The Ranger and I met where every risky launch finds some footing – a bar. I always meet men in bars. It’s the laptop. Like catnip, they can’t help but sniff and rub up against it. You’re a writer so you must be witty, know how to hold your liquor and show little discretion when it comes to making out with someone at the end of the night. If nothing else, you’ll be able to tell a good story. And that’s exactly what I was doing, parked at the Rogue Ale House after a bowl of chowder and a pint of Brutal Bitter, a beer, I swear that was named after me.
“What are you writing?”
Annoyed at the interruption, I tossed an answer, “A story.”
“A story? Cool. What’s it about?”
The accent slowed me, a little bit of country in a bustling fishing town. Far from home, like me. I glance over. A boy, dark brown, soulful eyes, strong arms, an unmade bed hunched over a pint. Perfect.
“A story about you.”
“About me?” He peers at the screen. “What did I do?”
“Nothin’ interesting yet, but I’m waiting.”
He thinks about this for a minute. “I know a hike. It’s not easy, but it’s amazing. Starts in the woods, then over a bluff, a scramble across this headland where there’s this awesome lighthouse. At sunset the whales are out. Want to see?”
I stopped typing. I pictured the headline, the grainy photo with bad hair. He sensed my hesitation.
Then I remembered why I’m on this road trip. I promised to start living life like I had a terminal disease. A Buddhist thing. Well, not exactly, but close. I slapped the computer closed and held out my hand. “Let’s go.”
He smiled beautifully, grabbed my hand and pulled me off the stool, “Call me Ranger. Want to ride with me or take your own car? And what’s your name anyway?”
“I’ll drive myself.” I’m not that crazy. “As for my name…not so fast.”
And there you have it. 0 to 60 in 10.5 seconds. No chit-chat, no wink. Maybe this is how it will be done in the future, after marriage becomes a laughable, antiquated institution. I pick you. Let’s mate. Cool. Shall we hit the liquor store on the way?
Back on 101, I tapped the gas and scooted closer to the Chevy Lumina in front of me so I could get a better look. Squeezing the cellphone between my chin and shoulder, I waited, waited, waited for Pen to pick up. Come on. Come on.
“Hello.” Pen sounded a million miles away. Home.
“Take down this number.”
“What number? Why?”
“Oregon plate NZR 324. Got that. Oregon NZR 324.” Paper shuffling in the background. The sucking of cigarette smoke. Damn her bad habits. “I’m going hiking with this guy I just met. And that’s his plate number. You know, just in case.”
“Jesus, in case of what?”
“In case they find my partially decomposed body in the woods after the spring thaw, after my disappearance has made headlines, my dad has dropped dead from grief and some lucky bitch skimming from the church sale ends up wearing all my Italian leather pumps.”
“Hold on, hold on, let me pour a glass of wine and you can tell me what’s going on there.” Pen always listens better with alcohol. It greases her wheel.
“Says he’s gonna show me some lighthouse where the whales swim at sunset. I met him in a bar. Says he’s a park ranger, but who knows how much of that is true. Isn’t that what serial killers say, that they’re park rangers? They buy those green pants from surplus stores and then casually strangle you while wearing a Smokey the bear hat.”
“What his name?”
“Where does he work? What park?”
“Where’s this lighthouse?”
“Great. Fucking great.” I hear the clink of ice in the background. “You really have to stop drinking in the middle of the day. You could end up off a cliff.”
“You know what they say. Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”
“He must be pretty cute.”
“Adorable. A cross between Keanu Reeves and Johnny Depp, I’m thinking.”
“Young. Nice job. You always did like the Matrix. Welcome to Zion.” Pen snorted. She often cracked herself up. “So tell me, who are you in this town?”
“I’m a 33-year-old English professor at the University of Washington.”
“Whoa. You really know how to sex things up.”
“Well, it beats being a 43-year-old burned out advertising executive from Albuquerque with fresh divorce papers, a modest amount of debt and chronic insomnia.”
“Hey, gotta go. We’re turning off into a thick, dark, impenetrable forest, with no mile marker, no sign. I’ll probably lose the signal. Wish me luck.”
“Call when you live to tell the tale.”
We parked at the trailhead and ducked into a mossy forest where the ground gave way under our feet and tree roots buckled the surface. The darkness of the canopy was startling after so much sunshine, but soon we burst out onto a bluff, a vertical bluff that demanded some hand to foot to hand scrambling before bouldering down the other side. And there it was, the Yaquina Head lighthouse. Just like in the postcards. Jutting out at the edge of the rock, blinding white and perfect, a nostalgic spin of light. The Ranger counted out the signature: “1234567891011121314 flash 123 second flash.”
“The locals say this lighthouse is haunted. What do you think?
“Of course it is.” The Ranger pulls his hood up to warm his ears. “They all are. I take care of the one at Heceta Head, and I definitely feel something there, a woman, a sad woman.”
At the edge of the cliff, I held fast to the railing to keep from being blown backwards by the huffing wind. The sun melted as it hit the water, flattening and waning, until all that was left was a long orange streak sandwiched by a layer of blue, the last flick of a summer day. A family of pelicans hung suspended in the air, pinned against the flaming sky.
“Look to the left of the largest sea stack.” The Ranger, he stands behind me and points over my shoulder. I can feel his breath on my frozen ear.
In the near distance, a pod of gray whales, maybe five, blow their way around the point, rising and falling in an off beat. The guy promised whales at sunset and there they were. I admit, at that point in my life I didn’t much believe in men stepping up, delivering on a promise.
“Nice job, Ranger. So what happens next? You know, in the story.”
“A kiss. This is where the Ranger leans over and kisses the Professor so the story can go on.”
I frowned, not sure I was comfortable with this narrative arc.
He opens his arms. “Come on. It doesn’t get any better than this. You’re at a lighthouse, the gem of the Oregon Coast. At sunset. Whales. Two strangers. There’s got to be a kiss.”
He had a point. It was worth risking the cliché. His nose was cold. Mine was colder. But the kiss was warm and shy. Like teenagers. Like starting over.