The Otter and the Fox

otter fox

A wee tale for the change of seasons, maybe a little bit of allegory tossed into the mix.

(Ripples \\ Genesis)

The Otter and The Fox

Looking back on the events of the past summer, as the old man was wont to do from time to time these days, he found himself wandering down among the stacks in the deeper recesses of memory. Such musings were not at all uncommon and in a way he took a simple but curious comfort from these outings, and while many of these excursions were good for a smile others were not so pleasant. And as is true enough for us all, there were more than a few that brought a tear to his eye.

He was a meticulous old man and this was no doubt due to his upbringing. His father had been an aviator in the Great War, as the first big war of the twentieth-century was called, which was the one that happened before historians came up with the clever idea of numbering our wars. By the time the second big war rolled around his father was an admiral in the American Navy and he was still, nominally at least, an aviator. When the old man thought about his father it was usually when he folded his laundry or brushed his teeth, because his father had been very meticulous when teaching his son how to do those two most important things. Briefs had to be folded just so, socks in another manner altogether. Shirts were never folded; no, they were picked up from the laundry and immediately placed on wooden hangers and hung in the appropriate closet, and with an inch between hangers. The rod in his father’s various closets had always been marked at one inch intervals but, his father added when he passed along such wisdom his son, if you didn’t have a ruler you could use two fingers placed side by side to approximate the distance. Slacks needed three inches – or four fingers when you had small finger – like the father’s son had in those days. 

His father never explained why these things were so. No explanations were necessary where his father was concerned.

The old man’s mother was an even more curious creature. Her father had some modest successes as an Episcopal priest, her mother much more success as a poet who also taught literature at a woman’s college in Western Massachusetts, which was, coincidentally and speaking in approximate terms, where her father and mother met. His mother seemed to exist on another plane, at least as far as this marriage was concerned. Her father seemed to wrestle with his demons during every waking moment, these demons coming to him in the form of bourbon whiskey and very young prostitutes. Her mother, on the other hand, was a saintly wraith who spent her every waking moment either preparing lectures for her students or writing poetry. This might explain her success as a teacher and a poet, and perhaps her father’s demonic proclivities as well, but suffice to say that the old man’s mother passed along a somewhat eclectic crop of incidental talents. She was, after all, an artiste.

By the time the old man graduated from high school he had lived in Manila, Honolulu, Annapolis, Honolulu again, and finally San Diego. He went to college in 1960 at the University of California Los Angeles and he studied both architecture and engineering. While there he learned to sail and he learned to fly small single engine airplanes, and on a dare once he went sky-diving. He did not repeat that mistake. He finally learned to ski and loved the snow and the mountains all of which in no way accounted for his decision to attend the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. He rented a room in a little house a block off the drag owned by two women who spent a lot of time together, usually around a potter’s wheel or at their kiln off the little one car garage out back. Among other things, they taught him about the joys of making guacamole, and their cheese enchiladas were beyond heavenly. He finally figured out what their secret ingredient was, too. Love. pure and simple – with maybe just a pinch of cilantro.

He was doing an internship over summer vacation in ’66; he was picking up a book at the architecture library and had just started back for his car when the gunshots started raining down on the South Mall. He saw a girl running for the door he had just entered to and when he turned to open the door for her he watched as the side of her head exploded into a misty rain of blood and bone. He pulled her in, pulled her to cover and he held her while she died in his arms.

He called his father a few hours later and he cried.

And his father told him to be a man, that real men didn’t cry at times like this.

The girls made him cheese enchiladas and fresh guacamole later that evening, and they helped him keep it together by teaching him all about the medicinal properties of Jose Cuervo tequila, thick wedges of juicy green limes and a whole shitload of salt. He had to admit sometime during the night that tequila was really very evil stuff and best left to others.

He graduated from the school a year later and moved to Seattle – because he missed the sea and wanted to live close to the mountains. He figured it was either Seattle or somewhere in Norway, and at least Seattle was close to La Jolla, where his parents were bunking out now that his old man had retired his flag.

The late-60s was an interesting period on the West Coast generally and while Seattle was no different it wasn’t exactly Berkeley or Haight-Ashbury, either. The “wood-butcher” school of incoherent architecture was taking off about that time, with untrained urban-anarchists retreating to the Cascades to build houses in the woods that more often than not looked like a cross between a submarine and a pile of melted candles. Maybe this period was a revolt against the revolting ranch-style houses of the period, and maybe that was a good thing, too. It got people thinking outside of the box for once, and maybe it all had something to do with Tolkien and Middle Earth, or maybe it was all the talk about Don Juan and his “magic mushrooms” which were floating around the edges of the scene just then. Well, hell, psychedelics were all the rage around Portland and Seattle in those days, so what harm could a few mushrooms be…?

