So I took to referring to Clifford, when I would see him walking about silently inspecting everything that was going on, as The Black Crow of Death, until Jean told me, based on multiple phone-calls between her and him, that he was a really nice guy, something I afterward confirmed for myself, though oddly, at that time she had spoken to him and had no idea what he looked like, while I had never spoken to him but had seen him, and tried to describe him, something I am no good at, middle-aged white guy with a bit of a bald spot, which could have described me, she pointed out, so I added that he was somewhat stockier in build with darker hair, and she pointed to someone who was definitely not Clifford, and I don't think she ever did figure out who he is. We were heading out, chatting about everything from Pam's apparently successful campaign to get Lupin in trouble with the county to Jean's own urgent need to present a bill before pursuing a lawsuit or complaint to a government agency, on the way to get a card and some flowers, which would sit on the table and disappear one by one as the deer remembered to stop and eat the roses, for Maureen on the occasion of the 7th, when Jean knew she would need some cheering up because it was the anniversary of Judy's death. Judy, whose cabin at the corner near Little John's, formerly Clifford's, where Sleepy Hollow turns into the Back Forty, has remained vacant ever since, was a close friend to Maureen and a multi-talented woman, who assisted Maureen with housekeeping and also worked sometimes in the Restaurant and more often in the office, and gave the Stouts much legal help during the war with Terrible Ed, but once that was over and she fell ill, Lori found her no longer useful and began threatening to evict her until she finally gave up and died.
Judy had even tried to take care of Glyn, when he was laid up from dubious spinal surgery to restore some function to his crippled arms, where degenerative arthritis had been aggravated by repeated shoulder injuries from playing volleyball too hard with Veny and the Czechs (wouldn't that make a good song title? "Veny and the Czechs"?), but in the halo that made it impossible to lay down and sleep properly, and the half-body cast that made it nearly impossible to wash, banished from the Blue House to his retreat cabin since Lori didn't want to deal with him and was taking in Wayne and Ricky at the time, doped up on Vicodin while Lori came over to read endless boring legal papers from the Terrible Ed litigation, Glyn was understandably in a foul mood and proved too much for Judy to handle. So Maureen had to take over his care, and once while she was bathing him he asked her to suck him, which she passed off as just the Vicodin talking, and as he hated that drug anyway, he went off it, letting Wayne and Ricky and Lori eat the leftovers, in favor of his medical marijuana, for which he had the license, but rather than get it legally he preferred to send Maureen to get it from his long-time dealer Frank, a respected and honest local businessman whose side-line few knew about. This was among the most dangerous of the unusual services Maureen has provided the Stouts over the years, for despite a span here pushing a half-century, she is still a resident alien rather than a citizen, sometimes puzzling bank tellers who ask for two pieces of ID by pulling out a driver's license and an "alien card" though none of them have yet asked her what planet she is from, so she could have been deported if caught, and Frank finally relented and agreed to start delivering, at discreet times known to few. We could probably get it cheaper at Home Depot. All these memories were being poured out to Brad, who was beginning to throw up his hands at the impossibility of putting a valuation on them and to walk away from the mediation task, and to me, in my self-inflicted responsibility as The Ears, leavened in my case with cheerier memories of sharing Chinese food, Jean and Maureen each trying to leave the best bits in the cardboard boxes for the other, and Maureen was also thinking of divulging her memories to a magazine reporter who wanted to write a full expose' of Lupin.
The day after Judy's memorial, Maureen asked to borrow $500, which I gave her without question, sure that it was for the good of Lupin, and it proved to be needed to cover Johnny's salary, now a good week overdue and the subject of increasingly angry conversations with Lori, with the usual threats of a walkout. Johnny began saying that Mister Bob was the one who ought to be managing the place, which did me no good when it reached Lori's ears, and my horoscope told me "You have always thought that you could run things-- well now's your chance!" which was disquieting to me, so that I wrote some runes in the dust on the pedestal of Lori's Wishbone to ward off any such development, and when I shared with Maureen my fear that the gods were conspiring to make me the general manager of Lupin, John Horne was there, who agreed laughingly that, whatever my sins, I did not deserve that. The next day, Will, who was supposed to be easing into the job of general manager, came to the Circle, sitting on my towel, a serious social faux pas in the nudist world, and repeating the demand that Maureen move the glass table and clear off the "shit" on the graywood bench, to which Maureen retorted by scolding him for the drug-test fiasco that morning, when he had finally decided instead of randomly testing one person on a pre-announced day to surprise everyone with a pop test. He had made it plain that he did not care about marijuana, on which the Army of One was perversely proud of scoring higher than anyone, but would can anyone for meth, and so was embarrassed when the only meth-positives were John Horne, whose mild score he attributed to secondary contamination from the chronically crank-smoking girlfriend he was staying with, and Blonde Diane, who could more realistically claim secondary contamination from Roy LNU, and Roy himself, who was totally unapologetic about his off-the-chart positive, saying that he was careful not to be high or wiped out when working, but did not consider what he did on his own time to be anyone's business. It was Will who had brought Roy-and-Diane here, and they were moving, with Modern Nick who had generally kept to himself, hiding in the yurt from all the strange people, but was coming out of his shell, playing video games on the public computer in the TV room and eventually becoming social, into a trailer that Will owns.
