A cookout and

Will's point of view. . .

Daniel’s Friends

After I finished building the fire, I set out some of my cedar wood stools while Ramona went into her tent to put on a jacket.

The chairs really are beautiful. Just holding a good piece of wood in my hand makes me feel creative. It's like when you get a new pen and notebook and you feel like you just have to write something. The texture, fragrance and color of cedar wood does that to me. I study and use the natural curves and the chair turns out looking like it grew into a chair instead of having been tortured into a chair.

I heard a couple of motorcycles drive up and walked around the trailer to see who had arrived.

Daniel was there, already pulling his helmet off and walking toward me with a wide grin on his face. He was dressed in a faded leather jacket over worn jeans and motorcycle boots. Although he looked good, he still looked real. I relaxed, happy to see him.

“Will! Man, it is good to see you!” he exclaimed and gripped my hand, pulling me forward into a back-pounding hug. “You used to beat the breath right out of me,” he explained, chuckling.

“Not anymore,” I laughed. “You must be six inches taller and sixty pounds heavier than you were three years ago. It's good to see you, Daniel.”

“I was a skinny little twerp, wasn't I?” he agreed. “Hey, this is one of my friends, Senna.”

As Daniel turned to introduce his friend, her helmet finally came off, and I realized why she had been having so much trouble removing it. She had what I think people call a “fro.” I'd never seen such a big pile of hair. It was caramel-colored and stuck out in ringlets a good eight inches all around her head. Although her hair was light, her face was almond brown.

I thought of Ramona, and wondered if she was still in the tent. She had to be able to hear us—we were only a few feet away.

Is she okay? I wondered. What does he mean by ‘friend'?

“Nice to meet you, Senna,” I said and smiled at the girl who looked like she'd stepped out of a magazine. She was dressed in shiny black leather, with a flowing white scarf tied around her hairline.

Maybe she's a movie star, I thought, and was glad the dark was hiding my patched jeans and worn out boots. She left her motorcycle next to Daniel's and came forward to greet me.

“Hello, Will,” Senna said in a low voice that had the faintest hint of a South African accent. I'd heard that accent once before when some tourists came to a N'da'a7 at our cousin's place. While I was still pondering on whether or not it would be polite to ask about Senna's accent, I heard the tent zipper being pulled down behind me and Ramona emerged to stand next to me.

“Mona!” Daniel exclaimed softly, and although he turned a little pale, his voice sounded glad. He reached out to grip her hand and stepped forward as though he might hug her, but then paused.

“Hi, Daniel,” Ramona responded with a reserved, but genuine smile. She was beautiful, even in her old jeans and faded red jacket. I reached for her left hand and tucked it through my arm. She threw me a thankful glance, but her eyes were steady.

“I didn't know you were coming!” Daniel said. “You. . . you look great!”

Senna drew a sharp breath that sounded almost like a hiss. Daniel faltered momentarily and then went on, “I hope you guys don't mind, I have a couple other friends coming too. They're bringing food.”

“Sure, that's fine. We're glad to meet your friends,” I assured him as we turned toward the fire.

Senna took Daniel's arm as he started to step away, and came with him to the fire, sitting down on the log next to him. He looked curiously around the campfire at our set up, and then leaned forward to question me. Ramona sat down beside me.

“Is Jake here too?”

“No. Just me and Mona. Jake wanted to come, but he has a deadline on getting a horse ready for a buyer. You wouldn't recognize him. Jake's bigger than me now.”

“No way!” Daniel responded with a laugh. “Little Jake? How's Grandpa?”

“He's good. He just turned ninety. He sent you some more mountain tobacco.”

I noticed Senna was looking at Ramona through narrowed eyes and I watched my sister try to smile and look friendly. Daniel got up to take his gloves and jacket back to his motorcycle, and I turned to pick up some firewood in the shadows.

“I've seen you before,” Senna said in a low voice to Ramona when Daniel was out of hearing range. “In a photograph. Daniel has a photograph of his dog, and you're in it too. You're prettier than your picture.” Her tone was grudging and irritable but Ramona smiled.

“Thank you,” she responded, “I like your name.”

Senna's irritableness was suddenly swept away by a wide smile that lit up her face. “I'm a dancer,” she told us. “Did you know that already?”

“No. I didn't know,” Ramona answered, “What kind of dance?”

“Mostly jazz and freestyle. Some ballet. It's called interpretive dance.

