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Fiction

Imperfect solitude

An excerpt from the novel

Tom Mahony 9 November 2010

www.lablit.com/article/630

Great outdoors: detail from the cover

Three weeks into the job, he felt battered and clueless. It seemed more chain gang than scientific discovery

Editor’s note: We are pleased to report that one of our regular contributors, Tom Mahony, is about to publish his first novel, Imperfect Solitude. Tom has often diverted us with real-life tales of his experience as a field biologist, and we’re excited that he’s now produced a lab lit novel set in this world. Here we present an opening excerpt – if you’re intrigued, please do buy the book, which comes out 1st December from Casperian Books.

The ridge loomed in the distance. Evan Nellis clutched an oak tree and gasped for breath. Honeysuckle and rotting carcass wafted on the spring wind. His stomach roiled. He couldn’t continue. Screw this job.

Twenty feet upslope, Gordon Shaw sipped coffee from a thermos. “That’s poison oak twining up the trunk, bud.”

Evan jerked away from the tree. “Didn’t see it.”

Gordon smirked. “Hard to miss.”

“I’m focused on topping that ridge.”

“Focus harder. I can’t wait all day for you.”

Evan brushed off the insult, just wanted to survive the field day. He was in good shape, or so he thought, but struggled to keep up with Gordon. The man was tall and thick and confronted the Northern California mountains with a grudge.

“Let’s go,” Gordon said, resuming his trek uphill. “You’ve wasted enough of my time.”

Lacking a feasible alternative, Evan followed. He gripped shrubs for balance and avoided rocks dislodged by Gordon’s footsteps. Hiking through the chaparral felt like wading upstream in deep water. The final stretch occupied another dimension where time moved slower and gravity pulled stronger.

He crested the ridge, stooped over, and sucked wind. Gordon rubbed his weathered face and scratched his buzzcut in irritation. He looked older than his thirty-five years. “You gonna live?”

Evan grunted. “I’m fine.” He wasn’t, but wouldn’t give Gordon the satisfaction.

“Then hurry up. We’ve got work to do.”

They were field biologists. At least Gordon was; Evan remained a wannabe. His dreams of an outdoor career had never included such physical punishment. He’d envisioned days spent creek-side monitoring a bald eagle nest through binoculars, lulled asleep by dappled sunlight and rushing water. But three weeks into the job, he felt battered and clueless. It seemed more chain gang than scientific discovery. His tenure involved shadowing Gordon like a stray dog, lapping up any crumbs of information the man cared to scatter.

They descended into a canyon thick with madrone, burnt orange bark flaking like sunburned skin, the shamelessly phallic buckeye in full bloom. Evan kept pace as Gordon tore through the riparian tangle. At the base of the canyon, Gordon studied an aerial photograph then scanned a meadow with binoculars.

“What are you looking for?” Evan asked.

Gordon ignored the question, approached a swale, and stabbed his shovel into the earth.
“You need help?”

“Don’t flatter yourself.”

Gordon extracted soil like a slice of chocolate cake. He poked around the profile with a knife, sniffed a chunk, and squeezed it between his thumb and forefinger. He jotted notes in a field notebook. Evan watched, privy to generalities of their mission but ignorant on specifics. They were searching for sensitive biological resources: endangered species, wetlands, rare habitats. How sniffing a dirt clod helped locate them, he didn’t know. His days of college slacking returned to haunt him. Those ditched classes apparently contained relevant information.

Gordon tossed him the shovel. “Go dig soil pits five feet apart until you reach the edge of the swale. Dig down two feet and lay the profile on the ground.”

Evan mustered his fortitude and began digging. He tore through the topsoil but a subsurface hardpan resisted his effort. After the last pit, he catnapped leaning against the shovel and awoke folding to the ground. He glanced up in confusion.

“Let’s go.” Gordon walked off, holding the shovel. “We’re done for today.”

Evan watched him retreat. Fatigue vanished. Defiance erupted from somewhere deep, remnants of the better man he used to be prior to his father’s death. Just remnants. Nothing more.

He stood and dusted himself off. “Fuck you,” he muttered.

**********

They drove from the vineyards and oak woodlands of Sonoma County, past Marin’s opulent homes squeezed between tidal marsh and redwood forest, and across the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. The city smelled of fog and motor oil. The Presidio’s lush greenery yielded to the sprawling concrete of the Richmond District. They stopped at a market to grab a snack.

Gordon disappeared down an aisle. Evan loitered near the check-out stands, studying the ingredients on a candy bar. The chemicals read like something used for uranium enrichment. He glanced up and noticed a woman waiting in line three aisles away. She looked straight from the field: jeans and T-shirt splattered with mud, thick brown hair sculpted, it seemed, by a hurricane. The clothes contoured her slender frame and the frazzled hair highlighted graceful angles on her face. Her hazel eyes were large and expectant. She wasn’t a striking head-turner, but the longer he looked, the prettier she appeared, like a deepening twilight.

He’d seen her in neighborhood eateries over the past few weeks, ogling her from the shadows. He’d learned from recent eavesdropping that she did some kind of environmental work. And she was often alone. The combination beckoned, but something held him back. Something he’d lost the day his old man died. Something perhaps gone for good.

She glanced in his direction. Evan grabbed a magazine at random and pretended to scan an article, sneaking peeks at her. They locked gazes. She scrutinized him as if struggling through an eye chart, then frowned and turned away.

She purchased her groceries and walked toward him. He gathered his courage, conjured up a witty line and placed it on standby. As she neared, he opened his mouth to speak but she continued past. “Hi Gordon,” she said.

Evan turned. Gordon stood a few feet away, bag of chips in tow. His face bore a rare grin. “Hey Sarah.”

They talked while Evan hovered nearby, fingering his magazine. She nodded toward him. “And who’s this?”

“Just some guy I work with,” Gordon said.

“Does he have a name?”

Evan extended his hand. “Evan Nellis.”

“Sarah Janss.” She shook his hand and gestured at the magazine. “Don’t know many men who read Female Issues.”

He returned it to the rack. Found his old game. “There’s an article on beauty makeovers I’ve been dying to read.”

“Oh yeah? You don’t look the makeover type.”

He pointed to his face, covered in mud and grime. “I’m obsessed with pore hygiene.”

She laughed. “I can see that. Mud mask, right?”

“Exactly.”

Gordon cleared his throat in irritation. The banter faded to awkward silence.

“Looks like you guys had a field day, too,” Sarah said. “How was it?”

Evan wanted to relay an embellished story of vertical slopes, Frisbee-sized ticks, veritable jungles of poison oak, but Gordon muscled in. “Kickback day.”

“Your idea of a kickback day is moving furniture.” She snorted and checked her watch. “Well, I should go. I’ll call you later.” She turned to Evan. Freckles peppered her nose and a small scar engraved her chin. Her full lips parted in an ambiguous smile, as if she’d pegged his substance but hadn’t yet determined its worth. “I’ll see you around.”

“Count on it,” Evan said.

She nodded and walked off.

He looked at Gordon. “What’s with her?”

“We’re...friends.”

“What do you mean, ‘friends’?”

Gordon watched her exit the market, his face blank and distant, hand absently tugging chin. A second passed. Two, three, five. A voice barked over the loudspeaker and broke the moment. Gordon regained his composure and cleared his throat. “None of your goddamned business.”