Graham leaned his head back against the planetarium seat. Peggy Lee turned toward him and whispered, “How long has it been since you saw the real night sky?”
“Not that long. Last year, I went to a small base southeast of the L.A. Climate Shelter Zone for some R and R. One night, I hiked up a hill behind the guest barracks and sat for a couple of hours. The stars were brilliant; they made me feel like I was the only person in the entire universe. But that wasn’t the last time I saw the stars. Whenever I’m on an overnight trip to the water production facilities – like the one we are going on tomorrow – I take a small craft out beyond the fog. There’s not a single light source for hundreds of miles. On a moonless night, the Milky Way absolutely glows.”
“Is a night excursion to view the stars included in your usual media tour?” Peggy Lee asked.
Graham laughed. “I’ve never taken anyone with me, but we can see what the weather is like tomorrow night. If the ocean’s calm, I’ll consider it. The trip only takes twenty minutes from the Farallon Platform, where we’ll be staying. It’s quite dramatic. You go from dark, warm fog so thick you often can’t even see your shoes to incomparable clarity.”
Peggy Lee took the final sip of her beer and handed the bottle to Graham.
“I think I’ll have one more before heading to bed,” Graham said. “What do you say?” He had a perfect beer buzz going and did not want the evening to end. He still couldn’t tell if Peggy Lee was just being kind or if she actually liked spending time with him.
“Sure, Graham, one more beer and then off to bed.” She kicked off her high-heels, crossed her slim ankles, and arched her back in a gentle stretch. Her breathing was slow and easy.
Graham popped off the caps of the remaining two beers. He slid the empties into the six-pack. “Cheers,” he said, “to one of the nicest reporters I have ever met.”
“Likewise, to the nicest Colonel I’ve ever come across . . . and a great host.”
They clinked bottles and each took a swig.
“Can I ask you something?” Peggy Lee said.
“Why have you stayed in this lonely place for so long? I mean, what are you really doing out here? I know you believe in the water production mission and all that, but come on, nineteen years of your life? By this point, I bet you could ask for an assignment almost anywhere in the world, and the Army would give it to you, right?”
“Well, probably . . . but where would I go? I’ve gotten very used to my life here. And this place would fall apart without me. Sure it can be lonely. It’s hard to make friends. Everyone just comes and goes. They leave as soon as the Army will let them. This is the hardship post of the hardship posts. But, for me, it’s become home. I feel . . . hmmm, how to put this . . . strong here. I am the only person who really understands the whole operation. Soup to nuts, I’ve experienced it all. Not to brag, but I see things that need to be fixed before they need fixing. I see problems that even the best technicians overlook. I suppose I could train someone else, but they would just leave as soon as they could – just like the rest of them. So I stay and do this job. I guess I feel like I have a real purpose here . . . or at least, that’s what I used to think.”
“What do you mean ‘used to’ think? Has something changed your mind?” Peggy Lee asked.
Graham responded quickly. “I just get discouraged sometimes, that’s all.” Aside from his superiors at the Department of Climate Security, he had not conveyed doubts about the water production program to anyone, not even Charley, and here he was blabbing, half-drunk, to the media. He had to be more careful.
Fortunately, Peggy Lee did not pursue his slip-up: “But wouldn’t you rather live someplace where you could breathe fresh air, wake up and walk on the beach . . . go out to a restaurant on a Friday night and meet people? Maybe make some lasting friendships? There are still some places like that. I’ve seen them. Most of Alaska is pleasant enough throughout the year. And some of the northern Soviet port towns are very temperate – almost like the devastation here isn’t happening at all. I just cannot believe that a sweet, intelligent guy like you would voluntarily hide so far away from the rest of society for the majority of your life. Explain it to me, Graham.”
“Well, you know . . . I never fit in with the crowd. Even here, where I’m supposedly respected, where I’m the proverbial top dog, I’ve had trouble sometimes. About ten years ago, a group of soldiers stationed here used to call me Saint Snow, the water hermit. They had been through basic training together and asked to be assigned to the same post.”
Graham took a long drink from his beer. It felt good to get drunk with someone else for a change. He was feeling so loose. He hoped that he wasn’t falling into Peggy Lee’s journalistic spider web. But at this point, Graham thought, who cares? He ached to reach down and caress her ankle, the arch of her foot. He felt momentarily dizzy as he continued. “Those guys were thick as thieves – brothers-in-arms and all that. Typical young soldiers.”
Peggy Lee turned slightly in her chair, focusing her attention entirely on Graham. Graham continued to look at the stars on the planetarium ceiling as he continued.
“So, anyway, they called me Saint Snow, the water hermit. Not to my face of course, but I heard them in the hallways, the cafeteria, the bathrooms. They weren’t too subtle about it. They were so young and stupid, and I knew that they did not mean any harm, but it bothered me a lot. It made me feel like a freak.
“So back to your original question, I am not really sure that I want to leave. I never liked getting drunk at the bar on Friday nights with my fellow soldiers. I guess I’ve always felt most alone when I am surrounded by people – especially people having fun. When I am here and focused on my work, I usually feel okay. And when I feel lonely, I just put in one of my old movies. Sometimes I think that my favorite movies are also my best friends, but that’s alright with me. I’ve learned to deal with it.”
“Another completely honest answer. I admire that about you,” Peggy Lee responded, and then said no more.
Graham had expected pity from her. Her silence felt like respect.