“She's really good,” Daniel put in, as he sat down again, this time on a stool across the fire. She smiled happily at his compliment, but looked disappointed when he sat down.

Maybe she's not his girlfriend, I thought.

Just then a yellow Volkswagen Bug pulled up and three of the doors flew open.

“The rest of my friends,” Daniel announced, standing up to greet them and introduce us to each other.

A girl named Melanie was the driver. She was a tall and slender blonde, but in spite of her willowy appearance, I had the impression that Melanie was tough as nails. The other girl was small and dark, with curly black hair. Daniel introduced her as Jace.

“Actually, her name is Jacqueline, but we call her Jace,” Melanie corrected. Jace herself nodded timidly, and sat down by the fire, removing herself from the discussion. “And this is Tony, Jace's brother,” Melanie added briefly and sat down next to Jace, leaning forward to add more wood to the fire.

“Yeah, this is my friend Tony,” Daniel said, as though he'd never been interrupted. “He helps me in the shop sometimes.”

Tony was short and dark like his sister, and at a glance I could see he was smitten with the confident Melanie. His eyes never left her face.

Senna and Melanie did not acknowledge each other. It seemed Daniel had attracted some female competition for his favor.

“In the shop?” Ramona asked, as we all sat down around the fire again.

“Yeah, what kind of shop?” I added, glancing at Daniel, as I removed the sticks Melanie had piled onto the fire, and put the grill over the coals. “Time for the steaks,” I explained apologetically. Melanie shrugged and grinned.”

“He's an inventor!” she answered me. “A mad scientist!”

“No, he's not.” Senna stated flatly, looking worriedly at Daniel.

“I haven't invented anything,” Daniel said, laughing. “But I've learned a lot from other inventors. We've been working on a Stubblefield8 ground terminal, lately. I've got a little house with a garage, and we've turned it into a shop.”

“A crappy little house,” Senna interjected again. “But it's not a permanent situation.”

“It's a cool shop,” Melanie contradicted. “We have parties there sometimes.”

“Like this,” Tony added quietly.

“It's nice,” Jace added even more quietly.

“What did you say?” Melanie asked, looking at Jace in surprise.

“It's nice,” Jace said, blushing. “It's not crappy.” She darted a shy glance toward Daniel and I saw that Daniel had three would-be girlfriends in tow.

Senna stopped filing her nails and looked at Jace with genuine pity in her glance. She sighed and nodded. “I guess it's not so crappy, depending on what you're used to.”

“Does it work?” Ramona asked Daniel, and he glanced up at her, nodding eagerly.

“The ground terminal? Yeah. It totally does. A little. But I'd like to try it in one of those stands of scrub oak you guys have out behind your house. It takes a while to get started. I'm not sure how it works, but somehow the device pulls electricity from the ground itself, and it takes a while to get it flowing.”

“He's a web designer,” Senna said to Melanie, and then swung her glance around to include me and Ramona. “My dad says he has a lot of potential in web design. He's got a part time job at Intel already.”

At that moment a Honda Civic pulled up next to our truck and the lights switched off.

“I'm not expecting anyone else—are you?” Daniel asked, looking around questioningly.

“Yeah,” Ramona answered, as I turned away to get the steaks. “A girl from the conference we're attending.” Ramona laughed at Daniel's shocked expression in my direction.

I squatted near Daniel, by the fire, laying the steaks on the grill and said in a low voice that only he could hear, “You're the one with three girlfriends, man.” Daniel grinned at me and wiggled his eyebrows up and down.

“Just one,” he answered quietly.

Molly got out of the car and came around the side of it, standing in the shadows. She looked small and ill-at-ease, so I stood up to greet her.

“Hi Molly. I'm glad you made it. Come and join us.”

Molly had pulled a black watch cap down over her red hair, and beneath it her eyes were like two spots of blue glass and her nose was a red button. She followed Ramona to the fire and I offered her my cedar wood stool.

“Oh! What a beautiful chair!” Molly exclaimed, forgetting her own discomfort as she turned the stool from side to side to look at it.

“It is pretty,” Jace agreed in a low voice, and Melanie stood up to examine her own stool.

“Kind of 60's,” she commented.

I went to get another stool from the trailer and as I entered the firelight again Molly exclaimed, “Where do they come from? They're just lovely! Oh, and there's a table to match!” She left the stool and went over to the table where we had set the food, and bent over to examine it with wonder.

