Today’s Member Monday submission is Part One of a two-parter. ‘The Freebird’s Dilemma’ is a story that I submitted to my college’s literary magazine in 1992. Tomorrow I will post the most important lesson that I learned from writing this story.
The Freebird’s Dilemma
By: George T. Parker
“You’re sure you want to leave?”
“Even if I give you a raise?”
“C’mon, Pappy. You know it’s not the money.”
“How about a vacation, Joe?”
Joe glanced up from the parts catalogues spread across the desk then looked back down at the forms and other paperwork. “You know why I’m leaving, Pappy.”
“I guess I do at that,” Pappy said softly. “You’ve been here a long time. Pert near a year. I had a hunch you’d be movin’ on soon.”
“How could you tell?”
“I used to have the wanderlust when I was your age, too. How long have you been thinking of moving on?”
“A couple of months ago I sent applications for field technician jobs to the US Forest Service and several universities in Canada. I got a reply from the University of Winnipeg yesterday.”
Pappy nodded and said, “Can’t say as I blame ya. Movin’ on can be an excitin’ thing. Didn’t get it out of my system til I was almost forty years old.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever get over it, Pappy,” Joe said as he gently tugged at his beard. “I’ve been on the move since high school—ten years now—and I still get the fever every time I pick up a National Geographic or look at a map.”
Pappy looked out the window over his workbench. Green was returning to grass on the hill and the tree across the street after the rains of the last few weeks. He could see the lavender blooms on the lilac branch just poking up from below the window. “It usually hit me at springtime, too. Everythin’ is comin’ alive again. The days are gettin’ longer.” Pappy looked down at the torn apart chain saw on his workbench. He picked up a screwdriver again as he asked, “What about Rachel?”
Joe was silent for a minute. “Yeah. What about Rachel?”
“Why don’t you ask her to go along?”
“Aw, Pappy. I couldn’t ask her to just pull up and leave her town. And what about Jason? Tramping around the mountains is no way for a kid to grow up.”
“There are worse places to tramp around.”
“A kid needs stability.”
Pappy shrugged and said, “I suppose so.” He sat up straight and stretched. He grabbed his white ceramic coffee mug with greasy hands, smearing new designs in the grease already covering the mug. He peered over the top of his black horn-rimmed glasses at Joe filling out the parts inventories and order forms. Pappy gulped the cold, black brew, put the mug down, and went back to work.
Joe rubbed his eyes. They burned from the harsh florescent desk lamp. He reached out to the chaotic pile on the desk and pulled a new catalogue from the bottom of the pile. Two other catalogues slipped from the pile, knocking a framed picture from the desk and sending a storm of papers to the floor. Joe muttered as he gathered the spilled papers. He picked up the framed picture and looked at the image of a far younger Pappy with his wife and little girl. He asked, “How did you know you were ready to throw down some roots, Pappy?”
Pappy shrugged as he said, “Don’t rightly know. I don’t think I ever felt like I was ready. I spent all my time driftin’ from job to job, city to city, state to state. I met a lot of men just like me out there. We all bragged about how great it was to be mavericks with no corral. I read a book by Thoreau once that said somethin’ about the herds bein’ keepers of men rather than men bein’ keepers of herds. It made for fine, manly soundin’ talk. But when the shop whistle blew or the foreman called it a day, us young bucks went back to our greasy spoons and lousy flophouses while the married guys went back to wives and kids and home cooked meals. As much as we talked, quite a few of us would have traded places with them in a heartbeat.”
“So how did you know it was time to settle down?”
Pappy paused his saw work as he thought. “I guess it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Joe sat for a while staring at the poster on the wall of a snow covered mountain with a creek and a cabin in the foreground. He found himself planning a route up the peak.
Joe sang along with Lynyrd Skynyrd as he drove to Rachel’s apartment. He turned his stereo down as he pulled into the parking lot. His heart beat as hard as it had on their first date.
A boy answered his knock. The boy said, “Hi, Joe!” and raised his hand for a high five.
Joe slapped the high five and said, “Hi, Jason. Is your mom ready?”
“Almost, I think.” Jason ran into the living room and shouted back, “Hey, Joe! Did you see the Giants game today?”
“Nah. I had to work, tiger, so I kind of listened to it on the radio.” Joe walked into the living room and collided with the ten year old who was running back toward the front door.
“I kept score today, Joe! Did I do it right?” Jason asked as he handed Joe a battered baseball scoresheet spotted with peanut butter and lime Kool-Aid. “I forgot how to mark a double play.”
“Hey! This looks pretty good! When you have a double play, you connect the outs with a line, like this,” Joe said as he drew a line with his finger across the scoresheet.
“Oh, yeah. Thanks, Joe!”
Rachel was brushing her long brown hair as she entered the living room. “Hello, Joe!”
“What do ya know,” Jason giggled.
“Stop that,” Rachel said.
“Just got back from the picture show!” Jason finished as he began laughing.
“You’re just a little bit off, tiger. I’m on my way to a picture show with your mother, and then dinner. Get your jacket and let’s go.”
After they dropped Jason off with Rachel’s sister and sat through two hours of Robin Williams’ craziness, they made it to Giovanetti’s. Rachel seemed to be doing all of the talking about the movie. Joe mostly just nodded and twirled his spaghetti.
“You’ve been quiet all night, Joe. Is something bothering you?” Rachel asked.
