Blaine Manor, 2008 First Place Winner’s Circle
By Ciara Huntington
The spluttering, rusted car looked distinctly out of place pulling up curbside to the manicured lawns of Blaine Manor. A furtive look from behind the thick drapes of her office only confirmed Mrs. Fairfield’s suspicions: her niece had arrived.
Just a week ago, Mrs. Fairfield had made the fatal error of mentioning to her younger sister that Blaine Manor was in need of additional help. There seemed to be no way to deny her sister’s immediate submission of Marie’s name for the job, no matter how many hints she delicately beat her sister over the head with.
Her niece lugged a gargantuan duffel out of the trunk, waved to the driver of the car, and began to walk up the path to the manor. Mrs. Fairfield involuntarily shuddered as she looked at the youth’s attire and moved quickly to intercept her new employee at the front door.
The wroth-iron gates were stiff, as if rarely used, noted Marie as she put her shoulder into it. Working at her aunt’s glorified nursing home on the corner of “no” and “where” wasn’t her ideal job—but it was a job nonetheless. Besides, who was she kidding? The middle of nowhere was everywhere here, and that was how she loved it. Hitchhiking her way up Highway 75, Marie had relished the hints of autumn sweeping across the persistent rivers and sage-coated deserts. Farmers were trying to squeeze a third cut of hay out of the receding daylight hours, and clear skies brought daily premonitions of winter when the temperature plummeted for dark afternoon storms.
Every other lawn in the boom-and-bust mining town was cracked and brown except the verdant grounds of Blaine Manor. The handsome building belonged to a different era than the chain stores and neon signs that surrounded it. Perhaps this is what suited it to its task—Blaine Manor was an old folks’ home—excuse me, Marie corrected herself, an alternative mature living community—and from its cloth napkin dinners to its dignified dress code, Blaine Manor strived to be a cut above the standard waiting-for-the-grave sanitarium.
“Auntie Fairfield!” called Marie, grinning broadly and dragging her duffel boisterously to the front porch.
“Volume, child!” shushed the frowning woman. “The residents are napping.”
Like a day care, thought Marie irrelevantly. “Sorry, Auntie.”
“That will be Mrs. Fairfield when you are working, Marie.”
“Of course,” nodded Marie. She wanted to hug her aunt whom she hadn’t seen in a decade or so, but she restrained herself. Aunt Fairfield looked the same as ever, maybe with another wrinkle or two appearing in her otherwise taut face, but like the façade of Blaine Manor, its matron appeared proper and flawless.
“What could you possibly need to justify such enormous duffel?”
Marie laughed nervously. “Oh, I just wanted to be prepared for anything, Mrs. Fairfield.” Including duck season, thought Marie.
Marie’s first impression of Blaine Manor was that of a well-kept funeral home. She felt the weight of the just-so framed pastoral watercolors, the parlor chairs that were certainly not for sitting on, and the suffocating, dim interior as soon as she entered the house and reluctantly closed the door.
At dinner, which was served at exactly 5 pm, Marie got her first glimpse of the residents. Currently, there were twenty or so, though Mary Helen Robertson wasn’t feeling well enough to come to dinner.
“Apple cider or water?” asked Marie brightly, proffering pitchers full of each to a round table with six sleepy patrons.
“Gladys will have water; sugar makes her jittery,” interrupted Mrs. Fairfield, somehow hearing the conversation from across the room.
From a table near the back of the dining room, Cal Jarbridge whispered to May Stymore, “I give her two weeks, max.”
“I’ll take that bet. She’s different this one, you wait and see.”
May Stymore, possessing seventy-some years of experience, was a top-notch judge of character. Two weeks later, Marie had already gotten away with serving a “nutritiously useless” jello dessert, introducing high-stakes Wednesday bingo, and of course, sneaking Gladys Cornwell a glass of cider now and then.