“I guess, ‘match' isn't the right word,” she corrected herself, as her small hand trailed appreciatively over the surface. The table was a tree on it's side. The legs had been limbs. The top of the table had been cut and sanded smooth and the varying yellow and red colors of cedar wood formed a circular pattern on the table top. Molly pushed around the condiments in order to see the whole effect.

“If I had to guess, I'd say Will made them,” Daniel said with a hint of laughter in his voice. Molly glanced at him and then turned a ninety degree circle, looking for me. I was standing behind her, grinning like a fool. I couldn't help but be pleased with Molly's enthusiasm for my furniture. I wanted to give her a chair or something, but I was afraid that might give the wrong impression.

“You made them!” she exclaimed again. It seemed almost everything Molly said was an exclamation. “What else can you do?” she asked with wonder. “You own land and you can make furniture. How old are you?”

“Ninety-two,” I opened the ice chest, trying to change the subject. “Beer, soda, or water?” I asked Ramona, my voice sounding hurried. She grinned at me and raised her eyebrows teasingly. I shook my head and frowned a little, threatening to preemptively toss her a kombucha.

“I'll have a water,” she said after a chuckle. I exchanged the kombucha for a bottle of water.

“He's twenty-three. I'm seventeen. How old are you, Molly?” Ramona asked after she caught the bottle I tossed.

“I'm twenty-three,” Molly answered, accepting the first thing I offered her, which happened to be a home-brewed root beer. I popped the top off and handed it to her. She turned the bottle around and around in her hands, studying the hand-written label.

“Wow,” she took a sip and looked up with a surprised expression. “It's really good.”

“Hey, we brought some organic beer!” Melanie announced, sending Tony back to the car to retrieve an ice chest. “Daniel said you guys are organic freaks, like him. So am I—sort of. What do you think about this?” She opened the ice chest and handed a bottle to Daniel, who obligingly opened it and gave her a thumbs up after taking a drink.

I put the steaks on and Ramona began to lay green chiles on the edges of the grill to roast.

When Melanie, Tony and Jace decided to go find the restrooms, Daniel came around the fire to sit near me and Ramona. Molly sat to one side, quietly watching and listening. I was conscious of her perspective, hearing about us and the farm for the first time through Daniel's questioning.

“Do you have the same horses you had when I was there? Do you still have Cricket?” Daniel asked.

“Yep, he's waiting for you. Dad calls him ‘Daniel's horse,'” I answered. Daniel dropped his head, smiling at the ground. “Jake has a steady stream of new animals that he buys at the flea market for pocket change; he gentles them and resells for a good price.”

“And we have Clementine, our guard mule,” Ramona added. “You should tell him about last week.”

“Last week? What happened last week?” Daniel asked, looking up with grin of anticipation. “Something big. I can tell by Ramona's smile.”

“Oh, nothing happened,” I shrugged. “Just a little tangle with a mountain lion.”

“A mountain lion! Holy crud, man—out with the story!” Daniel insisted, laughing at my attempt at nonchalance.

So I told the story, feeling like I wasn't doing it justice. Somehow the words just couldn't convey the excitement of the experience. Senna kept yawning and I guess that might have made me doubt myself. But Molly's eyes were round with wonder and I saw her looking at Daniel questioningly, as though she were trying to decide whether or not I was telling the truth.

“Man, I wish I could have seen that!” Daniel said when I finished my narrative. “What a story. You should write that up and send it to some hunting magazine. That's amazing. Your dad must have been in agony standing there watching the scene unfold. It's a good thing he had the gun and not Lonnie, or you might have gotten shot out of the saddle.”

“You don't know how right you are,” I agreed, laughing.

“That story isn't really true, is it?” Senna asked dubiously, looking at Daniel.

“Sure it is,” he asserted. She shuddered in alarm, staring at me as though I were the mountain lion.

“Why did you name your mule Clementine?” Molly asked curiously.

“We have a little sister who was only two years old at the time,” Ramona explained, smiling. “Right before we got the mule, Anna had asked me one day to sing the song about the poor man who lost his orange. We couldn't figure out what she was talking about at first, but then she sang it for us,

“Oh my darlin', Oh my darlin'
Oh my darlin' Clementine
You are lost and gone forever
Oh my darlin, Clementine. . .”