Joe hesitated as he looked into Rachel’s hazel eyes. He took a deep breath, and said, “I’ve gotten a job offer.”
Rachel returned Joe’s gaze for a minute. Then she looked down into her water glass. She lightly swirled the ice. Without looking up, she said, “It isn’t around here. Is it?”
“No, it’s not.” Joe glanced at a passing busboy, then looked down at his plate. “It’s up at Hudson Bay.”
Rachel put her glass on the table and folded her hands into her lap. “So you’re running off to Canada.” She hadn’t looked up.
“You make it sound like I’m a deserter,” he said softly, and he immediately wished he hadn’t said anything.
They both sat in silence, avoiding each other’s eyes. “I guess it really shouldn’t come as a surprise,” she finally said. “You’re always talking about your adventures in the mountains and places. It seems like you really miss it.”
“I do. Sometimes I lie awake at night and remember what it’s like to be lying out under the sky, listening to the wind, and watching falling stars. It’s so foggy here that I can’t even see the stars most of the time.”
Rachel looked up at Joe and smiled. “You see? I can tell when you start talking like that and you get that sparkle in your eye how much you really do miss being out there.”
“It’s just that…” Joe’s voice trailed off. “Well, I just wanted…” Joe watched Rachel’s face. Her eyes were bright. Her smile was the same one she had worn when he had taken Jason rock climbing and she insisted that she didn’t mind.
“Were you going to ask about Jason and me?”
“Don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine.” Rachel’s eyes seemed to get brighter. “Really. We’ll be fine.” She wiped at her eyes.
“Excuse me,” she said as she rose to leave, dropping the maroon linen napkin to the floor. She disappeared towards the ladies room.
Joe picked up the napkin and tossed it on the table. He leaned back in his chair and sighed. He rubbed his chin and gently tugged at the end of his beard. “I hope you know what you’re doing, pal.”
They left shortly thereafter. Joe agreed to break the news to Jason that weekend. He dropped Rachel off at her apartment and went home.
He got a glass of ice water and sat down at his desk. He switched on the goose-neck lamp and pulled his journal from the shelf. He opened it and entered the date. Minutes hummed by as Joe sat staring at the pages. A shadow in the corner of the room caught his attention. He turned to look at his large green backpack. Stains marred the fabric where his sweat had soaked through his shirts and into the pack. Patches and pins, mementos of places he had been, were scattered all over it. Redwoods National Park. Yosemite. Kings Canyon. Glacier. Acadia. Banff. His journal and backpack had been his only constant companions through the years. Soon they would be on the road again.
Joe was well above the tree line and almost to the top of the pass. He eased the load on his back slightly by sliding his thumbs up under the shoulder straps of his pack and re-adjusting the padding. He lifted his gaze across the gravel and rock landscape. Two more switchbacks to climb, and then he could rest.
Joe continued up the trail. The red, sweat soaked bandana slid down over his eyebrows. He pulled it off and ran his fingers through his hair, then shook the huge drops of sweat into the dust. He kept walking as he wiped at his face with the bandana, and then he put it back on his head as he pulled the hair out of his face. He coughed at the dust rising on the trail. A string of mules had gone by not too long ago, and the dust hadn’t yet settled.
Joe groaned with relief as he reached the sign that said “Kearsarge Pass—Elevation: 11,823 ft.” He picked a rock and sat down on it. Unbuckling the harness, he then eased the pack off his shoulders and onto the rock. He shivered as the sweat on his back immediately began to evaporate and chill him. He pulled his old, faded t-shirt off and wiped most of the sweat from his back. He unhooked a water bottle from a strap on his pack and took two swallows.
He looked back down the east side of the pass, the side he had just climbed, at the person plodding along a couple of switchbacks below. He got up and walked a few feet to the west side of the pass. Kings Canyon was there, just as he remembered it from six years ago. The gray-brown bare rock of the peaks contrasted with the deep blue of the sky, blue as it can only be above ten thousand feet. The sun shone brighter, the air was crisper and cleaner than any other place he had been. He imagined the trail as it wound down above Bullfrog Lake and then down to Vidette Meadow.
Joe heard the crunching of boots on gravel behind him. He turned.
“Hi, Jason. Sit down for a spell. Have an apple.”
Jason let his pack drop with a thud, raising a new cloud of dust that billowed up around him. Jason sneezed.
“Just water,” Jason croaked as he opened his pack and dug out a water bottle. He gulped twice and coughed, spilling water down his chin. The water turned some of the dust there to mud. Jason wiped at the water, smearing mud across his face. Joe realized that Jason was getting noticeably taller. Come to think of it, he had carried that pack pretty fast, too.
“You’re getting quick, tiger. Did you pass your mom?”
“I think Mom slowed down to talk to those people we passed about a quarter mile back.”
“That’s okay. We can wait,” Joe said as he sat on the ground and leaned back against the rock. He pulled a ring off his finger and rubbed at the grit that was itching like crazy. He wiped the dust from the ring with his shirt until it was shiny again, then put it back on his finger.
Joe closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the rock. “When we get to our campsite, why don’t we switch jobs? The old man will filter water for dinner, and you can set up the tent. I’m supposed to be on vacation, anyway, and Pappy’d kill me if he found out I was doing any real work up here.”
Jason grinned. Joe had never trusted him to set up the tent by himself before. “Sure, Dad!”
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