After dinner, Mrs. Fairfield usually retired to her quarters to work on accounting and perhaps sneak a glass of cognac before room check at 9:30 pm and lights-out at 10 pm. In this breath of freedom, Marie helped the maids clear the dishes and then returned to the common room to meet the remarkable residents of Blaine Manor.
Mary Helen Robertson had raised cattle outside Weiser, and her four brothers had been POWs in the German theatre during WWII. Her tales of their wintertime escape were only matched by her own recollections of hunting and fishing to survive the Great Depression.
Leslie Rutgers was once and forever a ladies’ man, and he’d miraculously survived a metastatic lung cancer, just as he’d survived the wrath of decades of jealous husbands.
Stubborn Mary Latsch had almost refused to marry the man of her dreams because he liked his steaks well-done. ‘I’ll wear leather, but I won’t eat it!’ she had bellowed at him.
The honorable Gordy Fladgate, who faded in and out of coherence, had been something of an Idaho Renaissance man, accomplished in every outdoor pursuit and regarded as a gentleman and shrewd businessman to boot.
As the surrogate granddaughter, Marie prompted the Blaine Manor residents to tell their tall tales and relive the good ole days. Occasionally, she opened up and told her audience about her nineteen years of snapping off dry flies on her backcast and wading through foggy mornings that veiled the eerie wail and whistle of ducks.
The room was pensive with fond and far away memories. “When was the last time you froze your tail off for waterfowl?” Marie asked the living room, incredulously.
“About the same time my son came to visit,” sighed Cal Jarbridge, and May Stymore gave him a sympathetic look.
Sundays Marie had off, and she left the manor at daybreak with her fly rod. At night, she arrived back sunburnt and famished. Tonight, she made a detour to the deep duck pond behind Blaine Manor.
“Marie, what on Earth are you doing?” Mrs. Fairfield shined a flashlight towards the pond. Her niece was kneeling at the water’s edge with a large cooler beside her.
“Just cleaning out the duck pond, Auntie.”
“In the dark?”
“I’ve already got my waders on,” explained Marie earnestly.
“You’ll be in by lights out, or you’re spending the night out there,” Mrs. Fairfield snapped, closing the backdoor and muttering about the improbability of their shared genetic tree.
Marie smiled in the autumn moonlight and reaching into the cooler, pulled out a wriggling trout and introduced it to its new home.
“How was fishing?” asked Cal Jarbridge, somewhat bitterly, as Marie shoveled over-cooked scrambled eggs onto his plate.
“Oh pretty good,” she shrugged. “Though I hear the duck pond is fishing better this time of year.”
“The pond? Our pond?”
Marie’s eyes gleamed. “I think our recreation budget covers outdoor entertainment, so I took the liberty of investing in some new equipment. Take a look in the shed if you’re interested.”
Somehow, by the end of breakfast, the whole house knew about the stocked fishing hole and Mrs. Fairfield found her optional TV hour suspiciously empty. “Marie, where are the residents?”
“Why, Mrs. Fairfield, it’s such a lovely day, I think they might be outside.” Mrs. Fairfield glanced skeptically at the overcast, chilly weather through the curtains.
Marie suppressed a chuckle as Mrs. Fairfield opened the door to find Gladys Cornwell shrieking as a trout struggled against the set hook. While Mary Helen Robertson tried to convince her friend to give the fish a little more line, Cal Jarbridge and Jeb Smith argued about the most effective knot for dry flies, and the others patiently waited their turns for the fishing rods while feeding curious ducks. Mrs. Fairfield picked up her jaw from the back porch and gave her niece an icy glare before announcing TV hour to the unlistening crowd and reluctantly retreating indoors.
The catch-and-release pond was just the beginning of Marie’s subversion of the Blaine Manor activities program, and Mrs. Fairfield resisted the urge to strangle her sister’s daughter. Life at Blaine Manor was no longer predictable nor carefully structured. Instead of the usual rotating two week meal schedule, Marie suggested wild game Thursdays. Fly-fishing instruction interrupted the weekly embroidery session, and Mrs. Fairfield was forced to tack on a fee for an annual fishing license to the monthly bill. She expected outraged responses, but checks rolled in from indifferent family members as usual.