So Maureen told Will it was sapping what was left of his credibility to threaten everyone with firing, and then protect his own boy Roy, with whom she was on the outs, because Roy had tried to be helpful, when five baby raccoons who had lost their mother moved into Butterfly yurt, and took to barrelling out whenever she or I set foot on the tricky steps, or at least four of them would, for the little one called "Peep" could not keep up, all of which was not the kind of thing that Roy was yet accustomed to, so he asked Maureen if she was aware that there were animals rampaging in her yurt, to which she replied testily that she was perfectly aware, and that he should mind his own business. Sometime later, I would hear Roy talking with Wayne about trapping and exiling the skunks, which Wayne warned would meet with opposition from a certain person, and Roy agreed, "You would need a bear-trap for that one!" This all seems very odd in retrospect, for Roy and Maureen would become great friends, once Maureen, who always respects a good worker, saw how well he dealt with our recurring electrical problems, and she is the only person in the world to call him "Big Power". Will would become a friend as well, returning to the Circle with his hands folded to beg Maureen's forgiveness, saying that he knew she was the "institutional memory" of the place and could be invaluable to him, at which I stepped away, not wishing to eavesdrop on their conversation, but Maureen afterwards told me that he had continued to be very gracious. But this was not until after Cindy had come by, sitting on the end of the graywood bench, which was a dangerous spot but perhaps, for her, less dangerous than the bamboo chairs, to say that if the glass table could not go, it should at least be moved back further from the stage for the Earth Dance, and Glyn had come by too, saying "Move that shit!" as he passed, so I was dispatched as an emissary to Cindy, saying that there would be no problem about moving the table, and Cindy surprised me a little by asking whether Maureen was mad about it, and I told her that it did not seem so to me. The Army of One cleared off all the "shit" from the bench, a bench which ought to have been removed entirely, long ago, but the scheduled time for OG to take it away had been the day after his birthday, and after the events of that day Maureen had been reluctant to impose any tasks on him for those days when he was not considered "fired".
Without all the, ooh, shiny things on it, the graywood bench was invisible in the dark, and Maureen promptly barked her shins on it very badly, so that her legs have not quite felt right ever since, as she climbs down the steep trails, from her continued loving work on their maintenance, and this too could have been a cause of action had she ever been the type to be litigious. But she contented herself with letting Faye massage them, and Jean apply healing oils, and Gina lend some Betadyne, and yellow jackets clean up the scabby stuff, and Glyn express his concern in the mornings, when she went to Glyn's cabin to feed Rowdy, whom Glyn loves very much but never feeds. The Army of One suggested that we cut her legs off and put wheels on her. Of course there was a rumor that Maureen must have gotten drunk again and fallen off the stage, or something, and she considered "doing drama" with her injuries, making up a story that she had been whacked in the legs by loan sharks to help her plead for money, for she was badly in need of $3000. She had contracted with Enrique, of the orange crane-trucks that did most of the tree-work for the highway department, to remove the diseased oak tree, except for the "hand" of five trunks, along with trimming work on one Monterey pine that was overshading the garden patch by the pillar Jachin and another that was in a wearying struggle with wisteria vines that looked so beautiful but were threatening to tear it down, and she did not wish to break a contract, but she had agreed to the sum before it had been learned that all her credit was maxed out, and now did not know how to raise it, perhaps from Clifford or Ardis, and although to any objective observer it might seem evident that the owners of the property ought to be the ones responsible, this was still part of the "parallel universe" and she would not call on the Stouts to pay for an agreement they had had no part in making.
