After a good dinner, Clyde reclined in his oversize easy chair and waited for the six o’clock news to begin. His work day began at four that morning, and he arrived at home in time to wash up and sit down to supper. No wonder his eyes closed and he fell asleep.
Preoccupied with their own projects, neither woman noticed. Neither heard the long sigh of exhale as the air in Clyde’s large chest passed out into the room, and neither paid any attention to the four second pause when he lay there with relaxed, empty lungs. However, on the fifth second, the family room filled with the sound of a rusty rasp scraping against a very dull two-man crosscut saw, amplified by a first rate sound system.
“Jesus!” I jerked and stuck my embroidery needle a full quarter of an inch into my thumb.
Mother’s keyboard clattered on her desk and she chuckled. “I guess he’s real tired. It’s those long hours. He’ll be glad when that job is done.
After five minutes, the man-made thunder stopped. The silence was deafening. Clyde opened his eyes and fixed a blank stare down his nose toward the television. His muscular arms rested on the chair arms. His large fingers, gnarled with work and age, tapped a silent rhythm only he heard.
“Apples oughtta be ripe.”
“Yep.” Mother stared at her brand new computer. She picked up the keyboard and shook it until it rattled. “God damned contraption won’t save and I can’t make it print.” She banged the keyboard onto the desk and poked at it. “Aaagh! This damned thing …” Again, she picked it up.
Before she could throw the keyboard, still tethered to its master box, I stood, walked up behind her and with gentle, persuasive pressure, wrested it from her hands.
“You know, throwing your electronics won’t make them work. Quite the opposite. If they are not dead when you throw them, they’ll die of percussion when they land.”
“Did you drive all the way down from Washington to tell me what I can or cannot do?”
I laughed. “Where’s the list of instructions I sent you?”
“I don’t know. I had it a minute ago.”
“Well, let’s find it and I’ll help you troubleshoot your problems. Maybe I can be more help in person than over the phone.”
In her sixties, Mother refused to be left behind in a time of enormous technological advances. At great expense, she bought herself an entire office suite, had it installed in the family room, and chose me to teach her how to use the equipment.
Even though I lived several hundred miles to the north, it made sense to her to have me for a teacher. I wrote technical journals and newsletters, and owned a new portable IBM which weighed more than twenty pounds, and which I lugged along everywhere I went. Therefore, to her I appeared to be an expert.
Back then, Silicone Valley was in its infancy. If anyone had an idea for mega data storage or instantaneous electronic communication, making it available to the masses hadn’t yet been formulated into a solid, workable plan. We had no internal or external hard drive of any kind for data storage, no internet, no scanning capabilities, no email, no iPhone, no Skype. Computers were limited to three tasks: typing documents and lists, saving them on huge floppy discs, and printing. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were babies. Well, nearly.
Clyde fidgeted in his chair. “Those apples oughtta be picked.”
“What?” Mother put down the list she had in her hand and looked at my stepfather. “You want to go out to the ranch this weekend?”
Clyde turned his head to look at her. “We oughtta go out tonight. The deer will eat all the ripe ones before the weekend.”
Mother never questioned Clyde’s intuition concerning his grandfather’s homestead. Born and raised in the rocky, barren mountains of the Coast Range, he knew the place better than he knew himself.
“We can’t go tonight,” Mother said. “I don’t have to work tomorrow, but you do. We’ll wait until the weekend.”
“Judy’s going back up north on Saturday. I bet she’d like to go out to the ranch before she has to leave.”
“If we left right now, it would be seven and getting dark before we could start picking.”
Clyde shifted his chair into its upright position. “I could load the boxes and the new ladder, and then drive out tonight. You could pick the apples in the upper orchard and hike around the place tomorrow, and I’ll come get you after work.”
“We wouldn’t have a car.”
“There is a new battery in the Jeep. I’ll start it up to make sure it runs before I come back to town tonight.”
“Tonight!” She hit two and a half notes when she responded: a low, a high, and then a short note half a step below the high note.
“Yeah, I have to make an early start in the morning. I’ll get more sleep if I come home tonight.”
Raising expressive, pencil arched eyebrows over sky blue eyes, Mother looked at me. I smiled and nodded.
