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Adele was nearing the end of one of those Saturday nights: not much in common, too much to drink, not enough to eat and sex anyway, with an adiós in the very near future. Whoever-He-Was crouched on all fours and pressed his nose into the back of her knee. “You smell like childhood,” he said.
“Mine or yours?” she replied. She stopped laughing when he didn’t join in.
“You’re where I hid cigarettes when I was ten.” W-H-W rammed her bottom with the top of his head. That was different. “You’re ink on a girlie magazine.” Ram. “America on Ecstasy.”
God, she hoped not. Poets. She stuffed a wad of satin sheet into her mouth to keep from laughing again.
W-H-W grabbed her hips and flipped her over. Like eggs, Adele thought. Adam and Eve on a raft. While he went to work, she closed her eyes and turned away, The next morning, she would hand-wash W-H-W from her beautiful vintage sheets, purchased years ago to fulfill a mid-thirties, slinky boudoir fantasy, and head to the farmer’s market for a strong, slow coffee before filling her basket with fruits, vegetables and flowers for the week. Bliss. She checked the clock. It was time for him to go. She made the standard sounds to see which one did the trick.
Car wreck moan. He looked confused but soldiered on.
Flames devouring furniture. “I’m not hurting you, am I?” he asked.
She shook her head and fingered the ragged lace edging on her satin sheet, wondering how much longer it would last.
Raptor homing in on its kill. The clear winner.
Afterwards he said, “That was good. What was your name again?”
She told him it was so good she forgot, then showed him the door.
The next morning, a hideous chorus of chirping awakened Adele from the dream where she drove a speeding car on a highway, unable to open her eyes. She swigged Nyquil from the nightstand bottle and fell back into a dream series that ran a gaudy gamut from cosmic (she conversed fluently in Dolphin) to allegorical (old man in the subway with a backpack full of bananas) to reality-based (she was naked in bed with the fan on high and a coffee mug of wine, grading high school essays on Wuthering Heights) before succumbing to an encore of birds.
By the time Adele dragged herself outside, the Hollywood Farmer’s Market was in full earthy urban swing. Artisanal, freshly slaughtered, free-range, miniature, super-sized, kosher, local anything could be had. Adele was the most basic of customers. She wanted only one thing, and stopped at the first sign.
“Black. Large. Now.”
“Ma’am?” The man behind the counter dipped his head.
“Just coffee, please,” Adele said.
He pointed to the hand-carved sign with the cup and saucer which, Adele realized, clearly belonged to the stall adjacent, not his. Which had a long line of people. Three of who, like Adele, wore velvet despite the September heat wave. Was Brontë in season?
“Shit,” she said.
“You’re not the first person to make that mistake today.” He poured coffee from his thermos into two mugs shaped like Christmas trees. “Here,” he gestured. “Come around. Have a sit.”
Adele hesitated, looking him up and down. Serial killers rarely looked like serial killers anymore, but they also rarely looked like all-American heartlanders who wore overalls. Honest-to-god work clothes, faded by sun, stained by labor. She tried to picture him on her satin sheets and stifled a snort.
“My name is Ray and I’m not a serial killer.”
Heartland had humor. She accepted the mug, and dropped into an overstuffed armchair upholstered in an old-time print of lettuce leaves and roses. If chintz wasn’t safe, nothing was.
Ray told her about his Christmas trees. How during the off-season he did the rounds at farmer’s markets to find adoptive parents for the trees that didn’t sell. This Adele found noble and eccentric in equal parts. She told him about three consecutive nights of grading essays on contrasting themes in Wuthering Heights.
“Which are?” he asked.
“Revenge. Obsession. The Other,” she said. “High school in a nutshell.”
He laughed and said the velvet dress made her look very much like Catherine of Thrushcross Grange.
Two Saturdays later, Adele’s Paleolithic Subaru bounced along the dirt road to Ray’s ranch. Trees of many varieties lined the lane, bearing corny red bulbs and dusty candy canes. Adele decided not to be annoyed by the whimsy or the waste. After all, she’d driven 150 miles to the far-off Inland Empire for a day date with a farmer whose face she could scarcely recall. But that was the deal, wasn’t it? That she treat this whole whatever-it-was like a scientific endeavor. Her life had become a millennial click-bait headline: I did everything I don’t normally do and here’s what happened.
It was only just before eleven; she was on time. That was new, too. Though the shade was cool, the patches of direct sunlight were already blazing hot. She pulled her damp blouse from the small of her back—she’d gone for linen’s rumpled elegance, the opposite of sex—and mopped her forehead and nape with fast-food napkins from the glove compartment.
“No expectations, okay?” he’d texted. As though he’d been reading her mind.
