CHAPTER Thirteen: GRADUATION

   Greg imagined the high school must be crazy this week, with summer vacation looming and graduation only a week away. He hoped Vic and Mandy were enjoying yearbook signing, talk of summer plans, ideas for college, and hugs goodbye for friends probably not seen again until fall – or not at all. He could still remember his last week of high school. He wasn’t much of a joiner, so it wasn’t as frantic as it was for others, but it was still memorable.

   The refuge office, on the other hand, was blissfully quiet. There were no more dramatic phone calls about “the Venita affair,” and no angry (or silly) calls from sportsmen or cattlemen. Nobody was trying to steal water (as far as they knew). Chuck decided to catch up on overdue paperwork. Greg decided to go look at birds.

   In the woods, spring songbird migration was still going on, but was noticeably slowing down. In a month, he had added about a dozen new species to the refuge bird list. That didn’t surprise him as, other than the several rarities, they were species that he thought should be there. Chuck had said that their list was probably “dry-labbed;” he was probably correct.

   Along the edges of the woods, he found six mourning dove nests, three of them with young. He checked the area around the horned owl nest, and was unmolested, so figured the owlets had fledged. Several families of killdeer were out running along the gravel roads and parking lot.

   He walked the edges of most of the ponds during the week. He found that the Johnsons had repaired the water diversion; it was hard to tell where it had been. A couple more patches of hemlock were located, and he flagged them for future treatment.  Duck nesting seemed to be progressing, although he only found two actual nests – both mallards, one with eight eggs and one with ten. The big surprise was the number of Canada goose broods, almost 100 seen by the time he completed the circuit of all the ponds. Apparently, the geese were already on their nests when he arrived at the refuge, so had not been conspicuous on his earlier trips.

   On one day, he found a scenic overlook of one of the larger marshes, and stopped for lunch. The winter chill had finally gone out of the air, the sun was bright, and only slight breezes ruffled the  surface of the water. He could see at least a dozen goose broods from where he sat, ranging from just-out-of-the-nest downies to almost full-grown goslings. Several Western grebes were doing their Jesus dances, running across the water as if it was a solid surface. Tree swallows darted back and forth over the pond, catching their share of early season insects. This was his idea of a hard day at the office!

   Even so, his bad habit of thinking ahead clouded his ideal day, a bit. His big problem: now that Vic was going to be home every day, how was he going to keep from seeing her too much? No, that wasn’t what he was thinking. He’d love to see her every day. He wasn’t sure her parents would find that too desirable, however.

   It was an odd situation because, really, there wasn’t anything going on between him and Vic. Well, that wasn’t true; there was definitely something going on. He just didn’t know what. Still, it was clear that they had become closer than they were a month ago and, although they were always out in the open and aboveboard, a parent might be concerned that closer was already too close. She was young and destined for college, and anything that might upset those plans...  It was too much for his brain to handle.

 

   Toward the end of the week, Greg began thinking about the girls getting out of school, and then having the long bus ride home. That seemed to him a horrible way for them to have to end graduation week. He suggested to Chuck that he go into town Friday afternoon, pick up the developed film at the camera store, then wait for the girls and drive them home. Chuck agreed that was a good plan.

   He took his own car, picked up the processed film, did his weekly shopping, and drove to the high school. Vic came out first, and sat in the front seat beside him. She saw the photo package, and opened it to look at the prints. She saw the ones of Venita.

   “Oh, she really is pretty,” she said, a little disappointed.

   “Yes, she is,” said Greg. But then he leaned over, and whispered in her ear, “But she’s in Arkansas.”

    Vic brightened. “And I’m here!”

    Mandy heard the exchange as she climbed into the back seat. “My god, you two!” She tried to sound a little disgusted. She wasn’t.

***

   And then, it was Saturday. Greg had hot water for tea simmering on the stove. He poured coffee for himself, and carried it out to the front porch steps. No sign of Vic. He wondered how it would feel – not so very far in the future – when Saturday came, and she didn’t. Luckily, he didn’t need to wonder today, because here she was. She climbed his steps; patted him on the head as she walked by; put a tea bag in some hot water; carried it back outside, and sat down beside him.

   “So, how does graduation feel?” he asked.