He didn’t have a job lined up but that didn’t stop him. He went from firm to firm, talking to partners and dropping off copies of his portfolio and it didn’t take all that long; within a couple of weeks he had several interviews lined-up. He’d always wanted to concentrate on residential architecture and that proved a point in his favor. Most firms like to work on big projects, and for all the obvious reasons, but they usually keep a couple of Birkenstock-wearing creative types in a dark corner to work on residential commissions, and that’s exactly where C. Llewelyn Sumner found himself working in the fall of 1967. He rented a little two bedroom bungalow in the North Queen Anne neighborhood because it was an easy bus ride to work, and he set up a drafting table in the spare bedroom and bought just enough cookware to make cheese enchiladas and guacamole because, really, what else did you need?

C. Llewelyn Sumner wasn’t an ugly specimen, he was in fact fairly representative of genus Homo Americanus. Neither tall nor short, skinny or fat, his mother had always bought his clothes “off the rack” – and most frequently from the nearest JCPenney – and this was by the late 60s a habit fairly well ingrained in Sumner. He typically wore Perma-Pressed slacks the color of peat-moss, neither brown nor maroon but trapped someplace in between, and he invariably wore madras shirt sleeved shirts, once again of the ‘never needs ironing’ variety. And yes, he wore Hush-Puppies, though he never wore them with white socks – because his father had him taught proper sock etiquette from a very early age. When Sumner went to work he always slipped on a tan corduroy sport coat before he left his little bungalow – just because. Once at his drafting table the coat disappeared until it was time to return home.

Perhaps because of his mother’s contributions to his being, he possessed a rather florid artistic sensibility. His first designs were intricately rendered prairie-ranch style houses, sprawling hipped-roof affairs with four foot roof overhangs and vast expanses of glass the defining characteristics of this early period of his work, and as they were unusual yet very attractive he gained a following. The firm was therefore happy with his work, too, if only because nothing breeds success quite like a steady cash flow.

After a year at the firm one of the senior partners asked him to join a group the coming weekend on a kind of client interview. About all he knew going into the weekend was that the client (and his wife) were fabulously wealthy and that they wanted a very serious new house to be the focal point on a little island in the San Juans they’d just bought. They would be departing from Bellingham early on Saturday morning, and this presented a minor problem for C. Llewelyn Sumner, as he had no car, and actually had very little interest in them.

Yet the only automobile that did interest him was the little Porsche 911, but the prices were just a little out of his reach. Still, he went to a local dealer and kicked a few tires until a salesman approached. Sumner told the salesman what his proposed budget was and the salesman took him over to look at one of newer versions of the model, the 911E. It wasn’t an “S” model but it was a Porsche, and the price was right on the bleeding edge of doable, so the next day after work he picked up a tangerine colored 911 and drove home with a big, fat smile on his face. His neighbors were envious. Girls started looking at him as he drove to work. He found he was happy, or at least happier than he had been in quite a while, and he thought it odd that purchasing a car could do that to a person.

So he woke up extra early that Saturday and made the hours long drive up to Bellingham; everyone hopped on the client’s sailboat and they took off for the Sucia Island group. The client was a bigger than life character who was considered something “big in the timber biz” and he had a bunch of money, too, and mentioned that more than once that morning. His wife was charming, articulate, and obviously loved her husband – in fact she doted on him constantly. When they arrived at the client’s island a small but very substantial pier had already been put in place, and power had already been run to the island – “at great expense!” added the rich man – and two wells for water were up and running. A small bulldozer was working on clearing a roadway from the pier to the proposed building site, and as this was a Saturday, Sumner knew with overtime rates being paid to the operator that the client was obviously in a hurry to get things done.

So, the four of them walked the quarter mile to the site and Sumner looked at all the various views – of Mount Baker to the east and the Olympics to the southwest and it was hard to say which was the more dramatic. From a designers perspective the setup was almost surreal…unobstructed views…and not a single neighbor…just the sea and a few other islands sprinkled in the area, and most of those were wilderness preserves. Sumner pulled out a compass and a notepad and got to work taking notes, and an hour later the group was on the way back to Bellingham.

And it was kind of funny. On the trip back, Sumner had the impression that Mrs. Client was hitting on him just a little and besides feeling a little awkward  he just carried on trimming sails and thinking about the island site. He drove back to his bungalow full of ideas and so jazzed was he that he went straight to his drafting table and got to work, drawing all through the night and into Sunday morning. When he arrived at work on Monday morning the partner involved asked Sumner if he had any ideas and Sumner just unrolled the floor plan and several elevations and let his drawings answer the question. The partner involved was flabbergasted at Sumner’s productive capacity and immediately called the Client and his Wife and they rushed down to the office. Sumner set about producing a rendering of the house sitting among the pines on the island, and he had that ready to go just before the Clients arrived.