Then,” Ramona continued, laughing at the memory, “when we got the mule colt, she was kind of orange-colored, so we named her Clementine.”

“What a cute story,” Senna commented with a tight smile and asked, “Are there any mountain lions near Albuquerque?”

“No!” Daniel laughed, and then cut himself off, when he saw the truly worried look on Senna's face. “No,” he said seriously, looking into the fire. “There are no lions here. They have the sense to stay out of the city.”

There was a moment of silence. Ramona was the first to shrug off the awkwardness and speak.

“Mom and Dad said to tell you they miss you, Daniel. And Grandpa says ‘hi'. Jake says if you come visit again he'll race you in the next Pinehill rodeo. And Anna wants to know if you're a big person or a little person. She doesn't remember when you came the first time.”

“Oh, man,” Daniel shook his head wistfully. “Tell me about everybody. How's your mom and dad? They invited me out for the summer again.”

“They're fine—the same. Can you come this summer?” I asked. “They'd love to see you.”

Daniel shook his head, “I have to work. . . but tell them ‘hi' for me.” He looked at Ramona and I saw that she had turned to the table behind us, looking for a bag for the roasted chiles. “Don't give up on me,” he added quietly. “I'll be back someday.”

Molly looked from me to Daniel with a question in her eyes, but she didn't say anything. Senna was scraping her newly filed nails against the wood of her seat with a depressed expression.

I wondered what “someday” meant to Daniel. In my life, the things I put away for someday generally get dusty and eventually thrown away. But some folks are harder to read than others and Daniel was a complicated character.

“Do you still live with Uncle Jerry?” I asked, to fill the awkward silence.

“No. I rent a little house on the south side of town. It's a pile of junk, but it's cheap. I see my stepdad once a month,” Daniel replied, squinting at the fire. “He still drinks too much, and I can't be around him or he drags me down with him. You know.” He glanced up at me and his eyes were frank. “But I meet him at a shooting range once a month. He likes to shoot skeets.”

“Are you a good shot?” Ramona asked, smiling as she returned to the fire. “Jake will want to know.”

“It depends,” Daniel answered honestly. “I have almost perfect instinct, but if I try to aim, I miss half the time. But you can tell Jake that I'm a dead shot.” He chuckled. “I'm too busy to practice more than one hour a month.”

“Busy with college?” I asked, taking off the first bunch of steaks. I turned to hand the plate to Ramona. Daniel hesitated for a moment before answering. Melanie, Jace and Tony returned to the fire, and sniffed the grilled steaks and green chile with appreciation.

“You guys come on and help yourself,” Ramona invited and they eagerly joined her at the table. I looked questioningly at Daniel, letting him know I was still waiting for his answer, but he didn't reply until Ramona had returned to her seat.

“Yeah, busy with classes and a job on the side that pays pretty good,” Daniel answered. “I'm saving up to buy some land.”

“Why do you want land?” Senna asked abruptly, questioning Daniel's quiet announcement. “Do you mean real estate investment?”

Daniel shook his head and looked studiously into the fire without answering.

“It's his end-of-the-world plan, haven't you heard?” Melanie laughed from across the fire. “We're all gonna move out in the boonies together and have a commune.”

“What's a commune?” Jace asked, looking at her brother.

“She's just joking,” Tony told his sister. “We're not going to live in a commune. Weird people do that. Like nudists and pot heads.”

Melanie burst out laughing and Senna shook her head frowning. “Daniel. . . are you going to start a commune?” she asked.

“No,” he said, and sighed. Melanie and Jace were giggling and whispering when Daniel looked up and around at his friends. “You guys remember when I described the farm I stayed at for a summer a few years ago?”

“You stayed at their farm?” Molly asked enviously. Daniel turned to smile at her and his appreciation for her envy caused his friends to quiet down and listen more attentively.

“It's a cool place,” he told her, nodding. “Have you ever been there?” She shook her head ‘no' and waited for him to continue. Daniel glanced up at me and opened his hands as he tried to express his thoughts. “I can't live like you guys. I don't know how. But I'd like to have a place in the mountains anyway.”

Daniel's friends were silent and looked at him like he had suddenly grown another head. I smiled to myself, hoping he really meant what he was saying. I remembered the day Daniel had to leave us, and the tears in his eyes as he gripped my hand and told me that he'd be back and not to forget him.

“It's more likely that you'll do the forgetting,” I had answered, sad to see him have to go back to a messed up situation. But it seemed I was wrong. Daniel had not forgotten.