   “I won’t be fully graduated until the principal hands me a diploma tomorrow. But I guess I will feel tomorrow like I feel today: a little strange.”

   “How so?”

   “Everything changes, doesn’t it? I’m out of high school, but Mandy isn’t. We’re both kind of in limbo for a couple months, then I go off to college and she goes back to high school. But we’ve been our own little ‘family’ for a long time - riding the bus together, staying in town together, only really connecting with our folks on weekends. What does she do? Does she continue just the same, but without her sister and best friend? It’s hard for me to think about.

  “ And what about me? I may or may not have a home to come back to. I probably will for one more year, but then what? Daddy’s bored a lot of the time – it’s not a very challenging refuge, as you know – but he’s been holding on, trying to stay in place so that I and Mandy can graduate from the high school we’ve always been in, with kids we’ve always been with. I think they’ve been trying to move him, to open this up as a training refuge, but so far he has an agreement to stay in place until Mandy graduates. That’s nice in some ways, but my mom has really been feeling the isolation. She needs to be closer to town, so she can see other people and do other things. And Mandy is going to need her, and she’s going to need Mandy.

   “And anyway, what happens after Mandy graduates? I get to come home for one more year, but then, suddenly, I don’t have any home to come home to that I know. I mean, we’ve always lived in government housing. We’ve never had a ‘family home’ like some people have, where generations of your family live and die, but I’ve had my room (which I love) and my view. Those will be gone forever.

   “It’ll be even harder for Mandy. She’ll get out of high school, go off to college, and come home next time to a completely different home. She won’t even have a last year in her old room! Some of the future looks pretty awful to me, right now!”

   Greg had been following along. “I understand some of what you feel. I’ve never had a real home, either, even though we lived in the same house our whole lives, until we left for school, marriage, or work. It was a good environment to grow up in, but the house was never ours. It is a rental, and when my parents die or move (which they’ll never do!), it will be gone out of our lives. It doesn’t really matter, because big cities change so much that the house is really all that’s left of our growing up locale.”

   Vic was ready to move on to another subject.   “You have a brother and a sister? Are you close with them?”

   “We were really close as kids – had a great time together – but my sister got married not long after graduating from high school. My brother went off to work about the same time, and I left for college so young, and never really went back.  We stay in touch, but not regularly. We never really knew each other as adults. All our connections were as children.

   “Back to your upcoming college, what do you want to do when you grow up?”

  “I am grown up.”

 “Let me rephrase: do you have any specific aspirations that could be helped by graduating from a good 4-year college?”

  “Well, when you require a direct answer to a direct question, maybe I’m not quite that grown up. I’ve thought of something like English, or History, or Art. I’m not much of a science girl – although I could get used to occasional nature walks with you – but one of those subjects could keep my options open for teaching or some such thing. I really don’t know.”

   “It’s okay not to know at this point. The first couple years of college are pretty much the same for everybody. It’s during that time that you figure out the longer goals.”

    But Vic was already thinking ahead to other things. “Will you miss me when I go off to college?”

   He seemed to ponder that a moment. “I don’t see how I can really know that until you’re gone.”

   “Okay, since we’re playing ‘let’s be precise,’ I will re-phrase. Considering how you feel this very moment, do you think that you will miss me when I go off to college?”

   “Well, I can answer that, easily. I will be bereft every Saturday, knowing that you’re not going to magically appear, and sit down by me. Not only that, but I am going to be morose all week, knowing how bereft I am going to feel on Saturday.”

   “Hmm. That is a very sad, almost heartbreaking answer, and yet I find it rather satisfying.”

 

   They had shared a lot so far, and it was pleasant sitting together in the sunshine. Still, Greg didn’t feel he could ignore the question that had been troubling him all week.

   “Vic, now that school is out, have you given any thought to how we avoid seeing each other too much?”

    “You want to see less of me?” She acted confused, but he thought he saw a glint of understanding behind her words.

   “Perhaps that came out a little bit wrong...”

   “Perhaps?”

   “What I meant to say is that I love our Saturday meetings, and I would love it if we had more time together, but I wonder if other people – like parent people – might see things differently. That can happen.”