Client was thunderstruck, almost speechless when he saw the first rendering, and Mrs. Client was moved to tears. She proclaimed Sumner a genius, and with that accomplished the Clients signed on the dotted line, turning over the design and construction oversight to the firm for a more than generous commission. And by all appearances every one of the firm’s partners was more than pleased with Sumner’s work to date and by unanimous decision he was made a junior partner on the spot.

C. Llewelyn Sumner decided he needed a house of his own, but he had run into a problem by choosing to live in Seattle. Seattle is itself a fairly diffuse concept, with the major suburbs spreading across the sound to Bainbridge Island and Bremerton, inland to Bellevue and Redmond, and north to Everett and even as far north as Bellingham. Boeing was the beating heart of the area, the aircraft manufacturer having facilities spread all over the area, and new companies were relocating to Seattle as the commercial aviation sector boomed with the success of the 707 and 747 models.

So while Sumner was now confronted with the very simple problem of where to live, he had to admit he liked living close to downtown. He liked living in a city that felt like a community, and the Queen Anne neighborhood fit the bill. But he was going to have to work on the island site several days a week and for weeks at a time and that meant three hours a day in the car just to get the Bellingham and back, and he’d need to rent a launch to run out to the island and back… And that didn’t sound all that good or even fun.

So he mentioned the problem at work, and one of the other new hires chimed in with an oddball suggestion.

“Buy a boat,” a girl named Tracy said. “Take it up there and anchor off the island, and drive home when you need a change of clothes.”

“A boat?” said C. Llewelyn Sumner.

“Sure. I do. I keep mine down at Shilshole,” she added.

“You live on a boat?” he repeated, incredulous now and with his arms crossed over his chest.

“Yeah. Why don’t you come down after work and I’ll show you around.”

“You live on a boat?” he said again, mystified and now shaking his head.

“Chuck, just stop it, okay?”

His face was a blank until he realized she’d called him ‘Chuck.’ “What did you call me?” he growled.

“Chuck. You know, your first name is Charles, so I just thought…”

“Don’t you dare call me that ever again,” he snarled, now red-faced and trembling.

“Sure thing, Charles.”

“My name is Llewelyn.”

“Sorry, but I can’t say that one with a straight face,” Tracy said, breaking into an impish little smile.

“Try!” Llewelyn said as he turned and stormed back to his table.

He worked on the foundation plans for the rest of the day and as he was packing up to leave Tracy came over to his table and blocked him in.

“Hey, what’s up, Chuck.”

He ignored her as he rolled up his drawings.

“I’m just curious, Chuck, but have you ever been, you know, like…laid?”

He turned and looked at this red-hair-freckle-faced girl like she was a contagion, but he decided against a reply and just shook his head, then he pushed his way past her and made for the parking lot. She, of course, followed. She was having too much fun to realize she was poking at a sleeping bear with a sharp stick.

“Come on, Chuck! Buy me dinner and I’ll show you my…boat…”

When he got to his car he stepped inside and put his things away then drove home, and she did not follow him, though he’d halfway expected she might. When he was getting out of his car his next door neighbor said hello, and that they were headed to the boat show, and that piqued Sumner’s interest. “Where’s it at?”

“Oh, down at Lake Union. Mainly sailboats this time of year. You wanna go with us?”

He made up his mind right then and there. “Would you mind?”

“No, no, hop on in. Plenty of room.”

It was only a few minutes away and soon enough he was walking around amongst a few dozen manufacturers displays, including an interesting boat from Finland, a chunky double ender with a huge pilot house, and he’d never seen anything like it down in LA.

“What is this?” he asked the representative.

“Well, it’s not really in production yet, but the people back in Finland are trying to put together a consortium to build this design as a production boat.”

“Mind if I take a look down below?”

“No, no, that’s why we’re here. Help yourself, and I’ll be right here if you have any questions.”

“Thanks,” he said as he climbed aboard. Teak decks, huge airy pilot house, easy to get on and off – he thought as he walked around the deck. Then he went below…

“Oh sweet Jesus,” he said as he went from the pilot house down to the galley, and he turned right around and walked back over to the rep. “Is this boat for sale?” he asked.

“Yes, of course.”

“How much?”

The rep handed over a flyer with the vessel’s details and drawings on it, and a price was listed down at the bottom of the page.

“How much do you want for a deposit?” Sumner asked.

“You want to buy it now? You haven’t even been out on her?”

Sumner shook his head. “Would ten percent down be alright,” he asked as he pulled out his checkbook.

“Suits me,” the rep said, shaking his head. “Let’s get started on the paperwork.”

Sumner would take delivery after the show ended, in ten days. He bought some basic gear for cooking and cleaning, including a little inflatable boat called a Zodiac that he’d seen on a Jacques Cousteau TV special. And it was at this point he realized he was going to need some help moving the boat off Lake Union through the locks, before he could even think about the trip north to Bellingham. The next morning he talked to the firm’s partner he’d sailed with on the Client’s yacht and of course he recommended that he talk to…Tracy.

