Novella about a widow who needs guidance with her loss.
The Consummate Game
By: DJ Cloutier
Clarissa sat cross-legged on the hard wood floor surrounded by camping equipment. Pack, hiking boots, sleeping bag she thought how much fun it was going to be trying to stuff this into a small pack and hoping that she could carry it. She had been planning this trip for a while. It had not been an easy year for her. She turned 55 this year and had lost her husband of 25 years. Six months ago she decided to stop moping and went to the gym. This back packing trip was her goal. Garibaldi Provincial Park was in between Vancouver and Whistler just north of Squamish. She planned to hike up to Garibaldi Lake and do day hikes to all her favorite places like Black Tusk and Panorama Ridge. She had also started doing photography again so hopefully the weather would co-operate and the alpine flora would be out in full bloom.
She couldn't wait to see her old college roommate, Jo, again. It had been years since they had visited each other though they didn’t live very far apart. Clarissa lived in Squamish and Jo in Victoria. Damned ferries. Too expensive and Clarissa would also have to stayed in a hotel. She just couldn’t see Jo putting her up after all these year.
She looked down at the detritus on the floor. They would be sharing the load so she had to wait until tonight to finish packing. Stove, tent, water pump and food would be shared all the rest had to fit into the backpack. She was very good at this. When the kids were young she and Joe had backpacked at least twice a year. Separating and weighting gear making sure there was enough food for all the days they would be away and one extra day just in case something happened. Always planning for emergencies is the very nature of being a mother. There was a scratching at the sliding deck doors. She stood up to let the dog in and saw her reflection, not bad, she thought. She had lost weight with all that walking she was doing and being alone some of the time she didn’t eat very much. Soups and salads mostly and when she was working as a camp chef she didn’t eat all the heavy foods she cooked for the guys. They had physical jobs and needed the calories she didn’t. She never found it easy eating her food after she spent all day preparing it.
She was five foot two slim but not skinny now. She still had the dyed brown hair. Her hair dresser would not let her grow it out. She would have been gray now. She had let it grow a little long but it was always full of body and curled softly around her face. She had a strong somewhat square face with brown eyes, not to many wrinkles just laugh lines she wore no makeup. She opened the door to a large hairy gray dog. Donkey came running in and sniffed all the stuff on the floor, the dog seemed to know something was up. Clarissa said” going away for a few days girl. Kevin is coming to look after you.” Her son was a teacher and would be starting his new position Tuesday as a history teacher having found a school in Vancouver to work at. He had promised he would come and look after the dog while she was away.
The phone rang and she hurried to answer it. “Hello” she said and Jo answered “Hi Clarissa, I have some bad news. My Dad was admitted to the hospital an hour ago and it seems serious." Her dad was in his late eighties. "I am going to have to cancel my trip. I am so sorry to disappoint you.” Disappointment flooded Clarissa, but she understood and wished him a speedy recovery. Jo said “maybe we could postpone. Clarissa answered “no I only have this week off and I will be back in camp for another two weeks. Then it will be too late to go up into the alpine. It’s alright. Maybe I could come to Victoria to visit." Jo agreed and she signed off.
Clarissa plopped down on the floor again and looked at all the gear. The dog was happily nosing the food for all the great smells. “Get your nose out of there Donkey” she pushed the dog’s hairy nose away from the food. “I guess I’ll have to put all this away” she said to the dog. "I was so looking forward to getting away and thinking about the future." She had no debt. She had inherited a nice nest egg from her mother and her job paid quite well. Sean, her youngest son, was finishing up his last year University and was on scholarship. With no debt, she was thinking about opening her own place. She had found the perfect space and a good partner for front of house. He was a business friend not too close personally with a good head on his shoulders. This was going to be a weekend she would make that commitment or not. She had planned to use Jo as a sounding board. Oh well, she thought. Then the idea formed in her head. Maybe she could go alone. It would be a busy weekend and there would be lots of hikers up there. She could also let the park rangers know she would be alone. She would have to scale back some of the hiking just in case it got a little dangerous. That would leave her the meadows for doing photography. The weather looked gorgeous for the weekend and it would clear her head. She would leave Thursday morning and be at the camp ground to get a good spot. Kevin would not be happy with this and she knew he would give her grief. He could be such a mother now that his father was gone. With that plan in her head she sat down and began reorganizing the gear. Less food and more equipment she thought.
