© — When the sun broke through the fog, the sequined grass sparkled, covering the soft velour of green in rolling waves of brilliance so bright it squinted the eyes. One could count on awakening to fog in the summers of the Sonoma Coast, and leaving the wool coat behind by mid-morning. As she did every day, Amanda would pull on her rubber boots and set off through the wet grass to tend to her chickens and rabbits. The mountain of paperwork to sort out her mother’s estate she left behind on the table located at the hitch end of the home where she had grown up. Amanda’s closest neighbors, the McDonalds, were kind people, and when George McDonald died, surviving his wife, he left the dairy ranch to his son, and the parcel below the knoll to Amanda’s parents. The mobile home was tucked away and out of sight of the ranch house and barn, and far enough away from Scenic Route 1 to keep the sound of cars from pouring in. She found five eggs in the coop, and her 26 rabbits, every one pets with names, she would feed in the hutch she had built with her father when she was 9. In the 27 years since then, Amanda had learned to deliberately separate the female and male rabbits, unless she was ready, and brave enough, for more.
Scott McDonald rounded the bend, headed up the dirt road toward the mobile home, and stopped beside the rabbit hutch.
“Mornin’, Amanda. The momma have her bunny litter yet?”
“No. Getting fat, though. Thank God the 4-H is taking them. I’m running out of cute names!”
Scott laughed. “Stornetta’s customers are still buying organic milk faster than they can supply it. They’re pressing me to take the dairy organic. Not a really big deal, and there’s more money in it. Their people are coming by for an inspection on Tuesday, so I could use a hand sanitizing the barn. I’m going into Petaluma for a bit, and I’ll help out when I get back. Scott Jr. says he’s going to Dillon Beach with his friends. I’m guessing they’re really going to San Francisco, but I don’t care as long as they get back safely.”
“Just like we used to!” Amanda smiled. “Dillon Beach…or…maybe…Fisherman’s Wharf. Yeh! That’s it!” Now they were both laughing. “Okay. I need to go to Valley Ford for groceries and the post office. I’ll get over to the barn in about an hour. They bringing the UDSA with them?”
“Don’t know. An inspection is an inspection.”
“Place is always pretty much spotless, anyway. Might as well wow them. I’ll start on the stainless, and get Sergio started on the floors.”
“Thanks. Gonna grab the wife and watch her spend money. That’s always fun. See you later.”
Scott’s round face smiled broadly, and then he bounced down the road, turned out of sight, and once again, Amanda was in pastoral peace. Lonely, pastoral peace.
Valley Ford, population 90, sits in the perfect natural beauty of West Sonoma, about 60 miles north of San Francisco. It’s dairy country, and the county chooses to keep it that way. From Valley Ford the grassy hills wander gently west for 5 miles, reaching toward the Pacific. 15 miles east is Santa Rosa, a bedroom community of 175,000, populated with people that work in The City, and weekend in the country. Valley Ford remains in a time when agriculture was the domain, and neighbors were a 20-minute walk away over a cow trail. The ranchers of West Sonoma were all dairy people, and the farmers to the east all orchard farmers and winemakers, until The City and Dot Com moved north.
Amanda’s great-grandparents had moved to Valley Ford in 1917 from the Polish neighborhood in Chicago. Her brother and sister had left the tiny rural community for college, gotten married, and were raising families in the East Bay. Amanda’s high school sweetheart chose a scholarship at UCLA, and she stayed behind to care for her parents and live with a broken heart. She was still single, her parents were now also gone, and her family was fat and furry, and lived in the hutch. The sweet refuge of Valley Ford was a great place to grow up, run dairy cows, and sadly, sort out her mother’s affairs.
“Hi Amanda,” said Susan, the tall, blue-eyed, blond fifteen-year-old tending the register at her parent’s store.
“Hi, Susan,” replied Amanda softly with a smile. She could remember when she had that same job in town 20 years ago, and had also made just enough to pay for her horse. “How’s Linnie?”
“Good. Fat, though. I don’t have enough time to ride her like I should now, and there is so much grass this year she just eats all the time. About all I can do is walk her in the ring and run her around the pasture every now and then. We’re going to trailer the horses out to Point Reyes next weekend and ride Bear Valley.”
“Nice, very nice,” Amanda said sincerely, knowing just how grand that would be. The wildflowers would be out, and the ocean air at the beach would charge the horses. “Well, I’ve just got a few things to pick up, and then the boss has me busy back at the ranch.”
She picked up only what groceries were necessary, then walked down the aisle with the horse tack, looking straight ahead at the shelf with the new books on it. She knew her favorite author had just written a passionate romance novel about a single woman in New York City. Since Betty Graton, the Valley Ford Store owner, shared the same liking in books, Betty was bringing that one in for her, being able to read it after Amanda did.
“Hey Susan,” Amanda said loudly, now back within sight of the register. “Did your mom get any new books in?”
“Not this week,” Susan answered. “She did order some. If you’re going to the post office, you might see if Mrs. Williams has them.”
“Okay. Headed that way now. I’ll ask.”
Amanda paid for her groceries. “How’s it going with the Jensen boy…Susan?”, Amanda said with a little wink in her coy smile.
“Great! He’s taking me to Taco Bell in Petaluma this afternoon. He’s got a job there now. And at football camp this summer the coach said he would be the starting quarterback! So I’m going to try out for cheerleading. Can you imagine that?! Me a cheerleader dating a football star? I love it!”
Amanda understood. It was a bit painful to remember as she now did, and she was happy for Susan, just the same. “Sounds like fun, Susan. And if you get on the squad, I’ll be sure to come to a game or two.”
Samantha Williams had become a dear friend, although Amanda only talked to her at the post office. Amanda barely recognized Sam out of her USPS shirt, and only waved and said “Hi” when she saw her in town. But at the post office, they talked freely to each other and shared the details of their lives.
“Well look who’s here!”, Sam said exuberantly. “Thought a bear might have eaten you up in the hills!”
“I live behind a knoll, and we haven’t had bear here since the 1800s, Sam.”