Everybody had a feeling that things were spinning out of control, as on the day when rumors flew that the next morning's staff meeting would be the occasion for mass layoffs, though nobody got fired as it proved, and I was a bit taken aback when not just Turtle, but Turtle and the normally complacent Black Haired Diane asked me if I knew why the atmosphere was so tense of late, but rather than go into the whole saga, I contented myself with saying that the management was becoming increasingly erratic and self-destructive. I composed an e-mail to Lori again, not a brief one like the notice and un-notice, but also not long enough to cover everything tht was going on, concentrating on the most immediate dangers, the county surveillance of the landscaping work and the increasing likelihood of Jean filing suit or going to the Labor Department. This time I did not hint but rather stated flat out that Lori needed to relinquish the management before she destroyed the whole place, still expressing some sympathy for the position she was in and hoping she could get back to doing some sculpture, but making no bones about it that her temperament was wholly unsuited for management, a job which seemed to be bad for her mental health, adding that I would only be willing to take the "hot potato" myself if there was absolutely nobody else, supporting Will for the job if only she would get out of his way and stop "jogging his elbow". I copied it to Glyn, who got all my e-mails from then on but has never replied once, and showed it to Maureen, who doubted that Lori would respond at all either, and to Turtle, who thought it most unwise to assault Lori frontally.
I did, for once, get some response from Lori, who handed me a magazine article, when I saw her by chance in the office while checking my mail, and told me it should "address some of my concerns" and that she would drop a second article, which she would need back, in my mailbox. At first I could not even figure out what she was trying to convey, for the first article was a map of fire department zones, with Lupin Lodge marked as an "area of special concern", and I had said nothing to her about fires except a brief mention of Jean's role in fire suppression Up Top. The second article proved to be a discussion of clearing ground around houses for fire defense zones, and it became clear that Lori was claiming all of the work Up Top had been requested by the fire marshalls, but I told her that in that case, I should be able to see the proper permits, for her credibility with me was quite low. My days as one of the few to be on good terms with both Maureen and Lori were over, and as Lori did not respond to the request to see the permits, I told her bluntly that I hoped she wasn't peddling any nonsense to the county about how the work was for fire-breaks, and that the best thing would be to immediately send Sal's backhoe back to the Canyon and leave it there, which did occur. Around this time the mountain lions began ranging over our land, and Paul the biologist asked to enter the ground and look for the one whose collar was no longer signalling, but Glyn refused permission, perhaps not wanting anyone working with the county to see what things looked like Up Top, so Maureen insisted that Glyn and Sal at least have a meeting with Paul, which was no fun for him, since Sal is rather deaf, and Glyn can pretend to be so when he doesn't want to hear.
I also got, perhaps, an indirect response, for I had talked a little in my e-mail about Lonnie, who had been taking outside work since he had been benched as head of Maintenance but could not find a place outside where he could bring his family, and Chellis, who was being assigned shifts in the office perhaps because it would look bad for Lori's kin to still have free housing without working when everyone else was threatened with eviction the moment their jobs ended, and Wanda, for I was beginning to fear that Lori hated children in general and, kin or no, might want Chellis and Wanda out of here, and told her I wanted to be reassured that Chellis and Wanda still had a safe place. Then Lonnie, to whom I had never spoken beyond a wave and a nod, came up to me, although at first I failed to recognize him, since he had slicked his hair and combed it back, and mistook him for Wayne, which I hoped did not offend him, but he just said, "I got tired of the Grizzly Adams look." He did not tell me his life-story, which I have heard includes some time on the inside and other rough patches, but expressed cautious curiosity about mine, particularly wanting to know how I had become nudist, for if he did not take much advantage of the right to remain naked, he appreciated having it here, though he confessed he exercised it mainly when he needed a pee and Chellis was in the bathroom. And neither did he talk at all about current Lupin gossip, but refreshingly spoke honestly about his feelings, how being at Lupin had changed him for the better, and how Wanda was such a blessing in his life, and how conscious he was that Chellis was a better woman than he really deserved, and how regretful he was of the times he had been bad to her, which was sometimes pretty bad according to what Butch-and-Corky now and then overheard coming from Madrone cabin. Lonnie and I have remained on friendly terms since, and for a little while he even tried coming up to the Circle for his morning cigarette, but Maureen kept giving him the stink-eye and shooing him away, telling me Lonnie was just trying to spy.
I heard that Lori was spreading a rumor that it was Maureen who had called the county, so I told her again that it was Pam, and then Redhead Diane told me she had it from Lori that Jean had been the one to call the county, so I told Lori again that it was Pam, and left off e-mailing her for a while. On September 11, I learned for the first time, after all the years I had known him, that it was Turtle's birthday, for if he had always known that July 4 is mine, until recent years there had never been anything specially notable about September 11. At Lupin it was particularly notable as the day when Jean finally produced a bill, which with all the massive overtime came to, at a prevailing or indeed somewhat low-ball rate for such professional services, a bit over seventy thousand dollars, and was attached to a smaller demand on behalf of Greg True. Jean asked me to deliver it, so I could bear witness, for she had delivered time-sheets to Lori before and Lori had simply denied ever having received them, so I tagged Lori with this little bomb in the office. Her only response when she looked at it was a snort and a curt, "Get real!" I thought, but did not say, "It doesn't get any more real than this, honey."