So, when he picked up the boat from the dealer on Lake Union he did so with a little red-headed fire-plug of a girl by his side, and the funniest part of that whole thing was she hung around off and on for a few years, more like a kid sister than a girlfriend, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying on her part. But, oh yes, they moved the boat up to Bellingham and he put the boat in a marina there and her big brother came up to drive them back down to Seattle. She’d come around from time to time after that and sometimes they’d go out to dinner or to a movie and whenever her friends asked if the tall guy was her boyfriend she’d just shrug and dance coyly around the edges of their assumptions, you know, like a ‘…wouldn’t you like to know?…’ kind of coy.

A few years later Boeing discontinued their SST project and it seemed, taken with the ongoing social miasma of Vietnam and all the other breathless disappointments of the late sixties, that the world was coming to an end…and who knows, maybe it was. Boeing laid off thousands and shit always rolls downhill. Other businesses either drastically cut back their payrolls or simply shuttered their doors and closed up shop, including the firm where C. Llewelyn Sumner worked. So, he thought, maybe just one world was ending, and another was beginning?

But by the time Sumner packed up his things and left the firm he had several important commissions to his credit, and while it was a risky move he decided to strike out on his own. Tracy asked to come with him but he just couldn’t afford a partner yet and he told her so. The best he could do, he told her, was to let her set up as an independent in his office until things improved, but instead she chose to head down to San Francisco and check out conditions there. They left on friendly terms but both were a little disconcerted by the change.

He’d not been allowed to make copies of the works he had produced while at the firm, and that was a blow – yet in a way those designs resided in the most secure space imaginable, in his mind. But then the old firm went into receivership and the assets liquidated. He purchased his originals from the administrator for a song, and he felt a little better about matters.

He opened his office in a tiny house on Seaview Avenue, out near Shilshole marina, and the tiny house sat in what was now in a commercially zoned district and had, for a while, been a bicycle shop. The office was cold and damp, sitting as it was just yards from the rocky shoreline, of he kept a wood stove going almost year round, and he loved the juxtaposition of the damp and the dry.  On on the strength of all his earlier commissions at the firm he’d built a following, and a cult like following blossomed after an article about his work appeared in a nationally circulated magazine dedicated to architecture and interior design. A local photographer who expressed a deep admiration for his work asked to shoot his favorite projects and to co-produce a book with him if he’d write a bit about each. After the book came out, clients came to him from as far away as Montana and Colorado, and as the economy improved after the war wound down his business took off.

It wasn’t too many years later that one of the partners at the old firm came by looking for work, but by then Tracy was back and she was on his payroll, who along with a secretary-bookkeeper was all he could afford. But that was the nature of the business, and everyone knew it. Business was cyclical and architects lived to prosper during good times but had to be ready to hunker down when things inevitably slowed.

He still lived on a boat, but he had upgraded to a 43 foot Nauticat, having a small office with a drafting table installed as she was being built in Finland. There was more room now for people and things but he continued to lead a spare life on his own, and he was really a rather frugal person.Tracy lived a few slips away but she understood that C. Llewelyn Sumner had decided long ago that his would be a celibate’s life. He saw life through his parent’s eyes, his father’s most of all, and what he saw was endless cycles of violence and suffering. And then one night he told Tracy he couldn’t stand the idea of bringing children into such a world, and he told her about all those murders under the noonday sun in Austin and how there really weren’t any answers to be had for those who sought comfort in knowledge. Human beings could be lovely people, he said, but there was pointless savagery lurking just under the skin.

“What about you?” she asked him one night as they took their long evening walk on a nearby beach. “Would you wish now that your parents had never conceived you? That you’d never been born or lived to take a single breath?”

And he had to think about that one for a minute.

“You know…I’m here. I’m alive, and I can appreciate that for what it is. The universe came together in a moment and made me, and one day I’ll go back into the universe. What’s different is that somehow, for some reason I’m aware of the universe, aware of existing, and it’s a beautiful thing to be alive, to be cognizant of beauty and to create beautiful things, but when I look around I see so many terrible things. It’s hard to find a balance between the two. So hard that sometimes I feel any kind of balance is impossible.”

“And you do know you didn’t answer my question, right?”

“I’m here. I like being alive. So no, I wouldn’t wish that. I’m glad they decided to have a child.”

“And you don’t think a child of your own would feel the same way?”

“That’s hard to say, Tracy. The world I see coming doesn’t look like this one.”

“Because you’re a pessimist?”

“No, I’m not sure that I am, not here in this moment, anyway. But the future looks grim to me.”

“What do you think the future looked like to your parents?”

“Limitless,” C. Llewelyn Sumner said. “Endless, bright possibilities.”

“Chuck, you’re so full of shit.”

He chuckled at her sarcasm. “I learned it all from you, kid.”