“Fall in love? Man sweep you off your feet?”
Amanda turned the key in her post office box. “You get in a box of books for the store?”
“Not yet. The books usually arrive late in the week. Try the store next weekend. Looking for something saucy?”
“Looking for something that’s not Valley Ford. Looking for a good book about a happy person far, far away. ”
“I told you twenty years ago you should have scooped up that Scott McDonald.”
“Yeh. Wrong then…wrong now. Scott and Cindy are great. Got great kids. I’m happy for him. And I’ve got rabbits. Lots of them. Know anyone that wants one for a pet?”
Amanda noticed that the silver BMW was parked across the street again. Missing it in Valley Ford was impossible. The windows were tinted, and when the doors swung open, they swung up, too, giving the low, sleek car wings. She had found a way to stand next to it one day, and read the shiny little emblem on the back which said “i8”, whatever that was. It wasn’t a farm vehicle, for sure, and would never make it through the ruts to her mobile home like her pick-up truck did. And yet it was in town, on and off, every week, and had been for the last six months. With California vanity plates that said ‘LINGER1′. Today, as she watched, the driver side door swung up, and out stepped a trim, handsome man dressed like he was going to a fancy yet informal party. And he was. Jim Fenwick was headed to the ultra-wealthy, island community of Belvedere to share heady drinks and conversation on a deck with a grand view of the San Francisco skyline. But first, he wanted to swing by the post office of the town he had retired to when he sold his company.
Linger was a small company, with a small purpose, and of extraordinary value. It tracked how much time people remained on websites, and the information was sold to large corporations and marketing firms in a format that allowed them to integrate it with other data and metrics already stored in his customer’s servers. His patented software provided a quick and easy way to view buying patterns, and provided insight into not only what people were looking for, but also into how they were looking. Jim’s customers now could get a clearer picture, in real time, as to what their customers would buy, and how eager they were to buy viewed products. Before he was even finished with his project, an online mega-marketer bought him out for $53 million, and he had moved from his apartment in Palo Alto to a 126-acre ranch just north of Valley Ford. He needed to see if the patent office had sent him a letter regarding his latest venture, and so, he walked casually and confidently across the small street toward the post office, as Amanda looked on, still and silent.
The bell jingled as Jim opened the post office door. “Good morning, ladies,” Jim said smiling, raising his eyes to look at Amanda and Sam.
“Good morning,” Sam replied. “Nice car! You could do a super job of knocking off mail boxes with those doors. And get away before the sheriff caught up to you!”
Jim laughed loudly. “Yeh. I’ll remember that the next time my buddies come up. Give you all something to talk about.”
“Oh, we don’t need anything to talk about,” Sam popped back. “You just parking that car in town gives us plenty.”
Jim and Sam were both smiling broad and kindly at each other. Amanda was acting more like an upright display for postage stamps commemorating famous cowgirls. Who was this guy? Handsome. Charming. Friendly. Genuinely nice. She had by now forgotten the car, and the burning obvious: he was rich. He was just a really nice, well-dressed man, with a city stride and unworked hands. He wasn’t Scott McDonald, or Rusty Peterson, or Billie Lampert, who when drunk in town breathed on her way too close. He was a man with a shiny fast car, a slow soft smile, and tousled auburn hair. With confident eyes and a self-assured gait. He was a man she wanted to look at across a white tablecloth under warm light, left alone by a waiter with exquisite discretion. Just old enough. Just different enough. Just…something.
Jim walked to his post office box, opened it, and pulled out a large handful of paper. He sorted through his junk mail, and withdrew four letters: one bill, two bank statements, and a letter from his wife’s parents. His in-laws were such nice people, and now deeply sadden, as he was. No doubt the letter was to thank him for his generous donation to the breast cancer society in Massachusetts where his wife’s parents had taken up volunteering. It had been two years since he had seen them at his wife’s memorial. He talked to them most weeks on the phone, but he couldn’t bear facing her parents, and looking at his own suffering reflected in their faces.
His eyes wet, Jim walked quietly out of the post office, across the street, pulled his wings in tightly around him, and drifted away. Watching Jim’s long face as he walked by, Amanda’s empathy of suffering gripped her. She understood something she knew nothing about. The handsome, nice guy was for now gone, and the barn needed deep-cleaning. Amanda grabbed her mail, and quietly returned to her duties at the ranch.
“Thanks for your help getting the place cleaned up, Amanda,” Scott said from his truck. “Stornetta’s going to renew the contract, and re-certify the dairy for their organic products line. Should be a nice bump in revenue, and I’m going to spread that around. You’re family here, as were your parents, and family takes care of family. You outta look at the new trucks in Santa Rosa.”
“You sayin’ there’s something wrong with my truck, Jim?”, she laughed. “The only way I know I’m alive is when the seat springs poke my butt. Starts just about every time, too! No, I’m good. But I appreciate the money, though, and I’ll relieve you of some when you get it. I’m going into town. Need anything?”
Scott smiled. “Here…take the post office box key. I should have a box of supplements down there that Stornetta wants us to use when we go organic. Just drop it on the porch. Okay?”
“Sure. And I’ll fix that fence line at the northwest when I come back.”
“Great! And Cindy’s making cookies”, Jim lilted. “I’d knock on the door when you drop that box off if I were you!”
Jim Kenwick was back at home working remotely online with his team, still running his offices in Silicon Valley. They were refining algorithms to sort out buyer worthiness, like credit worthiness, and including a buyer’s tendency toward discretionary spending. When he first bought the Valley Ford property, he had moved into the original ranch house, while building his dream home up the hill in the stand of oaks. There Jim had constructed the perfect home for his wife, where he would stop working so much, and give her more attention. From his new office, with its own small kitchen and living room, he looked down the valley where the contractors were restoring the old ranch house to its original condition, while adding modern amenities. The view beyond was broad and grand, Sonoma grassland dotted with black and white cows, Valley Ford just beyond.
