Be It Ever So Humble…

By

Jane L. Daffron

 

 

 

Captain Karen Davis, USNR, walked through the door of her apartment at the Nelson Institute of Marine Research and immediately kicked off her shoes and started to unzip her uniform skirt. She was hot, tired, and thoroughly exhausted. The apartment was quiet – too much so. Her daughter, Caitlin, was now in college at Virginia Tech and there was no one but Karen to occupy the huge four bedroom quarters that had been issued to her when she and her daughter first came to the Institute about a year and a half ago. Heading straight for her bedroom, she stripped virtually all her clothes off and ended up in the bathroom, turning on the shower. As she stepped into the enclosure and closed the door behind her, she turned on the shower radio then began to let the hot, steamy spray erase the tension and weariness from her body.

She poured the vanilla scented bath gel onto the netted ball and worked the rich lather into her skin, savoring its feel and subtle smell. The pulsating water cleansed her skin of the soapy suds as she then started to wash her hair with vanilla scented shampoo. As she stood directly under the hot prickly stream, she could slowly feel the exhaustion leave her body and a calm relief wash over her.

 

 

Admiral Harriman Nelson had just said good night to his executive secretary, Angie Pierce, when he realized that there were some issues that he needed to see Captain Karen Davis about. He’d gone over the monthly progress report she was putting together about the DWD team and had numerous questions concerning some of the expenditures. Calling her office, he let her private phone ring several times before it dawned on him that she might be gone for the day. Finally realizing that not everyone kept the long office hours he did, he packed his briefcase with the necessary paperwork, then walked out into the outer office where he grabbed his coat and hat to head to her apartment.

 

 

She hadn’t realized how tired she was. Spending the majority of the day aboard the Institute’s smaller research vessel, the Vulcan, Karen had been training with the Seaview’s Deep Water Diving (DWD) team. Fifteen divers in addition to herself had gone out to start acclimating themselves to the new dive suits that had arrived the week before. They were beginning the final stages of their specialized training and she’d been up since the crack of dawn and in her lab, packing up equipment by the time the first members of her team started to straggle in. Between the slight breeze, the bright sun, and the constant physical exertion of working with the new suits, Karen was exhausted. After placing a pot of water onto boil for a cup of her favorite tea, she padded into the living room and started searching through a cache of CDs for something to put on the stereo. Once she’d made her selection, she returned to the bathroom to comb out her hair.

 

 

At 1830 hours, Nelson stood outside the door of Karen Davis’ fifth floor apartment, Knocking several times, he waited patiently for several minutes but heard no movement from within. However, he could hear the faint strains of jazz music emanating from inside the apartment.

"Damn," he cursed aloud. "She must not hear." So instead of knocking, he finally hit the door buzzer several times in hopes that she’d finally hear the persistent doorbell.

 

 

Inside, Karen had just finished her hair when she heard the chimes. "Now who in the world…" was her instant question. Grabbing her terrycloth robe and quickly tying the belt around her, she headed out to the front door and looked through the peephole.

"Oh, shit! What the hell’s he doing here?" she whispered aloud to herself. "It’s way after five…" Sighing just a bit, she then opened the door and looked into slightly perturbed blue eyes. "Admiral…this is a surprise."

Immediately seeing her state of undress, Nelson’s anger dissipated quickly. "Uh…I’m sorry if I disturbed you, Captain. I didn’t realize…"

Sensing his uneasiness at standing across from her while he was fully dressed and she was, well…not exactly dressed at all, she reached out and took his hand, gently pulling him inside. "Come on in. Actually, I hadn’t been home long. The team has been out on the Vulcan all day and I just had to get a shower after I came in." Then suddenly a shrill whistle came from the direction of the kitchen, "Oh…I’m sorry…I’ve got some water on for a cup of tea. Can I interest you in joining me?"

Nelson seemed momentarily distracted. It wasn’t the first time he’d been here since she moved to the Institute. And though he’d been invited to dine with her and her daughter several times, outside the formal holiday dinners they seemed to relish giving, he just never seemed to find the time. His eyes wandered back to the robed figure in front of him and he obviously hadn’t heard a word she’d said.

"Admiral?" Davis asked again.

"Huh? Oh…I’m sorry. You were saying, Captain?"

"Tea, Admiral. I’m fixing myself a cup of tea. Would you care to join me?" she graciously inquired.

"No…actually, I won’t be staying. I’m sorry…I, uh…came over to talk to you about the expenditure reports, but they’re not that important that they can’t wait until Monday." He seemed uncomfortable for some reason and he wasn’t sure why. Drawing in a sharp breath, he could swear he smelled…vanilla?

It suddenly dawned on Karen. Perhaps it was the fact that he was in uniform while she stood before him clad in literally nothing but her bathrobe. Blushing just a bit, yet in a manner that he didn’t notice, she muttered something about getting some clothes on and then quickly disappeared to her bedroom, leaving him standing in the middle of the living room floor. His eyes intently scrutinized the room as he waited for her to return. It was the first time that he’d really taken the time to carefully examine the contents of the room.