Richard stood by his car thinking about the coming weekend. He was in the middle of a shoot and they were going on location next week. He had five days off and was planning on doing some exploring. He decided to go native and try out backpacking. One of the crew had told him about this hike he could do up in the mountains North of Vancouver. A voice from behind him broke though his revelry. “What are you doing for the week end Rich”? Richard answered him “Hi Fred, I’m going to hike up in some of your gorgeous mountains. I need a few days away from everything, need to get my head clear before next week.” Fred looked at him with a smile “all by yourself” he quipped. Richard looked at him and assured him he was not bringing anyone.
Richard had looks to knock over most women. He was six foot two perfect teeth, striking blue eyes, dark brooding smile and voice that women sighed at. He had no problem filling his bed when he wanted to. Lube and oil change his friend called it. No commitment though. He was way too busy for all that. Make money and I will settle down when I’m fifty he laughed.
Richard opened the door to the rented Porsche and dropped into the seat. He set the GPS to the outfitters on the north shore and drove away from the studio.
The phone rang and he hit the button to answer it. “Hello” he said “Hi Rich its Rupert” Richard’s college friend. “How’s Blighty” Richard said. “It’s fair. Raining though, how’s Canada.” "It is absolutely gorgeous." Richard replied. "Look Richard I need your input for the game. We are falling behind the girls and it looks like they might win this year. You know that there is 400,000 pounds riding on this and I need the money not like you. You better hold up your end of the bargain OK.” Richard thought about the game and how it could be so emotionally draining at times. "Rupert" Richard said “I’ll see what I can do but I’m going away alone for a few days. Maybe when I’m on location I can work on my end. Don’t worry we’ll beat the girls. Were just better at this game then they are." Richard ended the call and thought about the game he and his friends had been playing since college. The stakes have gone up but the rules were the same.
His mind was taken away from the thought of the game by the beautiful landscape of Vancouver. He was heading over the Iron Workers Memorial Bridge. The snow capped mountains in the distance. His mind turned to the weekend. He needed to stop and get his gear and food. He had already spoken to a sales clerk at the outfitters store and was renting some gear and purchasing the rest. He had hiking boots already which was a bonus; breaking in hiking boots was not an easy task and would be impossible on a four day hike.
He turned off the highway and headed down Main St. following the GPS’s instructions. He arrived at the outfitters store and went in. He went to the sales desk to inquire about the gear that he would be renting and also if he could have some help with the purchase of the rest. He had never really been back packing as in the UK you could just trek along to the next village and stay at a B&B. A lovely and very trim women came over to help him. She had recognized him he could tell. Their faces always betrayed that faint of recognition. Canadian’s he thought always polite not wanting to intrude on anyone’s privacy. The girl’s face had turned a little pink. She began by bringing out the rental equipment first. He was renting a tent, pots and stove but he would be purchasing a back pack, sleeping bag and mat and any food stuff that he might need. She showed him the same tent on the storeroom floor. It looked almost too small for his 6’2” frame. She told him to crawl in and try it out so he did so. Funny enough he fit with enough room to spare for his gear. The same went for the sleeping bag as she chose a down-filled mummy bag for him. Light weight and warm she said as the nights in the alpine would be hovering around 0°C. She helped him pick out the rest of the gear he was going to need and he chose 2 new pair of hiking socks, shorts, trousers and a fleece jacket. Paying for his purchases he smiled down at the very helpful clerk. She went completely red now. Thank you Mr. Guilford she said as she handed back his credit card feigning the reading of the name on the card for recognition. He thought he could have had this girl in a minute if he wanted to but not today. Just himself today, though he did touch her hand ever so gently when he took the preferred card back from her. He felt her hand give a little flutter. Oh how he loved these little sexual power exchanges. It made him feel good. She wished him well on his trip and helped him out with is gear.