She parked at the end of the lane alongside an old truck and set the brake. The chintz chair had been plunked on the porch of a once grand Victorian. The place had a rundown, college-town feel. Old Santa Cruz or Berkeley. Lazy. Casual. A sense of nostalgia for her young, on-the-cusp-of-something co-existed with anticipation of her future, been-there self. She liked it.
Ray stepped through an opening in the shrubs. He wore the same blue overalls, this time with no shirt, showing off his patchwork farmer tan. He motioned for her to approach quietly. She left the keys in the ignition, in case she needed to make a fast break, and crossed a half-hearted lawn pocked with wildflowers. It was the first time she’d worn Tevas on a date. Well, ever.
She stepped through the opening into Ray’s garden: glorious verdant chaos. Weeds flourished between staked zucchini vines. Tomatoes lay on the ground, seeds spilling from open wounds. A hummingbird dipped into a choke of lavender. A crow cawed as it strutted through lettuce. A brown jackrabbit sampled a leaf of chard.
“I don’t know much about farming, but doesn’t it bother you when the fauna eat your flora?” Adele asked.
Ray shrugged. “It’s what they do. There’s enough for everyone.” He sank to his knees and put two eggplants into a basket, then chard, onions.
A large black bee landed on Adele’s hand. She surprised herself by not flinching. Dense bristles covered its body, which was nearly as long as her thumb.
“That’s a carpenter,” Ray said. “He’s just curious. And territorial.”
The bee rose, circled once around Adele’s head, then droned away over her shoulder. She felt special, anointed.
“There’s been a little hiccup in plans,” Ray said. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“I knew it,” she said. “You are a serial killer. The Christmas bullshit is a façade. Buried at the base of each tree are body parts of women from the farmer’s market. That’s why they grow so straight and tall.” Where did that come from? Usually her come-ons weren’t so dark. Well, maybe they were.
“Close,” he laughed. “An old college friend drove in from L.A. this morning. I was so excited for my date with you, I completely forgot. Bern and I do an annual hike and overnight campout this weekend in October.” Ray stood. “Say the word and I’ll send him away.”
Adele was on a roll. “Because if you were planning on chopping me up, throwing me in the Vitamix, and hitting the Mulch button, I’m warning you, I have a toxic black thumb. I’ll kill all your beautiful trees.” What had come over her?
Ray laughed again and kissed her lips. It was a surprising statement of a kiss, devoid of drama and occasion, yet oddly familiar. “It’s settled. Bern stays. For your own protection,” he said, shouldering the basket. “At least for lunch, since he’s making it.”
The kitchen was originally a servant’s pantry, large and cool with built-ins, a woodblock island and walk-in cold storage. Ray had replaced one wall with French doors that let out onto a shadowy overhang with a massive dining table and chairs and a back yard with, get this, a pond surrounded by palms and succulents. A real desert oasis. In a far corner of the yard, was a large, elaborate aviary. A harem of peahens, their bodies like semi-deflated footballs, perched on low branches, while their alpha peacock rushed the front of the cage. The bird’s train rose and fanned. Iridescent green and blue feather eyes stared at Adele. Their quills shivered with a metallic rattle.
“Wow, that’s quite a show.” Adele drank from a bottle of desert-brand beer she’d never heard of. It was okay, for beer.
Ray reached for her hand and the bird screamed again, then rushed the filigreed iron bars. “I think he’s got the hots for you,” Ray said.
“Who wouldn’t?” A man’s voice called out from the pond.
It emerged from the oasis, housed in one of those god bodies: sculpted, honed, chiseled, spray-tanned. Nude but for mirrored sunglasses, the bronzed statue streamed pond water like Adonis on the half-shell.
“Adele, meet Bern,” Ray said. “My naked anthropologist friend.”
Adele rolled the cold beer bottle across her forehead. “Hi there.” She averted her eyes, but not until after she’d had a good look. And it was a good look.
“The first female to crash twenty years of two-man camping history,” Bern said. He pulled on a pair of loose linen pants through which Adele knew he knew she could see. So much for the opposite of sex. He walked over and clasped her hand with both of his.
Adele’s senses hit red alert as she absorbed this intense male proximity. Three, with the peacock. She noted the buffed half-moons of Bern’s manicured nails. Black knuckle hairs all groomed and lacquered in one direction. She smiled into his thousand-dollar shades and couldn’t think of a word to say. He was so L.A. A definite possible Saturday night. Shit. What if she already knew him in the biblical sense?
