remission part, where he had a modicum of health and resources.  Resources for now at least.  Should he cut back on spending or continue to enjoy life with what money he had saved?  I may have tomorrow, maybe months, but not years, he believed.

“Nobody lives forever”, he thought, like people were fond of telling him who had never personally dealt with cancer.

He drifted off to sleep, in the wide first class seat, that thought and many questions like it still partially unresolved.  He did know he had the strength to face the journey.  He just needed the faith to enjoy it.

 

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