By Tom Correa
Utica Reservoir was ablaze with Autumn.
But once night fell, the overwhelming gold and copper and green of the Sierra's turned into black shadows around him. Now and then he'd hear something scurry in the dark brush, but he didn't pay it much mind. He was used to camping alone and he knew no one would be around in the middle of the week. Right then his mind was more on his coffee.
To John, coffee seemed to taste its best either at the ocean or in the mountains. The outdoors does something to a cup of coffee, he thought.
Although he didn't know what it was that made it that much better, he truly loved it. Soon enough he'd take in that scent of camping that he's missed for so long. And it wasn't long after he set his old tin pot on a flat rock next to the flames of his campfire that the aroma of fresh ground sped through the campsite.
For the first time in weeks, he was content. It was nice, he thought, I can finally take off my pack. It was the same feeling he had for years while he was in the Corps.
He really became aware of how nice a feeling it is when he was going through training for the Infantry many years ago. At times those days felt like yesterday, although he knew too well that they weren't.
As a young Private humping up the hills and across the ridge lines of Camp Pendleton, it felt good and clean to get the order to take off his pack and stand down. The feeling good part always spoke for itself. Shucking a field pack after a long hump up some damn hill felt good. It was just that way.
The clean feeling came from knowing many others in better physical shape fell back or out along the way. He found out early that physical was a big part of what was needed, but it wasn't the kicker. It wasn't what made men survive, and more importantly, he knew it wasn't what enabled men to prevail.
He could take his pack off knowing that he had the heart, and he knew that with the heart came the will to saddle-up at any time to do it all over again. No march was ever too long or ever too hard to where he'd fall out and be looked at by others as not being able to hack it.
Now he liked feeling clean about who he was. For now he knew there was only now, so he sat on a rotting log feeling at ease with his coffee brewing and fire taking hold.
With the sounds of the burning wood cracking, squealing, now and again popping out away from the fire, he turned down his old lantern until it was almost out. He wanted to see every blue and orange flame whip up to kiss the night.
He knew some had problems building a simply fire, or to sit near enough to it after it was built. Not him. He liked feeling the heat spread and sweep up across his legs and pass his face, and so he sat with his fire.
A cavern formed under the big log near the edge of the pit. The logs that crossed over it were smaller and a gentle wind swept through them and beneath the big log's underbelly. The orange gold chips of coal glistened hot. The fire hissed as sap from greener branches sizzled and spit.
At first the flames stretched up high to break and run atop the smaller logs, then they'd return to the low coals where ash blew in the hovering silver blue heat as if it were some small varmints fur in a winter wind. It made the coals appear as jewels wanting to be touched and now and again small flames from around and between the coals would peer out then they would slowly disappear again.
The smoke funneled upward in the dead wind. The trees stood still, as if they didn't want to disturb him. He shook his head a little when he felt the fire pull in all his thoughts.
Reaching over to his bag, he drug it over and pulling it open he rummaged around until he found a couple of blue tin cups and filled it with the now hot coffee and sat back down. But when he tried for a taste, he quickly found out it was plenty hot and believed in his heart it couldn't get any hotter.
The cup warmed his hands as he sank back into the fire. And as the night curled around him, John noticed something he'd never heard before. For some reason the fire seem to have a whisper of wind chimes. The night consumed him.
"Do you have the fire built yet?" Joanna called out.
Looking over at his jeep, he saw Joanna drying her long dark hair. Bent over, she let a towel fall over her head. He couldn't make out what she was saying. He strained to hear her, but the towel muffled her words.
"I said, don't you have that fire built yet?" she said as she whipped her hair, now wrapped in the towel, back over her head.
Sitting there looking at her over by "her" jeep, he was taken by her. It was not something new, he was always taken by her.
"You look like you're wearing a turban," he said tossing a few more branches on the fire.
"Yea, I probably do," she laughed walking over to him, "but if I had to wait for one of your famous fires, my head would freeze. Then my hair would start falling out and I'd look like you."
She sat next to him and curled into his shoulder, then put her mouth to his ear to nibble on his earlobe. The sensation was there. He tried not to cringe!
"You think so, do you?" he replied pulling his ear away from her. "I think you still look funny. Maybe I ought to get you a flute and a basket with a snake in it."
"Who cares anyway?" she asked, breathing heavy into his ear, "and who needs a basket? I've got you."
"Joanna, don't do that!" he said shrugging his shoulders. " I swear, it honest to God tickles. You know that!"
"Does more than tickle," she said, breathing into his ear again. "Anyways, you'd care about me even if I'd wear a turban all the time. You'd care about me just the way I am, wouldn't you? Well Johnny, wouldn't you?"
She rested her head into his right shoulder again and watched the fire. He knew he didn't have to answer. She knew he didn't have to answer. She knew. She knew too well he loved her, but she wanted to hear it. He liked it when she showed him that she knew he was hooked.
"You! You can keep it forever if you want," he said poking at the fire with a stick he'd put aside just for that purpose. After she didn't reply, he looked down at her and saw a small smile.
They liked to watch the cinder ash take flight turning into so many fireflies along the way. Both were drawn into the flames for what seemed like hours. At times he thought she fell asleep and was afraid to move and maybe wake her. If there was anything in this world that he truly loved, it was looking at her while she slept.
Her profile never left him, no matter what time of day it was. With her eyes closed and lips at ease, not smiling or showing concern, she looked peaceful and unstressed.
At times he wished he could make all of her days that way. The problem for him was that he didn't know how to treat a good woman the way he thought one should be treated. She told him to take her off the pedestal, but she knew this was the first time for him. It was the first time he'd allowed himself to love without question and openly.
