For LOST IN LOS ALAMOS Beta Readers Only - Please Do Not Share.
The Polar Bear Club
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It was time. He couldn’t avoid it any longer. “Betty must be worrying about what’s going on,” Scott thought. “There must be twenty-eight scenarios she could be running.”
Scott was frantically scrubbing the towel all over his body to both dry and warm himself up. The bathroom was getting warmer and the heater was running, but the shower... The shower, of course, had no hot water. It had no hot water because the gas was not turned on. The gas was not turned on because Todd had totally messed that situation up.
Scott had known that there was no way to prepare for his shower that morning. He thought for a moment to shower with his T-shirt and underwear on to lessen the impact, but in the end, just stripped down and cranked the water on.
The water that came up from the pipes underneath the modular home with its crawl space protected only by the sheet metal skirting around the house in the middle of winter up on the mesa was brain-numbing cold. It was surprising that the pipes had not frozen. Scott wondered how long he could endure showers like that first morning’s, though it was not like he was a stranger to cold showers, or baths, for that matter.
As a boy in Wisconsin, he tortured himself every spring on the day the ice broke away from lake’s shoreline. It was usually in the beginning of March, sometimes much later. He and his friends had a rope swing that they had tied to a very large oak at the water’s edge at one of the guy’s lakefront house. When it was Scott’s turn, he pulled the rope back as far as he could, took in as big a breath as his lungs could hold and threw himself forward and into the air out toward the ice.
He knew it was crazy. He knew he would come up gasping for air from the shock of the icy water. But also, as he started to turn in the air, his swimming trunks flapping, he grinned big, thrilled to be staring stupidity in the face.
When he hit the water just before the ice, as he had every year since he was nine, he braced himself for the jolt of life that exploded in his lungs, through his skin, and bursting in his brain like white lightning. And like every other time, he had misremembered the shock.
Then there were the cold showers in January in Indiana. Not by choice. The Men’s Group had a favorite consequence for not following through on commitments men made in their lives. Being held accountable worked for Scott, but the three minute ice cold showers in his skivvies while singing the National Anthem as loud as Scott could were something else.
In the years following, occasionally Scott chose to turn his showers all the way cold and sing a little National Anthem any time he felt the need for some bracing up if he was feeling wimpy.
By that first morning waking up in the house, Scott had already taken to calling the little heater Thomas. And the tough little guy really helped as Scott got dried off. He sure felt invigorated, though.
It was not a mystery to him that he could not see himself straying far from the sunny coast of California.
As he dressed there in the North bathroom with the two facing shorty-sinks that had no water going to them, his gaze wandered again to the many things that needed to be done in the small room.
“Don’t think so much,” he thought to himself.
Even though it was Starbuck’s, it was still instant coffee. He had to find a way to get good coffee from the microwave. “Impossible,” he thought, bringing his insulated tumbler to the wood counter top. He picked up his phone. Scrolling through his contacts, he came to Betty’s.
Here it was, his third day in Los Alamos. He’d already spent too much money, made some progress, put up with Todd, and he didn’t want to call her. Scott tapped on the Message icon and typed her name. A brand new conversation with Betty came up. He was surprised - he hadn’t exchanged any texts with her. Then he remembered that she really didn’t take to electronic devices. Something about her energy and electrical currents not agreeing. “More ooga booga,” Scott thought.
“Please call me on the land line anytime you need to talk to me,” she had said. “I might blow the phone up if I receive a text from you, much less send one,” she laughed. Then she had given Scott Jeannie’s email address in case he needed to send something.
Man, he really wanted to text her. Scott hated making phone calls. He wasn’t going to send an email to Jeannie, even if it was for her mother.
It’s a trick of our psyche, the way we always imagine things to be much more difficult than they end up being.
Scott should have known that Betty would make his task of calling her easy on him, but his phone experiences of late had not enamored him of the medium. Still, he could do just about anything he needed to, if he put enough pressure on himself. So when she answered at the other end of the phone lines between New Mexico and Colorado, Betty was relieved, her concern lifted by just a few words uttered by Scott.
“No, everything’s going,” he said, unable to add the word, ‘fine’. “Getting stuff done.”
“Thank God!” she exclaimed. “How is Todd? Is that going okay? Are you getting work out of him?”
Scott had to think of how to respond. In general, should he give it to her straight, or should he sugar-coat it? Unusual that he hadn’t scripted this out in head before he called.
