Bliss is driving north on Highway 1, looking at the crashing Pacific. She would like to pull the car over and walk along the water's edge, but there is no beach here, only cliffs jutting out over the ocean. The mountains, the road, the water-it's so gorgeous it's getting monotonous. So she begins to make small promises to herself. If Gerald starts in on the beauty of the self-sufficient life, she will allow herself a solitary one-hour walk. If Marisa invites her to join in the baking of bread or the pickling of cucumbers or the gathering of fresh-laid eggs, she will invent a friend who lives nearby with whom she has promised to have a drink. These people-her younger brother, Gerald, and his girlfriend, Marisa (his R.F.L., as he calls her, his Reason For Living, and, really, this irks Bliss as much as anything else)-live in Mendocino County, two and a half hours north of San Francisco, a mile from the coast, in a small, isolated house of their own design. It is, Bliss remembers, a nice enough house, made tacky by a pair of stained glass windows that flank the front door-windows that Marisa made. She is, Gerald has said more than once, an artisan. Life for Marisa-and, now, for Gerald-is about using your hands whenever you can. Bliss has been tempted in the past to point out that your brain must contribute something to this equation, but she is determined to keep all snide remarks to herself on this visit. After all, it will be the first time she has seen them in over a year. And, too, today is the tenth anniversary of their father's suicide. She wants to be on her best behavior.
Bliss would like to think that this reunion was Gerald's idea-a peace offering of sorts-but she is sure that Marisa is behind it. Even the way Gerald asked her sounded like Marisa: didn't she think it would be nice if they could "be together" for a weekend. Until a couple of years ago-until Marisa-Gerald was a sensible man. Stodgy even, with his job working for a big accounting firm, with his careful haircuts and his fuel-efficient cars. They had a nice relationship; every four or five months Bliss would fly up from L.A. and Gerald would squire her around San Francisco, surprising her with tickets to chamber music concerts, with out-of-the-way Asian restaurants. They would exchange work stories, and, into a second bottle of wine, confide in each other the news of their most recent failures at love. It amazes Bliss that until this moment she never once realized it was because they were failures that they talked about them. Now Gerald has his success, and it is as if the two of them had never been anything but what they are now: wary, cordial.
As Bliss turns from the coastal highway onto the road to Gerald and Marisa's property, she realizes that she has come empty-handed: no bottle of wine, no flowers, nothing. It would be worse if this were her first visit-she has been here once before, a year ago June, when Gerald and Marisa threw a housewarming party and she flew up for the day with Jason-but still, she ought to have something. So she makes a U-turn on the narrow road and heads back to the little store she passed a few miles back.
She didn't get a very good look at the place when she drove by, and it's a disappointment. She was hoping for a little country fruit and vegetable stand; she could have bought a dozen dusty peaches and offered them as coals to Newcastle-Gerald, at least, would have gotten it. She'll be lucky if this place has a head of iceberg; it might as well be a 7-Eleven.
She walks up and down the aisles, looking for something halfway suitable. The only beer they have isn't expensive enough to give someone as a gift, and when she looks at the refrigerator section, thinking she might find some cheese, there's next to nothing there, either-just Velveeta and the kind of cream cheese that's whipped and has things added to it. She is drifting through the store, ordering herself to buy something, when she comes to the packaged cookies. She puts her hand out to a package, retracts it, then reaches again and picks the cookies up. They are Ideal bars-Gerald's favorite cookies when they were children. She's surprised they still make them; she hasn't seen or thought of them in years. The packaging hasn't changed a bit, though, and now she remembers Gerald hoarding whole packages of them in his room, eating them in bed at night. Their rooms shared a wall, and sometimes when she'd turned off her light and was lying wide awake in bed she could hear the cellophane crinkling.
She buys six packages. It seems a ridiculous number, as she tosses them onto the seat of the car and heads back up the road. One, maybe, or two, but six? She doesn't want to think of what Marisa will say.