“Gee, thanks,” she sighed. They walked further from the marina on drying sand, and as the tide went out more and more sand appeared. “Maybe you should get a dog. Just go down to the pound and pick one, maybe one they’re getting ready to put down. You know, save a life, make a new friend?”

“What brought that on?”

“Oh, just look at this beach! Imagine throwing a tennis ball and letting a dog run after it. Imagine the joy, the companionship.”

“But you’re not talking about a dog, Tracy. You’re talking about having a baby, about the joy and companionship having a baby would bring to your life.”

She nodded. “I know,” she whispered. “I’ve always wanted to have a baby with you. From the first time I laid eyes on you.”

“That explains it!” he snarked.

“Yup, sure does.”

“So? Where do we stand?” he sighed.

“Give me a baby, Chuck. Marry me if you want, or don’t. I won’t make any demands on you one way or the other. I’d just like to have a part of you, ya know?”

“It’s not right to bring a kid into the world without a father.”

“What’s right or wrong about it, Chuck? If you want to be a father let’s do it that way. If you don’t, let me do it the other way, the right way or the wrong.”

“Could I at least think about it, or did you just want to drop trou right here and do it right here on the beach?”

So of course she had to sing a few bars of Why Don’t We Do It In The Road and that made him smile a little, but he was kind of being serious, too.

“Right now, you mean?” she asked. “Right here, right now?”

“Isn’t that what you want, Trace?”

She nodded. “Yeah, but what about you?”

“I’d like you to be happy, Trace. Maybe more than anything else in the world.”

She took his hand and they turned to walk back to the marina, but it was the way he said it that hit home. The whole ‘I’d like you to be happy’ thing meant there was nothing in the world that could make him happy, but that didn’t matter, not really.

She’d been right all the time about him, too. He didn’t know the first thing about making love. No one had ever taught him a thing about it and he’d never done anything about it. Maybe he’d been with someone before and maybe he hadn’t; she didn’t want to know because that didn’t matter at all. Not now.

She continued to work at his office for a month or so, but then one day she came in and said she was off to Arkansas to work for a firm there, and almost without a word she packed up her things and she came up to him after her little car was loaded and she kissed him once, rubbed his cheek with her open hand while she looked him in the eye, and then she was gone.

Well and truly gone. And he knew it just then, that he’d never see her again. He could feel it, a dull pain somewhere smack dab in the middle of nowhere. When he went down to the marina that night after work her little sailboat was still there, but now there was a For Sale sign on it, and a broker’s number to call if interested. He sighed as he walked over to his boat and once he was inside he looked around and for the first time in his life he couldn’t hear a thing. He was surrounded by pure silence for the first time in forever and he couldn’t even hear his beating heart and everything was suddenly so unnerving and he didn’t know what to do now.

And it was like that after she left. Silence, everywhere. 

Clients came and he listened. He sat at his drafting table and he turned out one miracle of design after another. Architects came from Germany and Holland and Japan to study his designs, and two more monographs dedicated to his work were published – one in German and the other in Japanese. He started to dress better, better suited to his station in life, anyway, and as the years passed draftsmen came and studied with him for a year or two and then they moved on but there was never another Tracy.

He went to his father’s funeral, then his mother’s, and he inherited some money after the dust settled and he decided to build a house of his own across the sound near Port Townsend. He was beginning to slow down now, and his hands were bothering him more and more. He decided to keep his little office down by the water going for another year or two, but time had taken a toll. He was tired of the grind. Of selling his work, of trying to convince people that he was the best architect for their needs.

And one morning he looked in the mirror and he saw his father looking back at him. Or someone who looked like his father. “But that someone is me,” he realized, and for some reason that made him uncomfortable.

Because he knew his father had been incapable of love. And once he’d as much as said so. He didn’t believe in it, he said. It was all about the heat of the moment, just like war, but this thing called love was about creation, not destruction, and so we’d simply dressed up our animal instincts along the way, dressed them to suit the heat of the moment. And as he looked at the old men in his mirror he thought then that his father had probably been right all along. There was no such thing as love…there couldn’t be, because love just didn’t make any sense at all.

‘But,’ he wondered just then, ‘did life really make sense without love?’

‘What about that girl in Austin?’ he recalled. ‘I watched her die. I saw her death. I reached out that door and pulled her to safety, and I held her while she died. Did she ever love anyone? Did she even get the chance to love anyone?’

And he reached into the mirror, pulled the old man he saw there closer until he could really look into his eyes.

“Who are you, old man? Do I know you? Did I ever really know you?”

They turned away from each other just then, and they walked away in callous disregard – one for the other.

Soon enough he was spending more and more time across the sound over in Port Townsend. His new house had been a success, a complete statement of everything he’d ever considered important as an architect. He loved the spaces within, loved the way he managed to bring the outside inside. He loved the way the house blended in to the surrounding forests and mountains. He loved everything about his design, and about the reality his vision had brought to life.