With all his stuff crammed into the Porsche he set the GPS for Garibaldi Prov. Park and it sent him back the way he came and out onto the Upper Levels Highway. He had taken this road up to Whistler before and it was one of the most scenic roads he had ever been on. It followed the ocean along a twisting road cut into the side of a mountain. The views were incredible. It was a sunny September day and the snow capped mountains were in the distance. His thoughts were on his future and he needed to decide what his next project was going to be. He was tired from the constant travel he had been doing in the last five years. His career was going gang busters and was given the choice of 2 movie projects for next year or a full time American TV Show. Both were about the same money TV was a bit of a step down but it would mean that he could settle down in one place. Maybe actually meet someone and start a family or more travel and more interesting projects. That was what he had to decide this weekend. His agent needed to know by Tuesday whether he was joining the cast of the first of the movie projects. The Porsche hummed up the highway as he was lost in his thoughts of the future.
Clarissa was sitting on the top of the stairs with her pack and hiking boots ready to go. She was going to tell Kevin that she was going and that was that. She heard Kevin’s car door close and a minute later the door opened. The dog burst from behind her and leapt down the stairs in full lick mode. “Arghh” Kevin said. She was laughing when he finally managed to get control of the dog. “Hi, honey” she said ”how was your drive.” Kevin, her blond, blue eyed baby was now 24. “Hi Mom, it was good nice day to drive up the highway. I see you are ready to go. Where is your friend, I was looking forward to meeting her.” “She couldn’t make it. Her father ended up in the hospital and she didn’t want to leave him.” Kevin looked at her packed gear and said “looks like you are still leaving.” With determination she said “yes, I am, all by myself.” He looked at her and said “okay Mom, I wasn’t going to try to stop you.” “Good because I thought you may not be happy if I was going up by myself.” He looked down at her and said “just don’t do anything too dangerous.” Clarissa promised she wouldn’t. They discussed the dog’s meals and walks for a few minutes and Clarissa got in her little red Yaris and headed for the highway.
Clarissa turned her car into the Garibaldi Prov. Park parking lot. She tried to choose a spot that thieves would not look to covetously at her car. Leave nothing in your car the sign said. She got out of her car and opened the hatch. Sat down on the edge of the tail gate and put on her hiking boots. Putting her comfy shoes to await her longed return she pulled out her pack and hiking poles. It was a warm morning so Clarissa took off her light jacket and put it in the top pocket of her pack along with the lunch she had made for herself. The last fresh veg and meat she would have for several days. She planned to get to the barrier and stop for lunch there. She checked her two water bottles on either side of her pack and then put the pack on. She spent a few minutes adjusting the pack's weight to her back grabbed her poles, locked the car and set off to the trail head. A map was there with information and photos of the park. She had already paid her fees on line so she didn’t have to pay for anything here. The trail post stated that Garibaldi Lake campground was 9 km away and a 900 m elevation gain. It also warned to wear sturdy foot wear and make sure you were prepared for inclement weather.
She had done this hike many times with her husband and kids and knew the physical gruel the first 6 km of switch backs to the barrier could be. She had worked hard to get into physical shape for this and felt fine. Off she started up the path. It was well worn and well marked by many feet. The path lay in the forest, dappled sunlight shone on the forest floor. Lovely ferns and plants grew thickly between the mossy rocks; the smell of forest floor was heady. She could hear the Rubble Creek flowing in the distance. Up she walked feeling her legs protest the early morning rigor. The perspiration was running down her back and between her cleavage. Her legs slowly warmed up and stopped protesting the exercise, her thoughts began to wander.