It is almost dusk when Bliss turns down the long driveway leading to their home. She left L.A. at six this morning, and her shoulders ache. She should have flown and rented a car at the airport, as she and Jason did last summer, but she'd convinced herself it would be fun to drive. She thinks now that the real reason she drove was to put off this moment for as long as she could.
She gets out of the car and stretches her arms over her head, bending from side to side; she hopes they have a decent bed. Then the front door opens and there is Gerald, in shorts and hiking boots and with-she can't believe it-a beard.
"The weary traveller," he says, coming down the walk to her car. "Are you dead?"
"Yes," she says. "I'm dead and I've gone to heaven and met this man who looks so familiar to me." She reaches up and touches his beard. "This is new," she says.
He is darker than she, and with the beard his face has a slightly menacing look. "It makes you look older," she says.
She is about to answer with some kind joke ("Than me, the aging spinster") when she realizes that he isn't really paying attention-he's looking back at the house.
Marisa appears, and Bliss has to admit it: she's beautiful. She is one of those tall, earthy women with frizzy hair-brown, in this case-but her size and strength are very feminine. She wears a flowered skirt and a man's sleeveless undershirt, and her arms and legs are lean, golden. Bliss can understand why Gerald is attracted to her-and attracted he is. When she joins them at Bliss's car, he puts an arm around her waist and squeezes her, as if she were the one who had just arrived.
"How are you?" Marisa asks. It sounds to Bliss like an invitation to make a long confession.
"OK," Bliss says. "You look great. Both of you-you look so healthy and fit."
"We are," says Marisa, and Bliss thinks, Well, the battle lines are drawn.
They go into the house, Gerald carrying her suitcase and Bliss holding the brown bag that contains the cookies. Gerald leads her to the guest room, which is in the back of the home, next to the kitchen. He sets the suitcase down and turns to her. For a moment she thinks he is going to tell her something-a secret, something he hasn't told Marisa, even something about Marisa-but all he says is "The bathroom's through there if you want to wash up. Come on into the kitchen whenever you're ready."
He leaves, and she realizes she's been hugging the cookies to her chest; and this would have been the perfect time to give them to him. She sits on the bed, and when she finds that it's nice and firm, her relief is so great she's surprised. She goes into the bathroom to splash some water on her face.
In the kitchen Marisa is chopping vegetables; Gerald is uncorking a bottle of wine. The windowsills are lined with jars of things, Bliss can't tell what-they are murky and either red or purple or green. Marisa sees her looking at them and says, "I'm so far behind on my canning."
"Don't listen to her," Gerald says. "You should see the cellar." He offers Bliss a glass of wine and she takes it, warning herself to be careful-the last thing she wants is to have to get through tomorrow with a hangover.
"Why don't you show Bliss around while I get dinner ready?" Marisa says. "Before it gets too dark." It seems to Bliss that Marisa has this-has everything-all planned out.
"Blister?" Gerald says, and she blushes with pleasure; he hasn't called her that in years.
"I'd love it."
"Bring your wine." He heads for the doorway, then turns back and looks at her feet. "Actually, do you have any other shoes? It's a bit muddy in places."
She does, but they're no more suitable for mud than these. She's suddenly very embarrassed-as if they could know what's in her suitcase, or in her closet at home: nothing rugged. "Think I'm a prima donna, do you?" she says. "What's a little mud?"
Gerald shrugs, but Marisa says, "You can't go out in those, you'll ruin them. We've had rain almost every day for the last two weeks." She goes to a closet and pulls out some rubber boots that remind Bliss of a pair she had in elementary school. "Here," Marisa says, "try these."
They're huge, probably three or four sizes too big, but Bliss slips off her sandals and steps into the boots. "OK," she says. "Great. Thanks."
"They're too big, aren't they?" Marisa says. "Wait, I'll get you some socks."