Jim had grown up in Cincinnati, and had gone to school at Cornell studying electrical engineering. He came from family money, and while he was accustomed to the lifestyle, he wanted to break free of the well-groomed mold and be somebody different. Upon receiving his graduate degree, he moved to The Bay Area, and in the thick of it, Silicon Valley, he started a small firm funded by his parents. That failure led to a management position at Oracle, which eventually made him enough money to try a start-up again, on his own. Three years into his new venture, with a small but talented team, he was made an offer he could not turn down. He sold out, took very good care of his staff, and went looking for a more peaceful place to live. Jim and his wife loved the Northern California coast, and often rented a house at Sea Ranch, at the northwest tip of Sonoma County. It was then he would drive up Highway 1 and through Valley Ford, exploring with his ill wife, talking about where they would move to when he had the time, and she was healed. She had not healed, and he had found the time. The time to cry helplessly as he looked out his office window, over lush fields, and at a winsome knoll in the center of the rangeland.
Jim grabbed his keys and headed out the door. What good was an expensive car if not for a drive just to get out of the house?, he thought. He drove north, through the town of Bodega Bay and up the coastal highway. Along the picturesque Sonoma Coast, windy bluffs stood above a necklace of intimate sandy coves, and kept raptors in flight. He held hard to the steering wheel as he passed the pullout and the trail to the beach where he had proposed to his wife. Should I let go?, he thought. Can I say goodbye in another year, two years? Or never? Jim’s heart was still held by someone who was gone and would never return. The curves in the road came quickly; the blue lupines at the roadside a barely noticeable blur. She was gone, and not gone; present, and a fading memory. The dream had come true…almost: the house built, never to be the home intended.
Jim crossed the bridge over the Russian River and turned west back toward the Pacific. Harbor seals hunted below in the long, still pool. The calm waters of the pool rested before a tortured dam, an ever-changing wall constructed of sand and driftwood by last winter’s pounding winter storms. Just before the little seaside town of Jenner, Jim turned down the road to the beach. He pulled himself into the moist, salty air, and walked toward the surf. The waves were gentle; the beach wide as the tide fell. Here the waters of the river returned home. Pushing forward, washing back in frothy little waves, and then back to the sea. Returning waters that had lingered for a moment in quiet harmony behind the sandy dam, in a gentle pause where the seals and egrets and herons lived gracefully and moved freely. Jim sat on a large tree trunk, worn gray by months at sea, next to the stream where the water flowed from the dam. Behind him gentle waters; before him vicissitudes stretching to the horizon. Jim thought of his wife. She should have been here with him, he thought, and yet she had never left.
Jim Kenwick returned to his car, and drove up the river, back home on country roads, inland through the deep shadows of redwoods. Coming over a rise and out into the rolling grasslands of Valley Ford, he thought he should stop by the store for a few items. He parked on a side street, walked around the corner, and into a one street town. As he reached the front of the Valley Ford Store, he stopped to hold the door open for a woman that looked up at him as though she had something to say.
“After you,” Jim said with a gentleman’s smile.
Amanda paused, too long, and said, “Thank you,” quickly turning around only halfway so as to seem neither rude nor approachable. Where’s the car?, she thought. I would have known if I had seen the car. Now I just look weird. Like he would notice, anyway. Oh, I’ve got to get carrots and lettuce and bread for sandwiches. Maybe I’ll just go to the feed store first and…
“Hi Amanda! Got cheer tryouts tomorrow!,” announced Susan, as she hopped and waved and twirled around. “And we got some books in. Not sure, but I don’t think we got the one you wanted. Better go look.”
“Okay, thanks, Susan. And good luck at the tryouts. I was super afraid when I tried out. I’m sure you’ll be great. You’re so pretty and fun and, well…you! I’ll go look at the books. Hope your Mom didn’t grab it first.”
Amanda turned and scanned the store. Jim was nowhere in sight. She thought she could just walk right over to the bookshelves…or she could casually walk around a bit like she was checking to see what was in a store she had gone to her whole life. And maybe she’d catch him turned the other way. Then she could get a better look, and consider what he might be like. He can’t be all that nice, not with a car like that, she thought. Amanda needed to look, just for a second, for some hidden clue. She walked down the hardware isle, and back the other way past the toys and stationary. He wasn’t up front, either. The thought that he slipped out unseen left Amanda unexpectedly empty and dull. That being the end of it, she’d just look into her book and forget the whole thing.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jim said with a surprise in his voice. “Please excuse me. I was just looking around. Suppose I should watch where I’m going. Sorry.”
Amanda’s mind raced. His eyes cannot really be a light, dusty hazel, she thought. “Oh… it’s my fault. I didn’t see you. I was just headed over to the books. I should have…well…I’m sorry.” Amanda found herself not embarrassed, but irrationally confused by the fact that she had turned while looking elsewhere around the store for Jim, and had stepped right into a man that was nice and charming and handsome and now had gorgeous hazel eyes.
“I was too,” Jim said. “Looking for a book. Looking for some distraction, really. Not exactly Barnes and Noble, friendly place, though. Saw you at the post office last week, right?”
“Yeh. I go there.” She drew a breath and laughed nervously at herself. “Well, of course I go there…it’s the post office. You drive that car, the silver one?”
“That obvious? Probably should get a truck if I’m going to live here. Just settling in.”
Amanda relaxed her breath, and said, “You live in town?”
“Sort of. I bought the Wronski place. Really just started living there full time. Had some business to finish up in the South Bay. I really like it here. Quiet. I’m hiding out, I suppose. Know the place?”
“Yes. The Wronskis were family friends. Sorry to see them go, but kids grow up, and move on. Glad you got it. I used to play up there as a kid. My great-grandparents were related to the Wronskis…we’re Polish people. So that’s how my family ended up here. You living in the farm house?”
“Did for a bit. Kind of run down, though. Been empty for a while. I finally got around to building a new, smaller place up the hill in the trees. Works better for me. Although, the new place feels empty, too.”
Having run out of things to say she thought might pass for intelligent, Amanda went for an exit.
“Well, welcome to Valley Ford. I’ve got to get back to my place. Work to do. Ranch stuff. I’ll see you around then?”