In less than half an hour, Mother got into the passenger side of the el Camino and scooted to the center of the bench seat. Then I closed myself inside. Clyde turned the key and started the powerful engine.
In the waning daylight, the place looked as I remembered it. The rectangular shaped cabin contained a single large room for cooking, eating and evening entertainment. A simple plumbing arrangement on the long side to the right of the entryway serviced the added-on bathroom and the kitchen alcove. A wood fired water heater and wood cook stove provided heat to warm the open area.
Under wide eaves, a screened-in sleeping porch to the left off the entrance stretched down the other long side of the cabin. At the front end of the porch, the head of Clyde and Mother’s extra-large iron bedstead rested against the outside wall. Like a row of dominoes, nine single beds, all iron with room to walk between, butted up against the wall below the windows. Not yet winterized, most of the beds sported mattresses.
Mother pointed to a few mouse droppings near the front door. “They’re coming in already. Must have been cold the last few nights. I sure hope there’s not going to be a mouse in my bed.” She folded back the protective coverlet and shook it a little. No mice.
“You never can tell what’s going to be wandering around in here.” Amusement showed in Clyde’s eyes. He knew Mother got the heebie-jeebies at night. His barely audible chuckle reminded me of an episode years before when a mouse interrupted Mother’s slumbers. She woke everyone sleeping inside and out in the dooryard with her wild drawn-out drama.
None of us got any sleep after the incident. For the remainder of the night, we sat inside, drank coffee and played cribbage. We wanted to play poker, but Mother claimed gambling in the middle of the night would damage our souls.
We did receive a reward, though. Along toward dawn, we girls all worked together to cook a huge breakfast of sausage, eggs, hash browns and toast. We would need the calories to stay awake, accomplish our tasks, and to play in any time left over before we had to head back toward town.
Clyde, Mother and I unloaded ladder and boxes in the apple orchard. After leaving the last two boxes under the pear trees in the dooryard, we said our good-byes. Clyde got into his el Camino and drove back toward town. When he reached the crest of the hill, the car disappeared over the top, leaving behind a cloud of fine dust.
When the dust dissipated, I realized how alone Mother and I were, halfway between the top of the mountain and the Mattole River far below. No one lived closer than five miles in any direction from the cabin. As the sky darkened, the single light originating from the small lantern on the dining table grew a little brighter. The weak beam shone out the open cabin door.
I felt a cold shiver travel up my spine. Mother must have felt one, too. In unison, we pivoted and headed for the cabin. I entered first, then Mother pushed her way in behind me. She slammed the door. With great physical force and a huge grunt, she shoved a half-full five gallon paint can in front of the door. Then she picked up a double cement block which stood nearby and placed it atop the can. I jumped when she shrieked at a spider as it crawled out of a hole in the cement block.
More than a little nervous, we both laughed.
We went up the two steps from the entryway into the original cabin. Mother shut the door to the sleeping porch and I pointed toward the open back door. By the time I said, “Uh, the door …” she hurried to it and shut it with alarming forcefulness. Then she wedged the back of a nearby chair under the knob the way they do in the movies to prevent monsters from invading the place.
“I’ll start a fire in the stove so we can make coffee or tea.” I reached down into an empty wood box. “Oh, God, there’s no wood.”
“You go,” she said, and with a great flourish, lit the large lantern. “I’ll wait in here.”
“We could go fireless.”
“No, I’m cold. And I want something hot to drink.”
With careful plying and fervent hope that the knob wouldn’t fall off in the process, I dislodged the chair. The mechanism seemed a little loose after its recent traumatic experience.
Although the dooryard was level, the land beneath the cabin had a downhill slope to it. My eyes grew used to the darkness and I found the single handrail and carried the wood sling down the seven steps.
As a safety precaution and to discourage vermin from entering the cabin, the wood shed was a little way down the hill. An edging of rocks we children painted with leftovers from the paint store marked the trail. After years of sun on them, those painted with fluorescent green and orange had faded, but still glowed a little in the dark.
I filled and tied the sling, then stood and looked over the barn farther down the hillside. In silhouette, the tops of second growth redwoods peeked over the barn roof. I cast my vision up toward the sky. Always amazed at the brightness of stars undiluted by man made lights, I picked out a favorite constellation. I looked for a second set of stars and saw a peaceful looking fog rise upward from the river and cover the stars closest to the horizon.