What was she going to do about her situation? Her choice between status quo and a business was a big one. She was getting bored of the camp life. The people she served were great but not intellectual geniuses. She missed her husband for that part of her life. The two weeks on one week off was hard on all her friendships and she had not kept up with her friends for over a year now. She was lonely when she was home. The kids didn’t need her and that just left the dog. She wasn’t really looking for a relationship as much as she was looking for commonality in people. Someone she could go out to dinner and have a discussion about politics, science or current affairs. If she was home and had her own business she could take some courses and hopefully meet like-minded people. Business though she thought, it is like having a perpetual two year old. It always needed to be nurtured. That would not leave a lot of spare time to meet people and she was not sure whether she could take the commitment in hours to make the whole thing work. She loved the idea of her own menus and being as creative she wanted to be. She liked her business partner. He was a wiry fellow, dynamic and could get the bums on seats all she had to do was to perform her usual mastery in the kitchen and all would work. She was just afraid of sustaining that for a long period of time. She would have to put her house on the line for this venture and that was frightening. If only there was a little extra money she could hire a Sous chef to help her out. She had to come up with her decision by the end of this week end or they were going to lose the place they were looking at. The agreement was to be signed on Wednesday morning if they were going to take the place.
She came back from her thoughts to her surroundings. The path was going up and up. She adjusted her pack to make it more comfortable on her back, and grab her water bottle from its pocked and had a drink. She set off again one foot in front of the next. Some lean hikers passed her as she walked and she said a friendly greeting. She was glad there were others on the path. It made her feel safer. She was about ¾ the way to the barrier when a park ranger passed her. She flagged the uniformed woman down and told her that she was alone so if they didn’t mind keeping an eye out for her. The ranger said that would be okay. She finally made it to the barrier. Ah what a sight. It was a natural dam and looked like it had been engineered for just that purpose. Apparently there had been a volcanic eruption during the last ice age and the lava flow had come up against a glacier and set up in a perfect dam shaped barrier. Garibaldi Lake had formed behind the barrier from glacial melt. It was absolutely spectacular to stand up on the cliff and look down the valley towards Howe Sound and the Ocean.
Clarissa happily took off her pack and sat down beside it. She began digging around in the upper pocket and found her lunch and then grabbed a water bottle from a side pocket. She leaned up against a rock and enjoyed her wrap. Nothing could taste better when exercise was added to the sauce she thought. Finishing her lunch she looked at her watch and it was only 11 am. She decided to take a little nap before she set out again. No harm in an old lady having a cat nap on such a lovely day and organized herself so she was comfortable and drifted off to sleep.
Richard steered his car into the Garibaldi Park parking lot. He parked and started dealing with all his gear. He formed it in a big pile all around him. “How am I going to get all this stuff into that little backpack” he thought. He began by removing all the packaging and threw that away in the trash bin. Then he organized it into piles and started shoving it in. It finally all fit in. Next he put on his trusty old hiking boots. At least I know how to put those on” he thought. Fumbling around he put the pack on closed the car up locking it and made his way to the trail head. He glanced at the map and sign and without much thought to distance he set off up the path. The pack didn’t sit well on his back and his left boot was chaffing his little toe. He persevered, walking through the pain. He kept up a steady progress and his long legs managed to bring him up to the barrier quite quickly. His poor back was aching and his toe was killing him so finally decided to stop and have one of those energy bars that lovely young lady sold him.
He dumped the pack unceremoniously of his back and left it in a heap at his feet. He grabbed his water bottle and had a great big satisfying swig. With the back of his hand he wiped his mouth and forehead. He looked out at the barrier and starred in absolute wonder. He was in paradise he thought. He walked dangerously close to the cliffs edge and looked down. He saw crumbled rock and a small river flowing about 300 m below him he looked out towards the other snow capped mountains. He took his cell phone and snapped a couple of shots. He knew that it wouldn’t do it justice. He then looked at his cell phone and realized he had no signal. Oh well he thought that would be great if he was completely incommunicado for the whole weekend no one to bother him.
