After their adventures in Moose in the Road, Ariel, Finca Verde, and thirty years of marriage, Mike and Kirsten reach another landmark. Do they live happily ever after from here or do you have some suggestions on what could happen next?
I hadn’t been back in the hospital since they downsized me and outsourced my department. But, since I was downtown for the sidewalk sale, I thought I would drop in to visit the scene of the crime. Strange feeling. Everything looked the same. Some staff said, “Hi!” when I walked by, as if they just saw me last week and hadn’t noticed me missing for the last two and a half years.
I stopped in the cafeteria for a cup of coffee and donut at afternoon break time, settled into a booth and people watched, putting names to faces and equipment repairs I had made for their respective departments. Joan Atkins, NICU, infant monitor. Larry Olson, Respiratory Care, ventilator. Dr. Morris, OR, arthroscopic probe. And then to my surprise, Ariel…what was her new name now that she married Marty from Radiology? Richards. Ariel Richards.
She saw me. Smiled and headed over. I wondered where we’d start. We never did talk after our Agawa trip and when her son Brian tore his ACL and had to drop out of soccer, we never connected at games either. Then she started doing breaks and lunch with Marty and I got canned.
“Hey, Mike. Nice to see you.” She nestled into the booth, her familiar ponytail bobbing like a cheerleader’s which she still managed to project at…how old would she be now?…mid forties? “We miss you here. How’re you doing?”
Where to begin? Work? Kirsten? What she thought of our adventure five years ago? Lucas? My state of mind? Before I could reply, she jumped in. “I heard you’re busy doing freelance work. What is it? Training manuals, maybe?”
“Yeah, something like that. They’re basically repair manuals for electronic equipment. And ‘busy’ is a relative term. I work from home and it’s either feast or famine. Right now, I’m between engagements and don’t know where else to look.”
Ariel waved dismissively, “You’ll find something. There’s always work for a hands-on guy like you.” She gawped, suppressed a grin, as we both recalled our moment in the lake. I looked down at my cup, muttered, “…says the massage therapist.”
“Physical therapist,” she corrected before smacking my wrist. We were okay.
Ariel looked off, “You know, if you’re really looking for something to do, Marty just bought some nice property next to a stream and flooded lake. He could use a hand. Maybe pay you some.”
“Really? I’d do it for nothing, I’m so bored out of my mind.”
Ariel hunched her shoulders, “I’ll ask him. You know each other…from before, right?”
I shut my eyes and nodded slowly. From before…before I was laid off. Before Kirsten connected with Dr. Gentry and his ground-breaking work in neo-natal cardiology. A generation older than she, he was another self-possessed man in the mold of Mac and Donohue in our past. Kirsten fell for older guys, sure of themselves, full of know-how and competence. So, of course, she was drawn into Gentry’s slipstream, conducting research, attending conferences, editing articles and lectures. She shook-off her career funk, reduced the hours in her practice and filled every spare moment in our lives with “Daryl says this…” and “Daryl needs that,” when she wasn’t working late into the night on his projects. I liked the guy whenever we crossed paths in the hospital. He was approachable and friendly enough. But when he crowded into my home life, I began to resent him.
I opened my eyes to take in Ariel waiting for my response. I could unload on her. All my frustration and anger about losing my job. About having to scramble constantly to find gigs. It was bad enough when I worked in the same place as Kirsten and she earned three times as much as I did. Now, I was barely pulling my weight, work wise. And even if I begrudged her adulation of the renowned doctor, her time and energy, and who knows what else she spent with him, I couldn’t really fuss too much. She was the primary earner. We needed her for the benefits, for house payments, for Lucas’s medical school.
Ariel held her head at a welcoming tilt, as if to say, ‘yes, I’m ready to listen, can bear some of your load.’ But then I decided not to share and said instead, “I would really appreciate a chance to get outside. Do some physical work. I’ve been stuck in front of my computer all winter designing job-aids and flow charts. Would you ask him?”
‘Where is this place?”
“Just down 131. The other side of Schoolcraft.”
“Oh, that’s handy.” I smiled. She smiled.
Marty walked me around his property. It was gorgeous. Landlocked between farm fields with barely a two-track access road, the eighteen acres surrounded a lake—or maybe a pond, depending on how deep it got in the middle. In any case, it was clean and swimmable due to the feeder stream dammed for controlled flow at the far end. That, and apparently, an underwater spring noticeable by the cold spot in the northwest quadrant, Marty pointed out.
“Any fish?” I asked.
“Yeah, the usual. Bass, bluegills. I even caught a pike once.”
Noticing a marshy verge with cattails and reeds, I asked about ducks.
“Oh, yeah. Great hunting in the fall.”
We hiked through the woods along several paths intersected by game trails. “Deer?” I asked.
“Uh-huh. I got a six-point last season.”
A windrow of blackberries skirted a neighboring cornfield. “Ariel made jam last year,” Marty remarked. Better and better.