And one day, when he was over at his tiny old office he was sitting at his drafting table after talking to a new, well a prospectively new client, when two teenagers came in the door, the two teenagers followed by an older gentleman – who somehow, for some reason, seemed a bit familiar.

Then he recognized the older man. He was Tracy’s older brother.

And then he looked at the teenagers. Twins, a boy and a girl.

And as they walked up to him his mouth began to feel dry, his heart to beat a little faster.

“May I help you?” he asked them.

“We need your help,” the older man said. 

“Indeed? How may I help you?”

“You designed a house years ago for my parents, a very large place out on one of the Sucia Islands.”

“Oh yes, the Clarendon house. Of course.”

But then he realized something he’d missed once upon a time. Something important.

Tracy. Her name. Was Tracy Clarendon.

“The house burned down over the winter. No one was out there, no one was hurt, but my dad is gone now and my mother wants to rebuild the house.”

“I see,” C. Llewelyn Sumner said. “So, how can I be of service?”

“Mother would like you to come up and see if the site needs work, if the foundation can be reused, and the contractor we’ll be using needs several sets of the original plans. She’d like you to supervise the work again, if that’s alright with you.”

“You’re Tracy’s brother, aren’t you?” C. Llewelyn Sumner said, out of the blue.

The man looked away for a moment, then he stepped forward and held out his hand. “Yes. Yes I am. I didn’t think you’d remember me. I’m Forbes, by the way.”

“Yes, yes, of course I remember,” C. Llewelyn Sumner said as he shook the man’s hand. “How nice to see you again.”

“Yes. Nice.”

“And these are your children, I take it?”

And Forbes Clarendon shook his head just a little as he searched for the words he’d rehearsed on the drive down. “No, sir. They’re yours.”

And yes, there was some kind of recognition between all concerned inside this moment. C. Llewelyn Sumner knew that what Tracy’s brother had said was true. When he looked at the boy he saw the same eyes he’d seen in a mirror not so long ago.

“Yes, I think I knew that,” he said to the boy. “And how is your mother?”

Forbes cleared his throat then, and he looked away once again before he decided to answer the question. “She passed away last year. Cancer. The kids have been staying with me the past year and a half.” He paused for a moment, then continued. “It’s what she wanted.”

“Understandable,” C. Llewelyn Sumner said, and to him perhaps it really was. “The last I heard she’d moved to Arkansas.”

Forbes Clarendon shook his head. “No. She went out to the island.”

“So she…never left?”

Again, Forbes simply shook his head.

“Then I’m a little confused,” Sumner said. “Why now?”

“I wanted to meet you,” the teenaged boy said. “I wanted to know you, who my father was.”

“Alright. So, what would you like to know?”

“Why didn’t you want us?” his daughter asked.

And C. Llewelyn Sumner looked away, looked for just the right words he needed to address the moment. “When your mother left,” he began, “she didn’t tell me she was pregnant. She simply told me she’d found a better job in Arkansas and then, well, she just left…”

“So…you never knew?”

“About you?” Sumner said to his children. “No, I’m afraid today is the first I’ve heard about you.”

“That’s not exactly what Mom said,” the girl, his daughter, said. “She…”

“I think your mother probably wanted to protect me,” C. Llewelyn Sumner said, “from you. From what she thought was my indifference. And I suppose, in a way, she may have been thinking about protecting you.”

“So…what do you feel right now?” his daughter asked.

“Confused. Maybe a little hollow inside, like I’ve missed out on so many things, and, well, I think I’ve lost my bearings a little. And I’m afraid I feel a little sorry for your mother. She never trusted my feelings, never trusted me enough to come and tell me what she had done.”

“I understand,” Forbes said, his voice gentle and full of understanding, “this must all come as quite a surprise…”

“Again, I’m simply confused. If Tracy wanted you isolated from me,” he said to his children, “why the change of heart?”

“Because I can’t take care of them any longer,” Forbes said, “and Mother is no longer in a position to help?”

C. Llewelyn Sumner shook his head. “Okay. So. What are you asking?”

“We wanted to ask and see if you could take them now,” Forbes said.

“I see. What about the house on the island?”

“As I said, Mother would like you to rebuild it.”

“Is she not well?”

“Alzheimer’s,” Forbes whispered. “But it’s early stage.”

“I see,” Sumner sighed, now knowing the house was probably a ruse. “Well then, perhaps the four of us should go have a bite to eat and talk about all this.”

“Talk about what?” his son said. “Either you want us or you don’t!”

“I think I know how you feel,” C. Llewelyn Sumner nodded. “And, well, maybe it’s as simple as you say, but first I’d like to know what you want. I’d like to know how both of you feel about all this, because if moving in with me is the last thing in the world you want…”

“This isn’t their decision,” Forbes stated, interrupting Sumner. “Look. I’ve lost my job. I’m about to lose my house – and I simply won’t be able to take care of them any longer. And with the house on the island gone…?”