“So you're serious,” Melanie stated with a bemused shake of her pale blonde hair. “I always thought you were just—reminiscing or something.”

“Why couldn't you live like them?” Molly asked curiously, glancing at me and then Ramona. “Is the way you guys live really difficult or something?”

Before I could answer, Senna spoke, looking at me with a respect born out of the mountain lion story. “I'm staying here after I graduate, so I can continue with my dance group. I'll get an arts degree unless I change my mind.” She shrugged her shoulders carelessly and then spoke toward Daniel, “A vacation cabin is a good idea. My parents have a time-share in the Rockies. It's a good place for parties and there aren't any mountain lions there. I'll ask Dad if he has heard of any condos for sale.”

Daniel didn't answer and there was a moment of silence. I met his eyes and nodded, smiling. I wanted to tell him that we'd help him build a place, help him get started, but it wasn't the right time.

“What are you going to do?” Melanie abruptly asked Tony, who looked stressed over the question, as though it were a test.

“I. . . I don't know yet. Maybe temp jobs. It isn't boring and it pays pretty well,” he explained. “What do you think I should do?”

“Dude, whatever. I'm not going to tell you what you should do,” Melanie said, shaking her head. Then she added, spreading her arms dramatically, “I'm going to get a teaching degree! Teaching English as a second language. Then I'm going to travel the world. Spain! France! England!”

“You won't be able to teach English in England,” Senna snickered. “You might be able to learn it there, though.”

Melanie laughed, unperturbed. “Maybe I'll be an inventor too,” she said, glancing at Daniel mischievously.

“Sure. You'd be good at it,” he replied cheerfully. Melanie rolled her eyes in an expression of self-deprecation. “Melanie can weld,” Daniel added, holding his beer out as if to toast to her qualities.

“I took a welding class,” Melanie explained. She then turned to Molly, “What about you? Are you from here?”

Molly blushed at the sudden attention, but nodded affirmatively and sat up straight on her stool.

“I'm working on my doctorate in biosystem science and engineering,” she glanced shyly around at us.

“Woah. That's big,” Melanie said. “Are you like, a genius, or something?”

Molly shook her head. “No. But, all my life I've wanted to do this—so I can change the way people farm. People don't know how close we are to destroying our future on this planet. As a doctor of bio-system science, I can make a difference.”

There was a brief silence and then Senna spoke, “That's heavy.” For once Melanie agreed with her.

I was looking at Molly in amazement, trying to believe what she'd just said. I had a hard time imagining her in the professional world. She looked so young and strong. Like she lived in the world she was trying to save, not in the world that didn't care. I felt a twinge of dismay and brushed it away, telling myself that it was her business, not mine.

“Jace just wants to be a wife and mom, isn't that right, Jace?” Melanie offered, elbowing her friend lightly. Jace nodded, appearing grateful to have her “turn” over so easily.

The evening flew by quickly and I was surprised when Molly stood up and excused herself, saying she had to be up early the next morning.

“Holy cow, it's midnight!” Daniel cried in exaggerated shock and dismay, and then turn toward me, laughing. “Do you guys still say that?”

“Holy cow, it's time to hit the sack,” I answered, and Ramona giggled.

“Remember your first drink of raw milk?” she asked Daniel. He stood up and looked down at her, smiling.

“I remember,” he said quietly, and then turned to his friends. “Let's go, guys. Will and Ramona are used to going to bed when the sun goes down, and that was several hours ago.”

We said goodbyes and in a short time everyone was gone but Daniel and Senna. She waited for him, astride her motorbike, with her helmet on. Daniel gripped my hand again.

“It was really good to see you guys. Someday—” he started, looking at Ramona, but then Senna cranked up her motorcycle and gave it a little extra throttle. Daniel smiled and nodded “goodbye” to us. Then he cranked up his bike and they drove away.

I put my arm around my sister and we stood there in the darkness watching the motorcycles wind around the park and through the gate. I thought about Ramona and wondered if she was afraid Daniel might not return or become a man she could spend her life with. The possible jeopardy of her happiness made me a little angry.

If Daniel takes a detour for one of those city girls, he's going to lose more than he can imagine.

City girls, I thought, rolling the phrase over in my mind. Molly Flynn was a city girl too, but I wasn't sure I could dismiss her as easily as the others. And I didn't want to.