“Yeh, probably,” Jim laughed. “Small town. Take care.”
Amanda decided she would check on that book tomorrow. For now, she would go back to fix a fence and think about hazel eyes.
“Need help with that roll of wire?”, Scott said.
“No. Got it,” Amanda replied, “I’ll fix the corner and walk the north line. There’s a familiar looking girl hanging out over in the neighbor’s yard, so we might have an opening behind the knoll. I’ll take a look and figure it out from there.”
“Okay. Call me if you need help. Just going to check one of the pregnant cows. I’ll be around.”
Amanda drove her 4×4 out the dirt road along the west fence line, and then turned down the steep hill toward the fence corner to get the heavy roll of barbed wire in closer. She had helped her father rebuild that corner long ago, but the spring just up the hill kept the soil soft, and when the cows fed on the lush grass, they leaned up against the fence, so it was prone to losing tension. Amanda wrapped a new strand of barbed wire to the top line, used a come-a-along to get tension, and tacked the taught wire to the post, still leaning, but firm. She would have to rebuild that corner someday, but for now, she needed to look for an opening behind the knoll.
Amanda left the truck and headed east on foot along the fence line. The poppies and ceanothus were in bloom, and the bees were busy collecting pollen and nectar. The light blue flowers of the ceanothus covered the bushes and balanced the bright orange swaths of California poppies that ran along ribbons of green grass. The pictorial scene was dotted with purple allium globes nourished by the little wild onions at the base of their stems, and swells of lavender Shooting Stars nodding knowingly beneath the oak stand dripline. Between two ceanothus was an unnoticed and unattended part of the fence, with a downed fence post and a fresh cow trail leading out into the neighbor’s land. Amanda would have to come back to fix that later, asking Scott for help putting in a new post and re-tensioning the lines. For now, Amanda headed up the knoll toward home, just on the other side. She stopped in a clearing and took a seat among the wildflowers. From there she looked north toward the Wronski Ranch, where she played as a child, and was now the new home of an interesting and attractive man.
The columbines next to Amanda were perfect, with stamens and pistils exploding out of fiery red petals. She had rested among this same stand of columbines since she was a child. Amanda, like Susan, had once been a vibrant display of youth, riding her horse, and dating the high school football star. She still had the beauty that garnered a girl attention, and a woman offers. And Amanda had been heartbroken, a farm girl with chores to do, and responsibility to her aging parents. So, she had stayed by the quiet glade that turned green and splashed with wildflowers every year. Radiant flowers in the perfect setting, with the seasons to come bringing weather and waning.
Amanda thought about how she would sit in that clearing and talk to her father about dairy farming, the world outside of West Sonoma, and what her friends were up to. Her father worried about Amanda some. She was different from her siblings, choosing to do her chores rather than run a bit wild with the other kids. He was glad she was safe, and he wondered what she would become. He wanted the same thing for Amanda that all parents want for their children: family, friends, happiness. A whole, full life. The other children were good on a ranch, too, but none as good as Amanda. Her father had encouraged her to go do kid-stuff, and she had tried. Frightened as she was, she had finally joined the high school cheer team, hung out with the cool kids, and had dated the most popular boy in school.
Amanda’s flashy high school romance had started at the town store, ran through her senior year, and lasted for months after her boyfriend had left for college. She found one project after another around the house so she would be home and near the phone when he called. And then he came back from college the following summer, with his new girlfriend, bringing Amanda a desperate sadness too big to avoid in a small town. She had done as her father asked, tried the social life, been crushed by it, and still carried the pain with her. Now 36, she sat among the blooming columbines, considering how she was going to carry a roll of barbed wire over the knoll, so she could close up the opening the led into the Flanagan’s ranch.
Amanda and Susan sat on the bench outside of the store, and watched as the silver BMW i8 rolled down through town, pulled over, and stopped right in front of them. The driver’s side door swung out and up, and Jim Kenwick stepped out.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” Jim said, “You two keeping the town safe?”
“More like watching the dust settle,” replied Amanda.
Susan eagerly jumped in. “We were talking about my cheer routine. Amanda was a cheerleader…at the same high school in Petaluma. Nice car! I want one!”
“Thanks.” Jim quietly replied, then lifting his tone, said, “Cheerleading. Sounds like fun. Football or basketball?”
“Both, but we have to try out again after football season. I’m sure I’ll do both.”
“You a football fan?,” asked Jim.
“Well, not really,” Susan stridently replied, “But my boyfriend is going to be the starting quarterback, so I’ll be at every game. Right on the track behind the bench. I’m so excited! I’m not supposed to talk to him during the game, though. The coach told us that.”
“Yes…wouldn’t want to distract a man from his game.” Jim apparently understood the coach’s point. “Girls can make guys’ heads go kinda fuzzy.”
Jim smiled and looked over at Amanda, “Hi, again. I never did get your name. I better start learning who people are around here.”
“Amanda. It’s Amanda. Retired cheerleader.”
Jim laughed, “I’m Jim. Just retired. So, I’m guessing you live around here.”
“Yes, over at the McDonald place. You can see it from your house. I live behind that knoll.”
“Oh, yeh. Looks like a real nice spot. Lived there long?”
Amanda was now feeling unusually comfortable with Jim, and his disarming charm. It irritated her some. Disarmed. She was actually letting herself be disarmed, she thought.
“All my life. Just a farm girl. Born and raised.”
“Sounds nice. Wish I had a story like that. Grew up in the suburbs. We had these things there called parks where people pretend they live in places like this. Lots of grass. No cows, though.”
Amanda decided she was no longer going to just sit there with Jim being that cute with hazel eyes. She stood up, and grabbed her grocery bag.
“Well, gotta go. Meanwhile, back at the ranch…chores await.”
“I need to run too.” Jim turned to Susan, “Hey, you get those new books in?”
“Not yet. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Okay. I’ll check back later.” Jim smiled broadly at Amanda, and said “Nice to meet you,” and walked into the store.