Vulnerable or not, he felt open with her and liked the feeling that he could trust her. She wasn't like most of the women he'd known, but instead she was what he'd hoped for. She wasn't one to take any of his hardass attitude, but she wasn't hard and unable to love either. She was his Top Sergeant, and he liked that. He most likely always would.
He was so comfortable at that point, he really didn't want to move. But the fire needed more wood, so he reached over grabbing a chunk of wood. Moving only his arm, he tried not to wake her or let her off away from him. He was about to throw it in the fire when she stopped him.
"Wait a minute," she said. "John, isn't that the piece I said we'd take home for my cactus garden? Why are you going to burn my piece of wood? You said, we could take it home."
He tried like hell to stop a smile, but it struck him funny and couldn't see the difference between one old rotted piece of wood and another. Needless to try to make any sense of it, he thought. He knew once she'd set her mind on having that piece there would be no changing her mind. He also knew it would be completely against his nature if he didn't try, and she'd be disappointed in him if he just rolled over without a fight. They knew the rules to the game, and she wouldn't want the piece if he didn't play the game according to the rules. Now it was his move.
"We can get another piece tomorrow. One just as nice. Maybe one even nicer," he said still holding the piece in his hand balancing it on his left knee near the fire.
He didn't know if this tactic would work, but he figured he didn't have anything to lose. That was simply the way their game was played and he knew it. A parry might work, he thought.
"You really think there's a nicer piece out there?" she asked.
"Of course there is," he said. "I put on an order with Old Mother Nature. She said she'd have one out there for us tomorrow."
It was corny but fun, he thought, and maybe that would do the trick and get her to change her mind. After all, they needed it for the fire. He was sure they could find another big gray rotten piece out there somewhere.
"Good!" she said digging her head into his collar, "then we'll have two to take home."
He put her piece aside and looked at the fire. He wondered what would be harder, getting the Pope to become a Mormon or get Joanna to change her mind.
"Well," he said with a slight laugh, "I know what I'm going to do as soon as we get home."
"What's that?" she asked looking at him.
"I think as soon as we get back, I'm calling the Vatican," he laughed. "I need to talk to the Pope!"
She stood up and walked to the sleeping bags. She untied both and zipped them together to make them into one. Bundling up their jackets, she put them at the opening of the bag. Once she had them set, she walked back to the fire and picked up John's cup to fill it with hot coffee.
"Here's a warm-up," she said handing him his cup. "You'll get over it later. Believe me, you will."
He watched her as she walked to the jeep. Cocky little shit will never change, he thought. A small smile crept across his face.
"So how's it feel?" he asked. After not getting an answer, he asked again, "so tell me, how's it feel?"
There was nothing wrong with her hearing. She knew what he was asking, but she also knew he put himself in that position.
No one was ever truer to her, and no man ever treated her better. It was this that made her expect a lot more of him. She knew he could do anything, and at times he thought he could do anything. It was an attitude that he'd gotten from his years in the Marine Corps.
Most of the time it was nice, but then there were times when he seemed so out of touch with the civilian world. His whole life was the Corps, and now he missed it. This bothered her. He was a hardass, hard headed, cocky and full of shit, but he was the best man she'd ever be with.
She looked at how old he looked, much older than 36. That was the Corps' doings, she once figured. It made him older than he was.
Now in front of the fire, his age showed with every line and deep crevice on his face enhanced by the fire. Even his hair, which was turning quite gray, sparkled in the light. But she loved this man. And yes, she loved who he was.
"Well John, I'll tell you straight" she answered standing by the sleeping bag. "Actually, it doesn't feel that bad. Yea, not bad at all!"
By now the fire needed wood. The flames were dying and he knew he didn't want to let it go out. It was almost completely gone except for a small pocket of red coals showing through the ash. It was as if that pocket was fighting to stay lit.
They hadn't turned up the lantern, the night was broken only by the soft glow of the dying amber, so he reached for more wood.
"You don't want to do that," Joanna called out from the sleeping bags.
He tried to focus, but the moon swallowed Woods Lake behind her so all he could see was the lines of her silhouette.
"John, come away from the fire. I'm cold. Hold me." she said just above a whisper.
Still unable to see her, he walked over to her, put his arms around her and held her as she pulled her arms into his chest. She crossed her arms in front of her. Leaning into him, he thought how she felt soft and smooth. She felt secure. The fire was almost gone.
There were no clouds to block the stars over Woods Lake. It was their special place. Now there was only now.
"Johnny, you're mine," she whispered to him.
Suddenly light was everywhere. John looked up from the fire and saw two sets of high-beams coming into camp. To his surprise it was his friends, Richard and Len.
"What the hell were you doing?" Len asked. "You look like a damn statue, what the hell were you thinking about?"
"I was thinking about the trout at Woods Lake," John said while reaching out to shake his old friend's hand.
"You weren't thinking about no damn fish at Woods Lake," said Richard as he grabbed at John's hand to shake it before going to get an overnight bag out of his truck. "You've got to stop going to Woods Lake, Buddy. After ten years, you still won't let her go?"
"Shit! How about a drink? Hey Richard! How about it?" John said trying to sound upbeat and maybe change a sore subject.
Len slapped John on the shoulder, then put his hand up to his neck to pull him close. "It's OK," he said. "but she's been dead a long time. Joanna's gone. John, it's OK, but she's gone."
"I don't think so, Len. She was here. Damn it guys, she was here!" John's said angrily.
Richard was still on his way back up the small hill to find the bottle of whiskey he'd packed away when he heard John snap. Both he and Len looked at John, but they didn't say a word. He saw the looks of concern on their faces. His old friends looked at him as though they thought he'd lost his mind.
"Good God!" he sighed shaking his head. He looked at the stars and the sliver of moon. "Hey Richard, where's that drink? I'm coffee'd out."