They ate lunch under the overhang. Bern’s hand-stuffed ravioli with scratch pasta. Bloody, aged strip steaks. More beer. Ray had dismantled and remade Adele’s last-minute Trader Joe’s bouquet, breathing life into the stiff, ornamental blooms. They bantered about chard and AP English, adoptive tree parents and Wuthering Heights. Adele slipped into silence while the guys caught up. They’d roomed together at UCLA. Kept this tradition as a way of marking time, though both men laughingly agreed they hadn’t much else in common. Bern spoke of his year-long expedition to Micronesia: a close call with a raging elephant, a single-prop plane losing altitude, airlift from an avalanche and a photo bomb by a great white. Ray apologized again for double-booking his two friends, and talked about the slow introduction of the Leylandia Cypress alongside the traditional Monterey Pine, his bumper crop of autumn squash, and how Adele wore a velvet dress to the farmer’s market and didn’t flinch when he mentioned Thrushcross Grange.
“How novel,” Bern said, kissing his guns at the groaner. “Adele, you did know Ray was an English professor before he took to the land?”
“I did not,” Adele said, snapping out of a sexy reverie in which she’d pictured Bern, then Ray, then Bern ruining her satin sheets.
“That was a long time ago.” Ray laid his arm across Adele’s shoulders. “So, Adele, are you up for the hike? It’s an easy couple miles to the summit. Your shoes should be fine. I’ve got an extra sleeping bag if you want to stay the night. And if you don’t, we can come right back down and get you on the road before dark.”
“Not spend the night? Have you no standards, man?” Bern said. “What about Furnace Forge? The sunset? The stars? ‘Smores? Waking to the sounds of little birdies? What about campfire bacon and coffee?”
“What’s Furnace Forge?” Adele asked.
“It’s only paradise,” Bern said. “The best piece of Ray’s land.”
“Don’t let him pressure you,” Ray said. “What do you want to do, Adele? There’s no right or wrong answer.”
Adele took a big breath. This was a headline decision. “I haven’t been out in nature in years,” she said. “Let’s do it all. I’m game.”
The peacock shrieked from his cage.
Game. Adele was aware of the connotations. Sports, safaris, French films, wild pheasant, a fox on the grange.
“Atta girl.” Bern clinked his bottle to her empty and downed it.
Ray was right; the hike itself was easy. The shaded trail with a mild incline circled a rock-riddled mountain in the northwest corner of his property. There were surprising vistas at every turn: a snow-capped mountain range, fields of wind turbines, Ray’s free-range trees. Despite Adele’s protests, the guys carried the gear. Bern attacked the trail with a forceful stride, whacking at stray limbs, kicking pinecones soccer-style. Ray was more of a stealth walker, thoughtfully ducking or sidestepping obstacles in his path, helping Adele manoeuvre as needed.
Because they hadn’t started until after dessert—perfect lemon-kissed espresso and a Pavlova with sun-warmed berries—the sun was already sliding toward the horizon when they reached the summit. The men fell into habituated roles: Bern prepared the site and pitched the tents; Ray took charge of all things dinner. Adele was dispatched to enjoy Furnace Forge until further notice.
A clear, snow-fed lake was cradled by boulders and trees. Small enough to swim long laps end to end. Clear enough to see the rocky bottom all the way. Clean enough to drink. The hike left Adele pleasantly dusty and tired. Her muscles buzzed with blood and she was the tiniest bit tipsy from the altitude. Nothing like SoulCycle’s jellied fatigue and brain-burning high. She lowered herself for a drink, ass to treetops, belly down on flat rock. She breathed in the cool air that hovered above the water’s surface. Wow. The world turned, her senses suddenly open. The air itself smelled delicious. Like warm dirt and green growth with an undercurrent of animal tang. Acrid, lush, stringent, decayed. She lapped up great gulps of water, laughing as she drank.
“What’s so funny?” Bern asked, joining her on the ground.
“What?” Adele raised her head like a startled waterhole animal, lake water dripping from her face.
“Ray had to go back to the house. He forgot my wine and the corkscrew. Come on!” Bern popped to his feet, kicked off his shoes, pulled his shirt over his head, and let his pants pool at his feet. Naked, he dove above her, belly-flopped into the water and thrashed toward the other side.
He’s a terrible swimmer, Adele noted, scarcely aware that she, too, was naked and timidly entering the shallows. By the time Bern chopped his way back, Adele was halfway in, numb from waist to feet. He surfaced next to her, breathing hard, and rubbed his hands on his face, then through his short silver hair. He took her wrist and led her out of the water, into the trees.
“Stop,” Adele thought, as Bern pressed her bare back against rough redwood bark. But she didn’t say the word and she didn’t feel the pain: she only felt a preternatural instinct to contain her not-yet-boyfriend’s old college friend. Bern laughed darkly as he urged himself into her. The forest fell away. There was only bones smacking, meat slapping, juices gurgling. To hasten its end, Adele attempted the car wreck moan, the consuming flames, raptor scream. But her throat would not comply.
“Ray, you are one hell of a goddamned angel.” Bern guzzled his pretentious Pinot. “Cedar-planked salmon with fresh dill. Baby potatoes. Roasted eggplant. That was quite a spread. With good, old-fashioned ’smores to come.”