Susan waited a few seconds, watched Jim disappear down an aisle, got up, turned slowly, and sang out, “Dreeeeamy!”
Amanda rolled her eyes, and walked to her truck. Jim returned to the front of the store, and stood at the front window, pretending to look interested in the magazines, finally choosing one as Amanda drove away. He had already gotten all he wanted at the store, anyway.
The rural highway rolled over a hill and laid out straight across the grassland. This is what the car was built for, Jim thought. But that thought lasted only briefly, as he thought about Amanda, too. She was pretty. Really pretty. Jim’s mind stayed fixed on Amanda as his tires pulled into the curves. Not what one expects in farm country, he thought. Her hands had seen real work, and her golden hair had blown in the ocean breeze. He had seen woman attractive in that way in Dresden, when he attended an international conference there on internet protocols. This was a farm girl, with blue eyes, and curves kept trim by the ranch. His heart had finally found a fissure to pour through. Unnoticed, his mournful walls now had a gate slowly opening. A quarter mile past his driveway, the gate slammed shut, Jim pressed the brakes, and pulled a U-turn, chastising himself for missing his turn. He collected his thoughts, and began considering the sequence of computer code that he needed to get his plug-in working. For now, he needed to stay focused, and put aside anything emotional for some later, unknown time. Besides, surely there was some reason to go back into town tomorrow.
Amanda headed into town to get rabbit food at the feed store. She slowed, her truck bouncing and squeaking loudly, as she pulled into a parking slot out front. ‘The Car’ was there. She adjusted the rearview mirror to look at herself, and pulled her long, blonde hair back, thinking it silly. The truck door creaked open, in need of attention. As she entered the feed store, she could see Jim Kenwick looking in the cages at the chicks.
“Hi, Bill,” Amanda said looking over toward Jim, “Got a bag of rabbit feed for me?”
“Yeh. I’ll have Johnny throw it in your truck.” Bill replied. Bill, a friend of Amanda’s from high school, and now the feed store owner, noticed Amanda looking over at Jim. “New guy in town, I guess. Nice fellow. Sweet car. First time he’s been in here. Anybody know anything about him?”
“Some guy who bought the Wronski place. Built a new house up the hill. Otherwise, no. Just more of the city crowding in.”
Jim had now seen Amanda, and was walking past the alfalfa bales toward her.
“Hi, Amanda!” Jim said, “Thought I’d find you somewhere in town. How are you?”
“Good. How’s your ranch,” Amanda replied.
“Okay, I guess. Don’t know much about it. I’ve been out walking around the property to check it out. I’ve been too preoccupied to explore the place until now. Man, the wildflowers are sure beautiful this time of year.”
“Yeh. Enjoy them now. They come and go. And people like Bill here can give you some history about the ranch. His family’s been here a long time.”
“I’ll bet you can tell some interesting stories about the place,” Jim said to Bill. “When did the Wronskis first come here.”
“Late 1800s”, Bill said. “One of the first families here. The county history museum in Santa Rosa has some old photos of the place. If you go there, ask for a docent. They’re really into the Sonoma history.”
“Thanks. I’ll do that. So, what’s new, Amanda?”
“Nothing. Hasn’t been anything really new since rebuilding Highway 1 brought tourists up this way. Otherwise, same stuff, every day. We like it like that.”
“Yeh. I’m starting to like it like that, too.” Jim felt the urge to let Amanda know he was paying attention to her. “Darned good spot for a Polish farm girl,” Jim said with a smile.
A sudden defensiveness welled up in Amanda. She didn’t want to be known as just a Polish farm girl, or any kind of farm girl, for that matter. She wanted to be known as a woman who gave up her dreams to do the right thing for her parents, her becoming a farm girl simply being collateral damage.
“Dumb hicks will be dumb hicks, I guess,” she said a little too sharply. “Well, better slop them pigs. Just put the feed on the tab, Bill.”
Amanda walked away quickly, jumped in the truck, slammed the door, and backed out into the highway. 200 yards down, she pulled over, stopped, dropped her head to the steering wheel, and said out loud to herself, “Oh…God. Did I really just do that.” Her pain had made a surprise visit, and had then stopped to talk to a stranger. “Stupid bitch.” Tears made little muddy pools on the floorboard of her truck. Amanda raised her head, exhaled long through pursed lips, and drove on.
At the feed store, Jim slumped back. “Sorry. I didn’t mean anything by that. I love the people here. Better than most folks I’ve been around, for sure.”
“Don’t worry about it. She’s been like that for a while. We’re glad to have you here. I’m Bill, by the way.”
Jim shook Bill’s outstretched hand, and replied, “Well, thanks. I’m Jim. Jim Kenwick. I hate to get off on the wrong foot around here. Nice lady. And me with a big mouth.”
“Let it go, Jim. We all just let things go around here. It’s like one big family. We all know each other well, maybe too well. And we all understand. That’s just Amanda. Great gal. Don’t know how she stayed single this long. It was sure wasn’t for a lack of offers. She’s fine. She’ll get back to those rabbits, and forget all about it.”
“Ok. Well, nice place you have here. Kinda of fun living in a town with a real feed store. I’m going to have to lose this city thing and blend in. Get a truck, too. I should take a look in Santa Rosa tomorrow.”
“Get something rugged. We’re Dodge Ram people here. Check them out.”
“Will do. And thanks for saying what you did about Amanda.” Jim paused and smiled awkwardly. “Family. Maybe you all can adopt me someday.”
“We will, Jim. And you’re still going to need a truck.”
They both laughed as Jim walked to his elegant gull-wing car.