When it started to sprinkle, we ducked into a simple cabin, small but compact, like a grounded travel trailer. No running water meant several plastic milk jugs lined the sink and a five-gallon bucket sat under the drain next to a thirty-gallon propane tank that powered a hot-plate. A weathered section of an extension ladder reached a loft with a double mattress and sleeping bags. Primitive but functional. I loved it.
Best of all, there was a separate room attached to the cabin that held boots and clothing for deer hunting. “To avoid human smell contamination,” Marty explained.
After the shower, we walked out onto the warped and sun-bleached dock. A fish rose to slurp a bug off the surface. “I’d like to work out here,” I said.
“Be my guest…yeah!” Mart agreed.
“Where would I start?”
Marty stamped his foot on the dock that quivered and rocked slightly. “How about here?”
“Sure. How do you want to work it? Supplies and stuff?”
“I’ll give you my Menard’s card and you can buy whatever you need…rent a delivery truck from them. I’ll certainly help weekends and maybe evenings. But, go for it, man.”
What fun. I dove into that property like a housewife going back to work after raising kids. At night I researched You Tube for the next project. Every chance I got, between and around freelance assignments, I would draw up plans, order supplies, then saw, screw and pound for days on end. Marty was all-in on my scheme to build a composting toilet on top of the hill that overlooked the pond. He loved the idea of being able to do his business with the door wide open…like squatting in the woods but no poison ivy, he allowed.
Besides re-planking the dock, Lucas and Brian, Marty and me reinforced the dam and then cleared all the trails over Memorial Day weekend. Whenever I found the time, I would fish from a battered aluminum canoe or swim out to a two-barrel raft to study the shoreline and choose the best site for a full-sized house—picturing what it would look like, the lay-out of rooms and the best views of water and woods. So, you can imagine my delight, barely concealed, when Marty announced that he had scored the head of a radiology department in Bloomington, Indiana.
We were sitting on a bench next to the dock, chilled cans of Oberon in hand, to celebrate his promotion.
“How is Ariel taking the move?” I asked.
“Oh, she’s excited and already has lined up work with a private physical therapy group. No, she’s ready for the change.”
There was a long drink, swallow and burp-pause while we both pondered the obvious next question. Marty spoke first. “So, we weren’t planning on keeping this place, for a lot of reasons. And since you’ve put so much time and energy into it, we’d like to offer you the chance to pick it up.”
“Wow! Yeah,” I said. “Let me talk it over with Kirsten. But yeah, I’m very interested.”
Two days later, I practically dragged Kirsten out to ‘the land’ as I had begun calling it in my mind. She seemed vaguely impressed with the setting. “Reminds me a little of up north woodlands and streams. Nice,” was the extent of her enthusiasm. She was less than excited about the cabin and its primitive facilities but allowed it would be suitable for hunting. I was getting annoyed and finally downright angry after I showed her our open-door throne on a hill and she just shook her head in disgust.
We shared Sarkozy sandwiches and beer on the bench, both of us deep in our own thoughts. Finally, I broke the silence. “Marty and Ariel want to sell it to us.”
Kirsten raised her chin, “Ah. I see.”
I decided to keep my counsel and let her respond.
“Obviously, you really enjoy this place. And so would I, for that matter…as a getaway, back-to-nature place. And we should be able to afford it.”
I could hear the ‘but’ waiting to emerge. I kept still.
“Daryl has been asked to bring his work to the Cleveland Clinic and wants me to join him, to continue our research.”
And where did that leave me, I wondered. But again, I was going to let her spin this out.
“And look, Cleveland is only four hours away. We could get back here…regularly. I’d love it.”
The ‘we’ was reassuring. I was still part of her plans. But then I felt a resolve churn in my gut. I was tired of playing the trailing spouse, of always following Kirsten’s lead. I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly and said, “I don’t intend to move to Cleveland. In fact, I was hoping…” I paused. “In fact, I intend to build a home…our home, our retirement home…on top of that rise behind us.”
“That’s sweet, Mike. But like I said, we could do both. Relocate and keep this as our secret retreat. Besides I’ve got a few years before I’m ready to retire.”
I got up and walked away. This was going to be her decision. Her turn to follow me. I did the circle trail around the lake. Half an hour later, she was still sitting on the bench. I joined her and waited, staring straight ahead—her serve.
I felt Kirsten shift on the bench. She fingered my overgrown hair. I hadn’t had a trim in a while. “You’re getting older, Mike. Gray sideburns and all. I like that in a guy.”
I turned to feel the draw of her penetrating, hazel eyes. “Can we get WIFI so I can work from here?” she asked.
“I bet we can.”
Kirsten clenched her lips, nodded to herself. “So, where are the fishing rods?”
“This is my aquarium. Catch and release, only.”
“You’re starting to sound like Mac, you know that?” she teased.