“Sort of old-fashioned,” Ray said, unwrapping the ingredients.
“Serious paradise, am I right, Adele? Can I get an amen?” Bern said.
“Amen.” She kept both eyes on the fire, safely away from both men, the one she’d just fucked and the one she hadn’t yet. Not literally.
Bern refilled his glass and soft-slugged Ray in the shoulder. “By the way, Jacey’s doing well. She said to say hi.”
“You still talk to her? That’s nice.”
“Jacey’s my ex. Well, she was Ray’s first,” Bern laughed.
So the guys had more in common than they’d let on.
Bern jostled Adele with his elbow. “You’re quiet. Not like Jacey at all. I like that in a woman.”
Ray turned and faced her, heartland blue eyes and bright freckles, worn flannel shirt. “Are you having a good time?”
Adele studied Ray for signs of tension. Nervous foot tapping or tight shoulders. But there was nothing. No clues of suspicion or jealousy or dismay despite the fact that when she and Bern had returned from the lake, Ray was already there, tending the fire with primal intensity. “Nature makes me sleepy,” she said.
“There’s a holiday in Micronesia called Basket Day that’s dedicated to mate-swapping,” said Bern, assuming the mantle of Pacific Islands customs expert—which, in fairness, he was. “It’s called Pisupuhui. ‘A hundred pettings.’”
Adele stared into the flickering bonfire. Droplets of sweat bloomed across her forehead. The bloodied stripes on her back throbbed.
“Very poetic,” Ray said.
“The whole idea was for people to go to the woods with a picnic basket for some romance.”
“Romance.” Ray made it sound like a foreign language as he arranged 90% supreme dark chocolate, artisanal marshmallows and gluten-free grahams on blue graniteware plates.
“So what’s in this Micronesian picnic basket?” Adele asked. Partly to align with Ray, partly to forestall Bern’s potential revelation.
“Whatever. Comfort food. Like what we just had,” Bern emptied the bottle into his glass. “If there was an uneven number of participants, couples were encouraged to become threesomes. And if they weren’t paired with their spouses or lovers, no big. After sweet love was had, all was forgiven. People returned to their lives with no guilt, no consequences. It’s like a built-in break. Divorce is unheard of.”
What was this fucker up to? Was Ray in on it? What would her story be? The truth? An apology? Deny deny deny? Bern was clearly the villain. But if he was a dick, so was she.
“Interesting,” Ray said. “The stories we, as a culture, tell ourselves in order to justify or condemn our biology. When really, we’re just animals. Slaves to instinct.” He adjusted the flame on a small blowtorch, pointed it at the deconstructed desserts, and grinned an evil grin. “Screw old-fashioned. We’re going Brooklyn with this shit. No prisoners!”
Adele woke to a nails-on-metal screech. City or country, there was always a bird. But there was also the soft brush needles raining onto the tent. A squirrel debate that ended with a pinecone plop. The quiet percolated breathing of the man who spooned her. She became excited just thinking his name. Ray! Roar! Rowt! He stirred and hardened against her. Maybe she and Ray were the same kind of animal.
“Hey lovebirds! You awake?,” Bern called from outside. “There’s coffee, bacon, shipwrecks, biscuits.”
Adele began to dredge up their encounter by the lake and changed her mind. She decided to treat it as if it never happened. “Shipwrecks?” she asked.
“Scrambled eggs,” Ray said.
She rolled over to face him. “I’m sorry,” she blurted.
He placed his hot hand on her cheek. “Nothing to be sorry for.” His just-woke expression was as placid and inscrutable as the one he wore for evening and day. “Bern’s breakfasts are incredible. And they’re only once a year.”
Adele and Ray were happening, no matter what. She mashed her forehead hard into his hand, then turned to look deep into his eyes. “I do love me some bacon.”
The following Sunday, Adele unfurled fresh linens, white muslin with bluebirds embroidered on the edges, hot and fresh from the dryer, onto the mattress. She and Ray would baptize them later, after the farmer’s market wrapped. If they even made it to the bedroom. She balled up her beautiful vintage satin sheets. Keep or toss? She could take them down the hall right now and drop them in the incinerator. Au revoir, slinky boudoir.
The kitchen timer dinged. Maybe later.
Adele’s shoulder twanged as she bent to open the oven door. The deepest of the scrapes was still healing. She basted the chicken with balsamic vinegar and its juices before sliding it back into the oven. She was trying out a different recipe. An experiment.
Tracy DeBrincat is the author of a 3 prize-winning books: a novel, “Hollywood Buckaroo,” and two story collections, “Troglodyte” and “Moon Is Cotton & She Laugh All Night.” She holds an MA in Film Studies from SF State and is currently at work on a new novel, “Once Upon A Coyote.”