Snows fell and melted repeatedly before sticking at last and temporarily burying Blaine Manor under blanket of white. Drawing back the curtains to let the dim sun reflect off the snow, Marie picked up the telephone and made a phone call.
Late autumn brought log fires in the common room and less motivation to brave the weather to head outside. Marie seemed mesmerized by stories of hiking up mountains before chairlifts were commonplace—just for the chance of virgin powder. She whistled as Jeb Smith recounted surviving an avalanche, and she laughed as Mary Helen described the forest Christmas tree her husband had chopped down that came with a complementary family of squirrels.
As the conversation slowed, Marie pulled away the curtain to watch. A “V” of ducks sailed overhead. “Waterfowl season opens this week,” she mentioned casually, before carrying a stack of glasses to the kitchen.
“I think she’s planning something,” remarked Leslie Rutgers, exchanging knowing looks with May and Gladys.
“I hope so,” muttered Jeb Smith wistfully.
“Shh, Gladys, you can’t wear that.
“But it’s warm!”
“It’s also bright pink. We’re going for camouflage. Here, put on the warm white hat that Jodie sent you.”
It was 4 am, but for some reason, several lights were on in Blaine Manor. Somehow, everyone knew the plan though Marie couldn’t remember ever announcing it. Still, at 4:30 am, a mob of overdressed seniors was sneaking out of the house.
Marie led the way. She’d called farmer Bob Bashell and had charmed him into not only permission to hunt the ponds on the southern end of his ranch, but also into the use of his cranky old Suburban. “Chances are, Mr. Bashell, someday we’ll both end up in a home like Blaine Manor, and personally, I hope that doesn’t mean giving up duck season.”
That was enough to convince Mr. Bashell, and Marie had discovered she wasn’t the only one who had a 12 gauge hidden in her closet at the Manor. Jeb Smith couldn’t remember the last time he had loaded his old side-by-side, but he still shouldered it perfectly every time.
Seven residents had piled into the car, and Marie laughed out loud as she saw Mrs. Fairfield’s light flicker on as the suburban roared out into the darkness.
Mr. Bashell’s ponds on the edge of acres and acres of dry farmland were perfect for ducks. They arrived at the first hint of light, before color had returned to the world but the shapes and shadows of the land began to make sense.
“Where should we set up?” asked Marie, already excited for the hunt.
“Ducks from the south!” hissed Gordy Fladgate.
“Gordy, they’ve been flying in from the north all week. Don’t you think—”
“They’ll come from the south! The south!”
“Is that the dementia talking?” wondered Marie aloud.
“Listen here, miss,” lectured Cal Jarbridge. “Gordy Fladgate hunted these lands before that old bag Fairfield was even born. If he says the ducks are coming from the south, the ducks are coming from the south. Heck, if he says ducks are coming from the south then it’s probable that the whole migration’s reversed!”
At dawn, Marie was under the blind with seven hunters who were all at least three or four times her age. She passed her gun to Cal Jarbridge who took it with tears in his eyes. “Now I’ll show that Jeb Smith who can shoot.” Jeb chuckled at the challenge and patted his own shotgun affectionately.
Marie watched the time carefully. “Two minutes to go,” she whispered to the group. She spotted a faraway flock in the air and started to reach for a call, but Mary Helen cupped her hands to her mouth and made a perfect imitation of a widgeon. “Shooting’s legal,” whispered Marie excitedly.
“What?” asked Cal, cupping his hearing aid with one hand. “What’d she say?” The ducks swooped in, flaring their wings to slow their decent to the water.
“SHOOT!” cried Marie.