“So, if you’ll pardon my asking,” Sumner said to Forbes, “what are your plans?”

Tracy’s brother shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m kind of at the end of my rope, if you know what I mean.”

“Well then, as I’ve not eaten since breakfast I’m rather hungry, so I hope you’ll be able to join me,” Sumner said as he moved towards the front door. “I usually just hop across the street to the Boathouse, if that’s alright with you?”

After the short walk they were all were taken out to the skinny little patio right over the water and it was still rather sunny and warm, so after everyone was seated he looked over at the marina and he could just about see the slip where these two children had been conceived, and in his mind’s eye he felt Tracy walking beside him on the beach. Then he felt the moment when things had turned serious between them, and he remembered their moment with a smile.

He shook himself back into the present and turned his smile at Forbes. “So, what have you been doing to make a living?”

“I worked at Boeing,” he said – and that was really all he needed to say. Working at Boeing was like living on the flanks of an active volcano…you just never knew when…only that it would.

“So no retirement, just severance?”

“That’s right.”

“Can you do electrical work?”

Forbes nodded. “Yeah, sure.”

“I know a couple of contractors that’re hiring, if you’re interested.”

“I appreciate it, but I couldn’t commute from Bellingham…”

“Of course not.” Sumner turned to his children then. “You know, someone is going to have to make some introductions. Assuming, of course, you have names…”

“I’m Charles,” the boy said grumpily.

“Elizabeth,” the girl said, extending her right hand with a smile.

Sumner sighed. “Okay, so a handshake it is. And I’m assuming you’re 17 years old now? And that makes you, what, getting ready to start your senior year?”

“Yeah,” Charles said. “And that means I’m not going to be able to play football this year…”

“Oh?” Sumner said. “Why’s that?”

“Weren’t you listening? Newsflash, pops, but we’re losing our home.”

Sumner looked at Forbes. “What’s the situation with the house?”

“I’m underwater on three months, and back taxes. About fifteen large, I reckon.”

“And your mom can’t help?”

“She can’t, and her guardian won’t authorize it.”

“So, Charles, I think I know where you stand, but Elizabeth, what about you? Where would like to stay?”

She shook her head. “Uh, I must’ve missed something, but, well, what’s the choice here?”

Sumner shrugged. “Seems pretty simple to me. You guys can either come and stay with me at my place over in Port Townsend or I can see if your Uncle’s situation is reparable. If it is then I assume you could stay there and finish out high school where you’re at.”

“Look,” Forbes interrupted, “I can’t ask you to do that…”

“And you haven’t, have you? As far as I can tell, I’ve contributed exactly nothing to my children’s lives…”

“What would you like?” Elizabeth blurted out.

“Well, thank you for asking, Elizabeth. Frankly, I’d like to get to know you both, and also I’d be more than happy to do what I can to help you along your way. If that means helping out your uncle then so be it. But right now I’m most concerned about what would make you happiest.”

And Elizabeth turned to her brother then. “See. I told you he’d be like this,” she whispered.

“Charles?” Sumner asked. “What about you? What about next year?”

“I’m trying for a scholarship at UW.”

“Football? What, wide receiver or DB?”

“Both, I think.”

“Forbes, what do you think? Has he got a shot?”

“Yes, he’s pretty good, and his coaches think so too.”

“Okay, so football is a priority,” Sumner said, and Charles visibly relaxed. “Elizabeth? That leaves you? What do you want to do?”

She looked at her brother then, and her uncle, then she sighed. “I’d like to know you better. I’d like to live with you next year.”

Charles stiffened again.

Sumner leaned back in his chair and nodded. “Forbes? Scribble down the address of the house, would you? I’ve got to go make a call, if you’ll excuse me for a moment.” When he had the address he went to the desk and called his attorney, told her what he had in mind and to work out the numbers, then he went back to the table – just as their meals came.

“So, Elizabeth, what about you? College in the cards for you?”

She nodded. “Yes, then veterinary medicine.”

“Oh?”

“She’s been into animals her whole life,” Forbes added. “She’s been…”

“I can talk to, ya know?” she growled, leaning away from her uncle.

“You remind me of your grandmother, my mom,” Sumner smiled.

“Oh, is she…”

“No, I’m sorry, but she passed a couple of years ago, but you would’ve like her.”

“That’s just so unfair,” she said, settling back in her chair. “So many…”

“Yes, but we can’t live back there, can we?” Sumner said. “All we can do is face tomorrow head on, and let’s live it like we mean it.”

“Okay,” she said, “you’re right.”

“So, vet school?”

“I’ve been working as a vet tech after school, Saturdays and summers, too…”

“Have a dog yet?”

“We did, when we were little, but not the past couple of years. Besides, I want a horse – no, really, I want a bunch of horses…”

“Interesting. I’ve got about eleven acres out at my place. No barn, but those aren’t hard to do.”

“You mean it, really?”