   Vic put her tea on the step next to her, linked her arm with his, and pulled herself a little closer. (Just what I didn’t want her parents to see, Greg thought, but he also thought the result was pretty nice.) “Actually, I have been thinking about the same thing, and wondering how we can keep both them and us happy. One idea I had is that I’d get a job in town – maybe at the motel or the diner – and live with friends during the week, like I have been doing. That could work in a number of ways: one, the money would be good; and two, we don’t have a lot to do out here in the summer. Mandy does a lot better with the cooking and sewing and bonding with Mom than I do, so she doesn’t get bored as quickly as I do. Three, and most important, we could be on our Saturday schedule, with maybe some nice modifications. You could be my chauffeur to and from town, and when you picked me up on Friday, we might take a little time to eat out or see a movie.”

   “That idea does have some potential.”

   “The only thing is, Daddy is talking about us taking a two-week vacation to see our families in North Dakota. He’s thinking this for next month. I don’t have time to get started on a job before then, and I would barely have time after we come back, before I have to start thinking about college. Has he talked to you about vacation, yet?”

   “No, first I heard of it.”

   “He’ll have to, soon, because of course you’d be in charge of the refuge while we’re away. He wants us to go now while all of our grandparents are still alive. Of course, with me off to college, and then probably having summer jobs – and Mandy not far behind – this could be the last year that we have a chance at a real family vacation.”

   “It does seem  logical. Darn, just when your idea of ‘movie night’ was sounding pretty good!”

   Vic was quiet beside him for several minutes, before she spoke. “You know, we may not need to be worried about any of this. It had been on my mind for awhile, and finally I spoke to Mom about it.”

   “You didn’t!”

   “Of course, I did. Mothers and daughters talk about all kinds of things. She was a little worried about me sitting so close to you on these steps. I explained that the steps were pretty narrow, so there wasn’t really a choice. She could see how that could be. Then, I told her that our conversations were completely platonic and intellectual. I mentioned that we had talked about ancient Greek poetry, English novelists, Broadway plays, farm equipment...”

   “Assuming any of this conversation took place, what did she say to that?”

   “She was impressed that I was able to broaden your horizons, to get you thinking about more than hunting and fishing, like most refuge managers.”

   “Oh, good for you.”

   “Then, of course, we had to get into her real worry: that you were going to talk me out of college, and were going to marry me and carry me off to a life of domestic bliss – or worse, that you weren’t going to marry me, but were going to carry me off. Anyway, I assured her that would never happen. ‘He doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body, Mom,’ I said. ‘Or, if he has one, he keeps it well hidden. Sometimes, I think he’s trying to tell me how he feels about me – that there might be something more in store for us than the odes of Pindar and illegal shooting of stags on Scottish hillsides – but he’s so shy, and so wishy-washy, that nothing ever comes of it. Mom, he hasn’t even kissed me! How could I possibly run away with a man who hasn’t even passed the kissing test!’”

   How could he respond to all that? “Vic, I worry a little about your preoccupation with kissing.”

   “Not kissing; kissing you. And to mangle a line I heard in a movie one time, I’d rather be occupied than preoccupied. The transition is an easy one. I just need the right partner.”

   He decided not to respond to that.

***

     The graduation ceremony was at 2 o’clock Sunday. Greg rode to town with the family. The Johnson boys came, as did their parents and their sister. As expected, Bob Eastman couldn’t be there, but Greg was introduced to his parents. He also met the family with whom Vic and Mandy boarded, and a number of her other friends.

   Greg didn’t know that Vic and Alice had made her dress, but he knew she looked spectacular in it. He wouldn’t have known how to describe it, but, had he been interested in the details, Vic or Mandy could have told him that it had a white sleeveless bodice with a modest scoop neckline; a yellow, slightly flared skirt; and a yellow bow tying the elements together. Vic undoubtedly forgave him for his disregard of the details, when she saw the look on his face as he surveyed the complete package,

   Afterward, they went to the diner for an early dinner. Everybody else had the same idea, but it was a small graduating class, so there was room for everyone. On the way home, Greg sat in the back seat with the girls. Vic leaned on his shoulder, and slept all the way to the refuge. Greg thought it was a pretty good ending for the day.

  


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