Jeb and Cal opened up, and the still morning was shattered with the resonance of steel pellets across the sky and water. One vulnerable duck halted in mid-air, its wings useless now, and crashed from the sky to the water below.
“More coming in!” whispered Mary Helen.
“Ducks from the south!” cackled Gordy shouldering his cane and pretending to shoot a teal from the sky.
Indeed, ducks were swarming from the south. In the distance, a freak weather front dominated the southern sky, and the ducks sought refuge from the storm.
“Switch shooters!” Marie handed her gun to Mary Helen, and Jeb reluctantly gave Leslie a turn with his shotgun. Mary Helen shot a magnificent triple with Marie’s automatic, and Leslie mumbled something about the gun not fitting him right as he surrendered it to May Stymore.
Gordy and Gladys wouldn’t be shooting, but the two cheered whenever shots rang out—whether they hit something or not.
“Give little Marie a turn!”
“No, no, Marie, start with the farthest bird first!”
“Oh, good shot, girl!”
By the time the afternoon arrived, the hunters had made a serious dent in the duck population. Marie gathered the decoys and retrieved the last ducks.
“Well, Jeb, maybe you’ll have better luck next time.”
“Better luck?” scoffed Marie. “He shot six!”
“And the limit’s seven,” Cal pointed out. “Which happens to be the number I shot.”
“I think I might have got one!” May exclaimed.
“Of course you did, May! You got your first duck,” cheered Marie.
“And here’s to our mighty huntress, Marie!” applauded Leslie, charming as always.
Marie looked embarrassed as she accepted a barrage of heartfelt thank-yous. “We’d better get back, or Mrs. Fairfield might kill me.”
They piled reluctantly into the suburban, all except Gordy Fladgate, who stood admiring the suddenly bluebird skies. He remembered mornings with his dad and a woefully inaccurate 20 gauge, his very first gun; he remembered his black lab, Clark Kent, who endured the kids pulling his ears, as long as it meant Saturdays in the field and stream. Now, half a century later, it seemed impossible that something—anything—could remain constant.
The drive home was content, contemplative, and Marie was caught between dread and ebullience.
The gates of Blaine Manor swung open. “Where have you been?” demanded Mrs. Fairfield, storming out of house and looking oddly unkempt.
“Getting dinner!” replied Marie bravely, holding up a dead duck.
“Better run, kid,” muttered Cal Jarbridge, as Mrs. Fairfield snarled a most unbecoming word and started for her niece with a bloodthirsty look in her eyes.
The glow of the hunt didn’t fade for days, and Blaine Manor, the stifled, dour prison, had been transformed. Now, the residents let sunlight stream into the house, requested perch for the duck pond next year, and discussed whether the activity funds would go towards a collection of snow shoes or a set of goose decoys. Mrs. Fairfield was distraught at losing her grasp on the place, but when she started receiving phone calls from prospective residents across the state, she had to think again.
Three days later, however, Mrs. Fairfield called Marie into her office.
“Marie,” Mrs. Fairfield hesitated. Her niece waited patiently, and Mrs. Fairfield found herself admiring the girl’s ever buoyant spirits and her sense of duty. “Jeb Smith died last night in his sleep.”
Marie’s face fell in an instant. “Was it because of—”
“No, it had nothing to do with the hunting trip.” Mrs. Fairfield watched her brave niece struggle for composure and felt convinced, at last, that they might be related after all. “Mr. Smith left this for you.”
Mrs. Fairfield gestured to the couch opposite her desk and then exited the room gracefully. With tears threatening, Marie unwrapped the velvet cloth and took in quick breath.
Jeb Smith’s side-by-side shotgun lay before her, with nicks in the stock from scrambling up scree after chukars, the deep scent of gunpowder oozing from its well oiled barrels, and a thousand stories etched into its workings. Beside the gun, she found a note written in shaky but neat script,
My dear Marie— Someday, not so long from now, take your own granddaughter hunting. Ducks fly in heaven too, you know. JHS