“Why not? As long as I don’t have to take care of them…”

She almost flew into his arms then, and when she whispered “Oh, Daddy,” into his neck a couple of times he felt his world spinning round and round and out of control. About the time they were finishing up their desserts the hostess brought him a note and he nodded. “Well, okay Forbes, we just have a few papers to sign at the office then you can head back to your house.”

“What did you do?” Tracy’s brother asked.

“You’re caught up now, Forbes, through the end of the year, anyway. Charles, the choice is yours, but this is pretty good Bread Pudding, and I’m not leavin’ ’til I finish!”

+++++

Elizabeth moved in with him a few weeks later. He designed a barn and fenced in some pasture and bought her a mare, and while all this was going on he returned to the island to survey the damage to the original house. The concrete foundation had been damaged and neglected since fire crews left the scene, and Mrs. Clarendon moved to an assisted living facility, so she’d never move back to the island. The decision was made to clear out the remnants of the old house and sell the island, and Sumner was sorry to see the house end up like it had.

He made one last trip to the island after the remaining demolition was complete, and he took Elizabeth with him – if only to listen to her memories about growing up on the island, with Tracy. He realized he’d made a tremendous mistake by not committing to Tracy, and the sense of loss had, at times, begun to feel a little like a personal calamity. Elizabeth came to him kind of like a little miracle, yet he couldn’t help but think of her as a kind of consolation prize. He’d missed out on the Grand Prize when he’d shuffled away from marriage and commitment and all that, but Elizabeth was his daughter. He moved quickly from the realm of obligatory feelings to knowing real love when he saw her, and he hoped in time she would feel that way too. 

When football season rolled around he made it a point to go to all of his son’s games and yes, he was talented. Maybe something would become of it, but love came harder between the two of them. His son approached warily, not quite sure who his father was. Charles decided later that year he wanted to go to Michigan State and when he was awarded a football scholarship back there that all but cemented their future relationship. Distance would take care of that.

Elizabeth went to the University of California at Davis, and just like that, after a whirlwind year of indecipherable emotions and roller coaster turmoils, they were gone. And so as quickly as they came to him they disappeared. Now, however, he had a horse to deal with.

And one afternoon he rode the horse down to the shore, more just to watch the water than anything else, and to wonder about the nature of such things. Husbands and wives, sons and daughters, all the predictably unpredictable things that went along with those four words. How almost all of them had escaped him, how close he came to never knowing what that life was all about.

He heard a commotion down on the rocky beach and he tied off the horse then picked his way down through the brushy scree to the water’s edge and he saw an otter and a fox locked in mortal combat, their bodies intertwined in a whirling dance of death, and he watched them, fascinated. Why? Why do this? Why fight like this, knowing it might only lead to your own demise?

And he watched in awe of whatever had compelled this struggle.

And soon it was over. The otter emerged victorious – yet as it pulled itself away from the dead fox Sumner could see that its wounds were severe, indeed, the otter had been mortally wounded. She limped off a few feet and then fell over into nothingness, and he walked down to their bodies if for no other reason than to bury them. When that was done he heard a gentle mewing and went to investigate, and he found what he assumed was the dead fox’s pup curled up amongst the rocks. He stood tall and looked around, hoping to find signs of the other parent…

And then he heard distant cries up the beach and went to investigate, and he found that the otter had left a pup behind.

So…they had fought to protect their young, and they had…had what? How senseless, he thought, was this outcome? Yet…how inevitable.

C. Llewelyn Sumner didn’t really know what else to do, so he gathered some grass and lay the pups side by side on this little makeshift bed and he clambered up through the scree to Elizabeth’s horse and he carried them back to his house. He made sure they were warm and he heated some milk in a saucepan and he helped them along by dipping the tip of his little finger into the milk and letting them lick away, and it worked.

“Now what do I do?”

And she came to him then, as she did from time to time. Tracy came and they spoke for a while. About what he must do now, because everything was there, everything he needed to know. Later that evening he rubbed the little pups when they cried. “It’s alright,” he told them, “I’m here now. Everything will be fine so just go to sleep. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

Admirers of his work still came calling, and even long after his practice wound down people still came to see the builder and his dreams. He had always worked to bring the outside inside, so these visitors weren’t exactly surprised when they found C. Llewelyn Sumner sitting in the sun on his deck – with a fox curled up on his lap or an otter sleeping on his shoulder. They found, in fact, that it rather suited such a lonely man.

This work © 2022 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkühnwrites.com all rights reserved, and as usual this was a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s (twisted) imagination or coincidentally referenced entities are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. In other words and as is always the case, this was just a little bit of storytelling, pure and simple.

(You Are \\ Pat Metheny)

6 thoughts on “The Otter and the Fox

  1. Nice one mate. Love truly is the great constant in our lives if only we could let it in more freely. Why we don’t is one of the great mysteries of life.

    Like

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