forest story, part I

Wednesday, middle of May. A lumberyard in the valley. Riley descends lazily from the cab of the car into stultifying heat. She winces as her crisp white tennis shoes sink thickly into the grit. Her sweater, a necessity in the chill of Baxter's frigid office, begs to be shed, but the only thing underneath it is a clingy, strappy tank top. No.

Riley allows her boss to charge ahead, his mission and vision clear, as ever, only to himself. Whatever impossibly specific standards he has for this, his latest project, her input will only be shrugged off. Better to let him wear himself out, and give in, bitterly, to some substandard offering--or conversely, be the sole victor in his quest. Riley need only stay out of his way--and his wrath--and she'll live to die another day.

Baxter, knowing what he wants, inspects stack after stack of wood while Riley, shielding her eyes in the glare, inspects the property. Squared-off logs in haphazard heaps. Old wood, deep and darkly hued in chocolate, amber, red, and Riley's favorite, weathered taupe. The beams are menacingly splintered but undeniably sturdy. Grand, even, if two-by-fours can be grand. This is not Home Depot. This is a place for connoisseurs, artisans, and the aesthetically-obsessed, eco-minded design buff. Riley once again gives a begrudging tip of the hat to Baxter's taste.

Something about this place, though. Something familiar and warm. She's just about to puzzle it out when a booming, friendly voice fills the space just to her right. "And who might you be?" Riley turns to an eyeful of man, a great hulk of muscle and flannel and ruddy beard. An honest-to-goodness lumberjack, peeled straight from the paper towel's label. He carries a box spilling over with what appear to be tubes and glass beakers. Everything about his comportment says good humor and confidence, including the blue eyes that are definitely twinkling at the presence of such an unexpected fish out of water.

Riley accepts the challenge. "Me? I'm nobody. He's the one you have to worry about." She nods ahead toward a scowling Baxter, hunched over in examination of a particularly hefty beam.

The man at her side gives her a curious half smile. "Oh, I doubt that very much," he rejoins, but allows Riley to drop back while he greets the customer on his lot. As they confer, Riley's attention returns to her surroundings. To the shambles of a cabin with a wraparound porch, from which strains of Led Zeppelin pour like spilled whiskey. To the cutting table, where two young men, her juniors by a decade, face off across an expanse of raw timber. They, like their boss, are piqued by Riley's appearance in their dusty workstation. Riley is aware of this, and feels a flush of self-consciousness. The flush deepens when she notices their boss, ostensibly in conversation with her boss, is staring directly at her. Something is going on here. There is a buzz in the air that has nothing to do with circular saws.

And in a rush, the familiarity gains a name. Bonnaroo. This feels like fucking Bonnaroo. Good old boys. Sunshine. Music.

But something more demanding than putting a label to this colorful scene is pulling at Riley's attention, and for once it's not Baxter. It's the lumberyard's owner, who is positively refusing to avert his eyes from her. Riley hasn't been the object of such unbridled and shameless scrutiny in a long time. She flushes again, uncomfortable in all the right ways.

A transaction unfolds. Protracted, of course, because Baxter being Baxter has demand on top of demand as pertains to cost, cutting, delivery. Throughout the sale Riley tries to adopt a casual, meandering attitude, as if politely interested in the wood's age (five hundred years) and value (three hundred dollars) but not acutely aware of the chemistry between herself and its vendor. But it's no good. The chemistry is electric, and Riley is pretty sure everyone including her boss has caught onto it.

She fetches the checkbook from the car, ditching her sweater and the last shreds of pretense along with it. Fuck it, she thinks, striding into the cabin where she finds herself alone with a very intense, very interested man she estimates as having at most five years on her. Neither of them say a word at first, as Riley thumbs through the binder to a blank invoice. Then: "Sorry for the mess. I'm making moonshine."

"Of course you are." She shakes her head. She can't help it. The man is a caricature.

"Would you like to come back and try it, when it's done?" He teasingly withholds her pen as he asks this. The two hundred dollar pen Baxter insists on her using, despite her protestations, because he likes how "official" it makes her look. Riley lets the full weight of the man's gaze lock her in place. The air in the cabin feels thicker than honey, and just as sweet. Almost unbreathable. Almost. But before she can choose her own adventure, the screen door clatters, interrupting the flow of honey.

Baxter, ignoring or perhaps truly ignorant of the moment he's walked in on, has another demand. He wants to buy the vintage steel trashcan sitting outside on the porch. Lidded, with ribbed sides and just the right faded patina, it's the sort of charming antique that will go perfectly at his ranch house. He wants it, and he wants to know how much for it.

"Not for sale," replies the proprietor, much to Riley's surprise.

"Sure it is. Everything's for sale. How much?" Naturally, the refusal only inflames Baxter's desire to obtain.

"Honestly, I'd never planned on selling it. I'd have to think about it." Riley is loving this. Baxter not getting what he wants? Delicious. So rare and so delicious.

"Okay well you decide on a price, and have your guy deliver it along with the beam. I'll pay him cash for it then." Baxter, having arrogantly declared a presumptive win, clatters back out. Apparently taking with him some of Riley's verve, because suddenly she can think of nothing to say to this man, this tower of hypermasculinity, other than, "Here's your check." And with that, she steps back outside, flustered and unsure.

The stranger picks up the slack, though, and offers a final parting shot. "If you wanna try that moonshine, you're gonna have to leave me your number." He calls this out loudly, right in front of his employees. Right in front of her boss. Again his directness brings color to Riley's cheeks. Thankfully by now she's found her moxie again, and calls coolly over her shoulder: "I'll give it to your boy when he makes the delivery." She walks backward for a few final moments of eye contact between them before turning away, breaking the spell.

Well, this was fun. 

Riley congratulates herself on some top-notch flirting, undecided as of yet whether she'll pursue the lead. Either way, worth the dirt on her shoes.

Definitely worth the dirt on her shoes.