“The kitchen counters are going well. He’s going to be coming over this morning to help me with them.”
“Oh, that’s good! What do you need?” she asked.
Good question. Scott felt quite needy at this point.
“I’m good,” was all he said.
“Well, what do you think? Can you get it done in the next week so you can leave?” she asked expectantly. Scott hedged.
“Yeah, maybe so...”.
Betty was not fooled. She read him like a book, or tea leaves, or whatever.
“What’s wrong?” She waited. Scott could sense she could wait forever to hear from him, truly wanting to know. He had to admit to himself that resistance was futile and she probably already knew the gist of what he was feeling, by whatever means she did that thing.
“Man,” he started. “I don’t know, Betty... I don’t know what the place was like when you left.”
She was concerned now. “Why? What do you mean? Todd had done a lot of the tiling work and was going to go get the cabinets and install them before we left.“
“He did that. But I have to tell you, the place is pretty rough.” Then he added, “There’s a lot of stuff to do.”
“Oh. Lord,” she said, quietly. “
When Scott told her all of the things he thought needed to be done, the state of the supplies Todd was supposed to have bought and stored, and his growing knowledge that it was going to go longer than ten days, Betty was speechless at first. Scott heard an intake of breath, a slight moan or cry and the name Jesus whispered. Then she was back and some sense of serenity was in her voice.
Betty began, seemingly unruffled, to give Scott instructions on how to proceed and moreover, how to deal with Todd.
“Todd is... well, quite complicated and simple at the same time. I had no doubt in his abilities and he’d come highly recommended for his work.” Scott just listened, occasionally acknowledging what he himself had gleaned from his interactions with the big lug.
It turned out that she was quite particular about her home environment. Scott characterized it as being necessary for her “sensitivities” related to the “work” she did. And having worked with a number of prominent architects, she discovered a penchant for aesthetic design and energy flow or something like that. Scott thought it was something like Feng Shui. The upshot is that she needed her home to be life supporting for her, for her girls, and for her work.
When she had started out in New Mexico, finances had been good for them. Through consulting work with high level corporate executives, she had been able to afford necessary renovations for their house and then later, to invest in the Navajo house.
Todd had been indispensable in those early renovations and while there were some sketchy things about the man, Betty maneuvered around those things fairly deftly. Actually, she knew pretty much everything about the guy. That she continued to work with him was primarily motivated by her desire to help his two young boys and the family.
“I seem to succumb to the call to sacrifice in service to others,” she said to him. He heard her emotionally shrug, then chuckle. “Oh, I wish that call wasn’t so hard on the girls, but I think they do okay with it, by the grace of the Lord.”
“Yeah, they seem pretty cool kids,” Scott offered.
When the Lab had scaled back after the notorious hard drive theft scandals and after the Big Fire in the forest lands near the Lab, there were massive layoffs and home prices cratered. All of this not too long after the last recession. Things bottomed out and with college tuition looming for the first of the three girls, and soon after, the second, Betty had no choice but to sell the house at a loss and leave New Mexico.
“I don’t know exactly what skeletons Todd has in his closet, but I will pray that you don’t meet any of them,” she said at the end. “I believe in you, Scott.”
“You do whatever you have to do. I’ll support you in any way. Of course all of us are praying for you.”
“Okay, great,” Scott said, rolling his eyes.
“Put the new heat registers on my credit card if they’ll let you. There’s some room left on it. And anything else you need. We can pay it off when the house sells.”
“Well, we’ll see how it works,” Scott said, hoping not to need to burden her any more than she had been.
“If you need to leave at any point - even right away - you leave. Do you hear me?”
With the genuine generosity Scott heard in her voice, there was just no way he could take her up on this. At least at this point.
“I’m going to get it done, Betty.”
They ended the call and Scott felt something new. He looked out through the kitchen window to the east where the sun was shining from. His coffee was cold, but no problem, he could easily reheat it in the microwave. If nothing else, Scott felt good from actually having made the call. Big hurdle to get over, but he did it.
He would come through for Betty and her daughters. He saw a stream of light showing the way through it. She believed in him. And she was no slouch when it came to personal integrity, smarts, and capability. He reminded himself that it was just the combination of situations that was preventing her from solving this herself.
“She shouldn’t have to. Not when there are others who can help. Everybody deserves a break sometime.” His thoughts went on like this until the microwave dinged. Coffee. He’d have to go to CookieSheet’s soon to have some real coffee, though. He planned on deserving it by handling this house thing.