Jim returned home, and sat in his office, looking over the pasture, running long and low, and then up again toward the knoll. He wasn’t happy with himself. He had insulted a lovely woman, and had apparently made her angry. He disliked the occasional insensitivity he had picked up in the business world. For years he had disciplined himself to only have kind words as his wife weakened. The argument about when to have kids ending, on hold, really, until she was better. She had wanted children right away. Jim had wanted to wait until his company had matured, they had moved out of the throng of Palo Alto, and he had time to spend with his kids. She just wanted to have babies; Jim wanted babies, but in a more considered and practical way. All of that seemed so ridiculous now, and a huge waste of time and energy. There would be no babies, she was gone, and he had done it again. He had upset someone he cared about. ‘Someone he cared about.’ That thought caught Jim off guard. He wasn’t ready to replace his memories with someone he could still talk to. A woman veiled behind a knoll, who lived beyond a green pasture where the lush swale in the middle was turning purple with a crimson hue at its center.
Amanda found it uncomfortably awkward walking past Jim in town with just a nod and a casual, tired greeting. She thought about how she might strike up a fresh conversation with Jim. He had moved to town, and was staying in tiny Valley Ford. They should be friends, she thought. But what could she talk about? After all, she was a Polish farm girl, and he was the rich car guy. And she wasn’t giving him the opportunity to say what she could see in his eyes. It had been over two weeks of glancing at each other like anguished actors in a silent movie. Bill must know they weren’t talking to each other, because he talked about Jim too much, and like he was his new best friend. Sam had mostly figured it out on her own. And Susan’s bubbling on about Jim was just getting annoying.
They must have something in common, Amanda thought. Trucks! That’s it! Trucks. Bill, conspicuously, while in the middle of counting out 100 ear tags, had casually shared that Jim was looking at a new Dodge crew cab. And she was thinking about taking the money Scott had given her and buying a good used truck. She probably knew more about trucks than Jim, anyway. Trucks, that’s what we’ll talk about!, she thought.
Amanda, making her now daily drive into town, slowed her 4×4 as she entered Valley Ford. She spotted a new truck in town, with a license plate that said ‘LINGER2′. That’s what Amanda was waiting to see. She parked and walked the street glancing into the store to see if Jim was there. At the post office, she found him.
“Hi, Jim. Nice truck. ‘Bout time you joined us country folk!”
“Yes, well, thank you,” Jim replied with an anxious tone. “And I’m trying. Say, I’m sorry if I insulted you the other day. I was just trying to make conversation. Sorry.”
Trucks, Jim, Amanda thought. This conversation is going to be about trucks. Not about how you found my heart and I let you touch it. Trucks. We’re talking about trucks!
“No problem. We’re all just a bunch of farm girls around here, aren’t we Sam?”
“What?” Sam wasn’t paying attention to the conversation. They way Amanda and Jim looked at each other was far more interesting. “Oh yeh,” Sam laughed. “Farm girls. That’s about all we have around here. Cowboys and farm girls. Not much else.”
“So how’s that new truck?”, said Amanda.
“Really nice,” Jim said with a tiny smile, “Different. I’ve gotten used to riding low and fast. Now I’d rather be riding high in something that feels like I have a lot of metal around me. It came standard with bells and whistles, too.”
“Yeh, they all come like that these days. All you really need are mud flaps and a radio stuck on country western music.” Amanda laughed. “Although mine is stuck on classic rock. I do have mud flaps, though.”
Amanda thought that conversation was going well. And about done. Not much more to say about trucks. Mission accomplished.
“Well, gotta be going. I’ll see you around, Jim?” Amanda asked with a smile.
“Hope so. You like Journey?” Jim asked.
“Best band ever. See ya, Sam.” Amanda grabbed the door handle and pulled it open.
She was stopped by Sam. “Oh, Amanda. Did you want your mail?”
Amanda coyishly laughed. “Guess so.”
Sam looked Amanda straight into her eyes, her whole face smiling, and handed Amanda her mail.
“Here. I haven’t loaded the boxes yet.”
“Thanks, Sam. Well, see ya. Bye, Jim”
Wide-eyed, Amanda again headed out the door, feeling good about the conversation about trucks. Feeling better still about seeing the man with the hazel eyes.
Amanda headed back up to the ranch, stopping by the barn. Scott McDonald was inside mucking a birthing stall.
“Well, good morning, Amanda. What’s on deck today?”
“I’m going to fix that hole in the fence over the knoll. Could use some help. We need a new post and some wire. I’ve got a shovel in my truck. We can get to it through the gate into Flanagan’s.”
Lyle Flanagan. That was his name. Amanda thought she was in love with him by the time they were seven, and by high school, she was certain of it. They grew up as friends, and then friends who flirted with each other. Their first kiss wholly absorbed Amanda. That was the moment when she knew Lyle was going to be her husband, the man on their ranch where they raised chickens and rabbits and dairy cows. And the most beautiful children in West Sonoma. She knew well the dirt road from her mobile home to Lyle’s porch that wrapped around his parent’s home. She could walk it on a moonless night staying to the middle, as she had done many times. And when the moon was full, she would hold Lyle’s hand as he walked her home. The gate was kept locked now, keeping the girls safely in and only opened for repairs to the fence. Amanda stopped her truck to let Scott out so he could swing the gate open. It was just a chore today, and a barbed wire fence to mend.
Amanda and Scott pulled up to the shrubs, and dropped the post, wire, and shovel by the fenceline breach.
“They’re good at getting out if you don’t watch them,” Scott said.
“Yeh, they want to roam. Well, we’re gonna stop that!”
“Take a look, Amanda. The posts on either side are down, too. Looks like rot. I don’t think we’ve gotten to this section in over 20 years. One post isn’t going to do it.”
“I can go get another couple of posts.”
“Don’t have any,” Jim said, “Took the last one. We’ll need to go into Petaluma for another bundle. I can do that tomorrow morning. Let’s just leave this stuff here, and get to it later.”
“Okay. And I’ll get the posts this afternoon. Don’t want to face Mom’s paperwork, anyway.”
They were now both leaning up against either side of the truck hood, facing each other.
“How are you doing?”, Jim said, “With your Mom gone. You all right? You haven’t talked much about it. I miss her too, ya know. She was as much my mom as my real mom was.”
“I’m okay. It just happens. Life goes on. It sure feels empty in that mobile home. Too quiet.”