He turned around and saw a woman sleeping by a tree in the shade. Or was she sleeping he thought. He walked over to her and peered at her. Richard decided to wake her by clearing his throat. Clarissa startled awake. She looked up a saw what appeared to be a bleary man hanging over her. Richard started as well and said “are you okay”. Clarissa cleared her foggy brain and rubbed her eyes. She had that feeling of complete disorientation from sleep to wakefulness. Then she was overcome with complete embarrassment and apologized. “Sorry” she said “oh I am completely flustered. I was having a little after lunch nap before I headed out again. I am so sorry.” She still couldn’t understand why she was apologizing to this stranger, but she was. Richard looked at her and was quite amused by her. Typical Canadians even apologize when they have no need. Richard proffered his hand to her. “Can I help you up I didn’t mean to startle you”. Clarissa gave him her hand and stood up and brushed the dirt and grass from her clothing. She ran her fingers through her hair and finally had a good look at the man before her. Tall, fortyish, with brooding good looks though he looked slightly familiar she couldn’t place him and by his accent he seemed to be from the UK. Clarissa cleared her voice and said “thank you.” She looked at her watch and saw that only ½ hour had passed and began to relax. Thanks for waking me up I better get my things together I’m heading to the lake, are you?” she asked. Richard said he was but needed to sort his feet out. Blisters she said and he nodded. Clarissa asked “is it your first time up Garibaldi?” Richard said “yes and I am having a hard time will all the gear.” Clarissa looked over at his pack and tutted. “Did the outfitters not give you any instructions on how to pack your backpack?” He nodded in a lost child way. "I could give you a hand if you would like." Richard thought it couldn’t do any harm and his shoulders were killing him. Clarissa opened his pack and began pulling all the contents out of it onto the ground. “The sleeping bag” she started telling him “should be at the bottom” she began and looked at him. He still looked lost and now somewhat embarrassed himself as she went through all of his personal items in his bag. His pants, clothes, food and all his stuff he had just purchased. Clarissa organized into separate piles and began to repack it deftly. When she finished she handed the pack back to him “here” she said "try putting this on and see if it fits a little better." Richard took the pack from her and tried putting it on. “Stop” she said. "Here I will show you an easier way to put one of these on so you won’t wreck your back. She grabbed her own and showed him. One hand on the handle strap on the back and one had on the shoulder strap and she slid it up her leg and gently onto her back without any real effort. Taking it off again, she said “give it a try.” Richard followed her example and it slid on effortlessly. She felt almost motherly and she realized like usual she was getting too involved. Clarissa apologized again “I’m sorry I am being way too personal with you and I don’t even know your name. So, hi I’m Clarissa” and she offered her hand. Richard took it and said that he was grateful for her help. “I can do one more thing for you. Those outfitter stores are not manned by the most adept people and they think everyone had been hiking all their lives. You have six straps on the pack that adjust the weight to your back. This allows you to change the weight distribution on your body depending on the terrain you are walking on. Here” and Clarissa showed him the straps at the shoulders, middle of the shoulder straps and hips giving a good tug on them all to show they worked and then releasing the tension on them by pulling the clips back. At this time she realized that she had been physically pulling on his body and yanking him this way and that. “Oh, sorry again I’m being terribly forward.” Richard looked down at her and smiled the most natural smiled he had smiled in years. This little terrier of a woman was really amusing him. He felt like he was at home with his mom though she wasn’t as old as his mom. She looked up to see a lovely man smiling down at her and the Clarissa flushed red. "Any way" she stumbled "you can see how it works and the weight should be sitting on your hips not your back or shoulders." Richard manipulated the straps and found his comfort zone. “My names Richard by the way” as he turned to leave, he looked back and said “hope to see you up at the Lake, Clarissa” trying her name out on his lips for the first time, and he walked up the path towards the lake.
Blushing, Clarissa grabbed her pack and slipped it on her back adjusting it as she had shown him. She grabbed her hiking poles and started off after him. She knew she wasn’t going to catch up to him, his stride was so much longer that hers. She began scolding herself again. She was always helping the boys out and she keeps forgetting about personal space. Always being a mother, even with the men in camp. They enjoyed it though she thought nice to be mothered every once in awhile.