Mother called out the open door. In air grown cold, I shivered, then picked up my burden and trudged up the hill.
“What took you so long? You get lost?”
Inside the cabin, I gently pushed the chairback under the door knob then filled the wood box. “Got caught in a daydream, I guess. The trees are much taller now, and the stars shine as bright as ever.”
“It’s a long time since you’ve been here and almost as long since we’ve talked.” An expert at building a fire in the wood stove, Mother got to work and the cabin soon warmed. She dug way back in a secret hidey-hole in the alcove and extracted a bottle of Scotch, almost half full. Over coffee, Scotch and sliced apples and pears, we talked away the evening.
Whether we both had much to talk about, or we were reluctant to retire for the night, I could not say. But, at about midnight, we ran low on fire wood and the cabin began to cool. Armed with the small lantern and flashlights, we inspected our unrolled sleeping bags, Mother’s on the large bed and mine on the nearest small bed. No mice. We turned in for the night and doused all the lights.
In a little while, I heard a rustling sound.
“What’s the matter?” I could make out Mother’s form. She was on her knees looking out the screened window.
“I can’t sleep. I thought I heard something outside.”
“I didn’t hear anything.” I tried to hold back a laugh. “You sure it’s not the ghosties.”
“Don’t say that! Now I’ll never get to sleep.”
“Well, you’re gonna get cold if you don’t get back into your sleeping bag.”
About the time Mother got herself tucked in again, a ruckus broke out underneath the cabin. Some running wild things crashed into wood. Pipes rattled. We heard an “ew” noise and then scrabbling in the dirt.
In unison, I uttered an expletive and Mother screeched. All under the cabin went quiet. We had startled our intruders into silence.
“What do you think it was?” I pictured something horrid with vicious teeth.
“Probably raccoons,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “We’ve had them before.” She sounded brave and knowledgeable.
I relaxed and began to doze.
Rustle, rustle, rustle. Mother was at it again. I tried to ignore her.
“Did you hear that?”
“There it is again. That lap-lap sound. Like a dog or a wolf drinking. It sounds like its right under the window.”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“I can’t sleep. Maybe I could if you would move your bag up here. There’s plenty of room for both of us.”
“Okay, I’ll move. But I refuse to snore for you.” We both laughed.
Out of the bag and into the cold I climbed and exposed myself to the cold barely long enough to hoist bag and pillow up to the large bed. I shivered until the bag warmed up again.
“Now go to sleep.” Egad! My voice had turned into my mother’s.
“You really don’t hear it? I know it’s not my imagination.”
I listened. Hard. Then I heard it. “Lap-lap. Lap-lap. Lap. Lap-lap.”
My heart leaped up and threatened to stick in my throat. “What do you think it could be? What kind of monster would make such a noise.”
Huddled close together in the center of the large bed, we listened. The monster would go away, then come back close enough for us to hear, “Lap-lap. Lap. Lap-lap.”
After what seemed like hours, much of the time accompanied by the odd noise, I felt tenseness leave Mother and heard her breathing slow as she dropped off to sleep. Then not much later, I succumbed to slumber.
Although the sun hadn’t yet appeared over the ridge, we woke to a clear sky and the promise of a beautiful day.
Energetic as if she had slept a full eight hours, Mother jumped out of bed. “Come on. Let’s go out and see what kind of tracks were left by the Lap-lap Monster.”
I dragged myself up, shoved my feet into cold trainers and grabbed my jacket. I had to help her move the cement block and paint can in order to open the door.
We searched along the front and side of the cabin, but found no tracks. We turned to look toward the pear trees and beyond to the smokehouse. No evidence of an animal was anywhere to be seen.
“I don’t understand,” Mother said. “I’m positive I heard something out here.”
Suddenly, a sound came from behind us. “Lap-lap.” We shrieked and whirled around to face what we both knew could be certain death.
There was nothing between us and the cabin. Then, as we stared in disbelief, the last of the foggy condensation rolled off the metal roof and dribbled into the full bucket below. “Lap-lap. Lap.”
“There’s our Lap-lap Monster.” I looked into her blue eyes. After a long pause, I smiled. “You gonna tell?”