“Look, if you need to get out of here for a while, I can find a ranch hand to help out. Not trying to get rid of you, or anything. This is your home. And I’ll never find anybody that can work this ranch like you do. But if you want a couple of months to get away, well, I’m good with that. Maybe go see New York. You know you want to, and you can now. You got a couple of bucks in your pocket. You should go somewhere and spend it.”
“Thanks, Scott. That’s the man I know. But I’m OK. I’d rather just stay home for now. Maybe later. I’m comfortable here. Maybe too comfortable. And it’s home.”
“You know there’s a man waiting out there for you, Amanda. And you’re the best catch in West Sonoma. Trouble is that there’s no one left here to catch you. Maybe you should get out some.”
“I appreciate the big-brother talk, Scott. I do. You always only mean well. You’re a good man, and I’m glad you’re family. I’m just not seein’ ever having what you and Cindy have. Kids and cookies. Maybe that new guy in town is right. Just a Polish farm girl.”
Scott could remember watching Amanda slip into quiet sadness when Lyle returned with that LA girl. Her years of self-imposed suffering had worn on him, too.
“Prettiest damned Polish farm girl on the planet! Smart. Kind. And you own a truck.” Scott was now laughing. “Gotta love a girl that drives a truck! Seriously, you are one fine woman. You should think about fishin’ in a larger pond. Heck, Petaluma’s a big city now. You outta find a reason to be over there more often.”
“Thanks. And I’m good. Remember how we used to play over there at the Wronski place?” Amanda said, looking across the pasture. “That guy with the BMW lives there now.”
“So I hear. Sam says he’s real nice, and a good looking guy. Must be doing okay. Who knows, maybe a big fish jumped into our little pond.”
“Not ready, Scott.”
“Not ready, my ass! Lyle was an idiot. He’s divorced and living in LA now. That’s just dirt stupid! I’m glad you didn’t hook up with him. Fat-headed idiot! Maybe that fancy car dude is a sign. Talk to him?”
“Yes, Scott, I see him in town like everyone else. And get your big-brother butt in the truck. We’re done here.”
Her chores done at the ranch, and not wanting to face closing out her mother’s affairs, Amanda headed over to Petaluma to get the fence posts. Scott was happy to see Amanda get out of Valley Ford, even if was only 30 minutes away. She drove to the lumber yard, picked up the fence posts, and went straight toward home. Amanda wasn’t in the mood to window shop, or talk with strangers. She wanted to be on the ranch. About halfway back, the truck started losing power, and smell like antifreeze. Amanda pulled over, popped open the hood, and saw steam coming out of the side of the engine. Blown head gasket. Repairable, she thought, and the old truck was in the shop too much already. Time to just replace it. That trip to New York that Scott knew she was dreaming about would have to wait.
She leaned back against the truck and thought about how she would get home. Any one of a dozen people in town would come pick her up. She reached for her cell phone, and a silver car came over the rise, going fast, and swooshed by her. Did the car guy just drive by me?, she thought. And keep going? It’s going to take him a while to get used to being country folk, she considered, pouting. She called Scott, and as he answered, the low purr of a big engine came up behind her. Jim pulled in behind Amanda’s truck, and got out.
“Car trouble? Sorry…truck trouble? Need a ride?”
“Yes, I suppose I do. Hang on…Scott?…I’ll call you back.” Amanda thought about riding in the car with wings, and how shining armor had come a long ways since the Middle Ages. The knights were still handsome and gallant, though. “Just need to get back to town. I can get a tow from someone there.”
“Want me to call you a tow truck? We can put it on my AAA card.”
He was a knight with a AAA card, she thought. Clearly, he didn’t grow up around here. “No, thinkin’ about just abandoning it.” Amanda laughed. “What was the name of the dealership you went to?”
“It was the Dodge place. And if you just want a ride, I can do that, too. Hop in.”
Amanda walked over to the car, and pulled on the handle, straight out. As the door rose up, her hand slipped away, and she stumbled back.
“Takes a little getting used to,” Jim said, holding back a laugh.
“Got it. Out and up. I think I can handle it.”
Amanda slid in, thinking about wearing ranch clothes in a perfectly clean, very expensive car.
“Sorry, my boots are a bit muddy,” she said, as if mud was the only thing on her work boots.
“Don’t worry about it. I do the same thing sometimes. I didn’t think about country life when I bought the car. Dirt is just dirt. And we have lots here, thank God.”
The radio played easy contemporary rock, without commercials. The dashboard was like a sculptural rendition of a private jet cockpit. The leather smelled new. The drive was smooth and quiet. Smooth, as in nothing went wrong, and quiet, because neither talked. By the time Jim had slowed to turn off the county road and onto Highway 1, Amanda had found the courage to get her question out.
“Why are you here, Jim? Of all the places you could be. I mean, why Valley Ford?”
“I just like the place. Truth is my wife and I used to come up here a lot. When I sold my last company, I just kept coming here, finally found a place for sale, and moved here.”
“You married?,” Amanda asked, now sorry for asking the first question.
“No. My wife passed away two years ago. Thought we were going to raise our family here. Watching kids run in the hills. After she died, I needed to get away, so I came here. Think I’ll stay. I like the people here. It’s pretty. The coast is nearby. Stuff like that.”
“Sorry to hear that, Jim. About your wife, that is. Must be hard. Lost my mom a while back. Makes you think. Valley Ford is a good place to think. I’m staying, too.”
“Good,” Jim said, as he pulled over next to the Valley Ford Store. “Well, it was nice to talk with you. Maybe next time we can talk under different conditions. Like when your truck is running, and I’m not apologizing.” Jim smiled and paused. “Hey, you want to get a cup of coffee at the store? I’m buyin’.”
Amanda turned her head up shyly, and softly said, “Yeh. I’d like that.”
Amanda and Jim walked into the Valley Ford Store. Both Betty Graton and her daughter Susan stood and watched quietly.
“Excuse me, Amanda, do you know if they have a bathroom here?”, Jim said.
“In the back,” Susan blurted out. “Past the hardware, past the office, way back,” she said waving her hand in the general direction of the restroom.