"Jesus, Mare, we're only going to be gone for ten minutes," Gerald says, but this doesn't seem to have any effect on Marisa; she disappears, then returns with two pairs of heavy socks for Bliss.
By the time they get outside, the light has nearly faded. Everything is a deep violet-the sky, the field behind the house, even Gerald's face. Bliss wishes she could tell what his expression is; is he irritated at Marisa?
"This way," he says, setting off around the house. "We've done a lot since you were here."
First he shows her the herb garden, a fenced-off square with neat little rows of more herbs than Bliss can imagine anyone wanting. He points them out, one by one, and Bliss tries to make admiring sounds. Then he launches into an explanation of how great it is to grow your own herbs, how they're useful for much more than just cooking. He bends and picks something, then holds it up to her nose. "Smell good?" he says.
It does, but she doesn't know what it is. "Mmm."
"It's rosemary," he says.
He looks down at the plants and scuffs at the earth with the toe of his boot. "We've been thinking," he says, but he doesn't go on.
"I wouldn't worry about it too much," Bliss says. "I do it, too, sometimes." Immediately she's sorry.
"Should I tell you this?" Gerald says. "Oh, why not. We've been thinking of having a baby."
Bliss is stunned. Not that it's so hard to imagine Gerald as a father-she's always thought he should have children. And Marisa was obviously born to have babies, the ultimate show of capability. But she realizes that in the back of her mind she's been waiting for him to go back to San Francisco, to being who he was.
"Are you?" she says finally. "Wow."
He waves the rosemary in her face. "Marisa wants to have a girl and name her Rosemary."
"Nice," Bliss says. And if it's a boy, Oregano?
They stand still in the herb garden for a little while longer, then Gerald says, "Come see the chicken coop. I built it myself."
When Gerald's tour is over it is truly dark, the kind of clear, chilly night that's rare in Bliss's part of the state. There are so many stars out it looks like there's barely enough room for them all in the sky. She wonders whether Gerald can still identify the constellations; one winter when they were children, their father set up a telescope on the back porch, and after dinner on clear nights he'd tell them to put on their coats and they'd troop outside to look at the sky. Bliss remembers how impatient her father was with her: No, Bliss, he'd say, that's Taurus; I've told you before. You're not using your head. She'd look over and see her mother silhouetted in the doorway, and although she knew her mother would welcome her back inside-Let Gerald do it, her mother would say, then your father will be satisfied-Bliss would stay outside, fingers getting numb, and try to remember.
When they reach the front door, Gerald stops and says, "I hope you don't mind vegetarian."
"Not at all" Bliss says. "It'll do me good to be so wholesome."
Gerald bites his lip, and she sees that this time she has offended him. "Seed to table," he says. "I know you think it's dumb or pretentious or something, but it's really important to me. It makes me feel like I'm in control of my life. Or at least part of it."
He turns to open the door. To stop him she says, "I don't think it's dumb at all," and she's surprised to find that this is true. It's the way she sometimes feels about the bookstore: she and her partner order books and the books arrive and they put them on the shelves and people buy them. "It's like the bookstore," she says.
"I'm not sure I get the connection," Gerald says. "But thanks. It matters to me that you don't condemn my life."
The directness of this unsettles her; it has always unsettled her that he can say something so revealing, so personal, and not have the saying of it undo him. It's the kind of confession that would choke her up. He stares at her for a moment, but the only reply she can think of is "Don't you ever miss eating meat?"
He laughs. "Not much. And when I do I get in the truck and drive over to Santa Rosa to a place that makes a great meatball sub." He grins and opens the door, motioning her to go in ahead of him. Once they're inside, he heads for the kitchen, but she stops to take off the muddy boots. It's silly, really, but as she peels the socks down over her feet she's filled with the strangest feeling of satisfaction: Marisa may not like it-she may not even know it-but when he wants to he still eats meat.
Excerpted from Mendocino and Other Stories by Ann Packer. Copyright © 2003 by Ann Packer. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.