As Jim disappeared, Susan ran up to Amanda, and with unrestrained excitement asked, “Are you guys dating?”
“No, Susan. We are not dating. My truck blew up on the way back from Petaluma, and he gave me a ride. He was just driving by. Not dating. Giving me a ride.”
“That was nice of him,” Betty said with a smile. “He seems like a nice man.”
“Awesome nice!” said Susan.
“Okay, Susan,” Betty said firmly, “That’s enough. The man just gave her a ride. I got that book in, Amanda. Keeping it behind the counter.”
“Maybe later, Betty. We’re just here for coffee. And, uh, I guess he’s buying.”
Susan, hopping on her toes, big smile beaming, quickly shared, “Sounds like a date!”
“Susan!” Mrs. Graton snapped. “Stop it now. You help yourself to coffee, Amanda. I’ve already read the first eight pages of that book. Looks like a good one. A sophisticated romance. I need it back.”
“Yes, I’m sure you’re eager to read it. I’ll bring it back as soon as I’m finished.”
“I don’t need it back for me, Amanda.”
“I need it back because the gentleman you just walked in with asked for it, too.”
Just then Jim rounded the corner, and headed over to the coffee bar set up for the tourists that drifted through on Scenic Route 1.
“How do you take your coffee,” Amanda asked.
“Black, thanks,” Jim replied. “How much do I owe you, Betty?”
“Gimme three bucks and we’ll call it even,” Betty said, “Locals price. You are a local, aren’t you?”
“Workin’ on it.”, Jim replied. “Thanks.”
Jim and Amanda took a seat on the bench outside of the Valley Ford Store.
“Beautiful day out,” Jim said.
“Yeah, we get a lot of those here.”
“So, Amanda, mind if I ask you what your situation is. I mean, married? Have a boyfriend?”
“Neither, Jim. Just a, well, I just grew up here and stayed. Dairy farming’s my thing, and I do it well. Slim pickins out here, anyway. Not so fond of city life. Just a country girl.” Amanda laughed. ” I’d say, ‘just a Polish farm girl,’ but I don’t know how you’d take to being teased.”
“Oh, God. Still sorry about that,” Jim moaned.
“Don’t be. I’m glad I’m a Polish farm girl.”
Jim caught Amanda’s sparkling eyes directly in his. “Well, Amanda, at this moment, I am too.”
“We’re not so bad, us Polish farm girls.”
“I can see that,” Jim said, still gazing into Amanda’s eyes.
“Yep, I can milk cows, raise chickens, sex rabbits, that is, well…tell their gender…not…ya know.” Both were laughing.
“Yeh, I get it!”
“And I pack the best-darned picnic in Sonoma County.”
“I’ll bet you do. The view over toward your place is sure beautiful. It’s perfect. Just what I was looking for when I moved here. And a lot more. Even when it’s stormy, it’s beautiful. And when the sun comes out, I can’t stop looking at it. Hard to get anything done looking over toward the knoll.”
It was hard for Jim to get anything done when he thought of Amanda. And Amanda was now to be found daydreaming every evening among the wildflowers in the clearing on the far side of the knoll.
“I can see your light on in the new place you built. I go over the knoll at night. Just sit there. It was dark for a long time. And then you came along. Now there’s a bright spot up where I used to play. You notice the flowers blooming in the glade?”
“Yes. What are those? The color is amazing. It gets more alluring every day.”
“Purple Salsify and Crimson Columbine. Purple sunflowers and red buttercups. Masses of them.”
“You know your wildflowers!”
“6th Grade Sonoma Ecology. And just growing up here. You’ll learn all about the wildflowers in this area after a while.”
In a lush glade between the knoll and the Wronski ranch, the flowers of the Purple Salsify stood in a ring, tall and strong, with broad, royal purple flowers, solid with petals. The Crimson Columbine a brilliant red blooming inside the ring, with blushing petals surrounding pistils and stamens flying out like fireworks. Both flowers loved the land they had found. Both would spread their brilliant life before the rains came. The purple sunflowers building a large, dandelion-like, mathematically precise sculpture attached to the seeds, only to let the wind take them freely. The red buttercups blooming, and then blooming again, while holding their new growth close to their feet. Both would stay where they found the rich nourishment they needed. The Purple Salsify grew in a ring at the edge of the moist glade in soil made firm by the circling of the girls from the dairy; the Crimson Columbine grew at the center in soil enriched by years of life that had passed.
“You ought to check it out, and see the flowers up close,” Amanda said to Jim. “I know the owners of the property. They’d be okay with a neighbor walking around.”
“You mean just walk down the hill. Toward you.”
“Yeh. Or up the hill from my place.
Amanda looked into Jim’s hazel eyes, and the warmth she felt opened her heart. Maybe Scott was right. Maybe Scott was the big brother who could see what she could not.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” said Amanda.
“Office stuff. Why?”
“Tell you what, I’ll meet you in the glade at noon tomorrow. ”
“Really?”, Jim said with hopeful surprise.
“Really. Ever been to New York?”
“Loads of times.”
“Good. It will save me the trip. I need to buy a new truck, and can’t afford to go there now. You can tell me all about it. And I’ll bring one of my famous picnics.”
“Wow. Okay. And, uh, how about I bring the blanket and some wine.”
Just outside of Valley Ford, from behind an idyllic knoll, and down from the refuge of a wooded hilltop, Amanda and Jim walked toward each other, into purple and crimson fields, and into each other lives. For a few glorious hours they talked. Just talked, and talked, and talked. Agreeing to not leave West Sonoma. And deciding on a time to meet up the next day at the Valley Ford Store, to pick up a love story, and make Susan giggle.
Robert W. Hansen
Copyright – Robert W. Hansen – 2016
Relevant Links: Stornetta; Dillon Beach; i8; Sea Ranch; Bodega Bay; coastal highway; Sonoma Coast; Jenner; ceanothus; California poppies; purple allium; columbines; Purple Salsify; Crimson Columbine; Shooting Stars; 6th Grade Sonoma Ecology