The furniture was tastefully eclectic. Comfortable overstuffed sofas and chairs alongside traditional cherry Queen Anne tables. Antique brass lamps stood in front of Williamsburg prints. The one constant was unlit candles…on the mantle, on the tables, everywhere. There were wall sconces which held tapers: oil lamps, both large and small, as well as thick column candles on various stands. There were family photographs everywhere as well, some of them obviously very old. Nelson spied one of Karen and her daughter standing in front of an old colonial style building. Upon closer examination, he finally recognized it to be Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. Another one held a picture of an older couple in formal attire which he surmised were Karen’s deceased parents. Looking around at the remainder of the pictures, he was suddenly struck by the obvious importance of family in her life. A feeling of sadness instantly washed over him when he realized his own house was such a startling contrast to hers. There were few family oriented photographs displayed; his house was more museum than a home; more utilitarian than comfort. It was simply a place he came to when he wasn’t aboard Seaview.

Moments later, she wandered back in wearing a pair of cut-off jean shorts, an oversized Virginia Tech t-shirt, and no shoes. Her hair was still wet but starting to curl, having been simply combed out and clung to her head. Noticing him still standing in the middle of the living room floor with his briefcase still in hand, she made a mental note to herself on how lost he seemed. Then she made a sudden decision.

"Admiral, come on in the kitchen and let me get my tea, then we’ll sit down at the table and go over the material you have questions about," she congenially beckoned him as she comfortably slipped her arm through his and navigated him toward the kitchen.

"Captain, really…I’m sorry I…" he started.

"Hey…don’t apologize…just come on in and humor me, will you? My grandmother always used to tell me that most people felt more comfortable talking in the kitchen. For some reason, it’s the least intimidating room in the house."

He watched as she took a copper tea kettle off the eye of the stove and then poured the steaming hot water over a tea bag in a large pottery cup. He marveled at how relaxed she seemed to be here, within her own private surroundings. Reflecting back on how formal she appeared outside this sanctuary, he was intrigued by her transformation. Sitting down at the antique oak table, he quickly surveyed the kitchen. "Your grandmother was right," he said. As in the rest of the apartment, there were family pictures all over the walls. The one notable exception was two expandable hangers on one of the walls that held about 20 coffee mugs of different shapes and designs, most of which seemed to be hand made.

"Now…what was it that you wanted to discuss with me, Admiral?" she raised an eyebrow and asked as she drew one leg under her and the other one dangled over the edge of the chair.

"Actually," he cleared his throat. Now, he really felt guilty for disturbing her. "I wanted to ask you about some of the expenditures that you’re incurring building the DWD team. I’m more than well aware that there’s a certain amount of start up capital needed and that in the over all scheme of things it’ll evidentially be minimal…but even I have to question some of these things. The lenses on the underwater cameras, for example."

Sipping her tea, she casually leaned back and explained. "I had Commander Morton contact several possible vendors with regards to submitting bids. Chip and I worked up the specs for those lens. They’ve got to hold up to the maximum depth that we hope to be able to go to. Once we had the bids, Chip, Kowalski, Bob O’Brien, and I sat down and went over every one in detail. Now, you and I both know that low bid isn’t always the best deal…so once we took everything into consideration, we made our decision. I’ll be glad to supply you with all the documentation if you want. We worked very closely with the Legal Department regarding the contract wording. I wanted specific phrasing regarding performance and breach of contract added to the normal terms. We also kept the Accounting Department apprised regarding the bids and justified the selection to them as well."

He was amazed that she rattled off the explanation so effortlessly. Even more startling was the fact that she did it so casually. He raised an eyebrow and asked, "You’re sure about this?"

"Absolutely. In fact, I’ll have all the supporting documentation on your desk first thing Monday morning. After all, it’d be kind of hard to get the signed contracts from Legal at this time of the evening," she threw a glance at the clock on the wall.

There was an uneasy silence between them until she sat her cup down. "Look… would you like to join me for a light dinner? It’s kinda quiet around here now since Caitlin’s gone to Tech. Usually, about this time of evening, I’d have been assaulted with a blasting stereo, clothes strewn over the chairs that sorta act as a path to her room, and a couple of her friends coming in and out of her room." She chuckled just a bit. "Do you know that I came in one Friday evening and there were ten…ten…teenage girls camped out in this apartment? There were sleeping bags, makeup bags, book bags…you name it… all over here."

Nelson’s face erupted into a grin as he tried to imagine the scene. "What did you do?"

She shrugged her shoulders and took another sip of tea. "I’d forgotten that I’d given her permission for the sleepover. Thank God I’d already told Lt. Chin’s office about it so there was no problem with security. Anyway, I told her that she had to make sure that things were at least decent when they finished. Apparently, they were also working on some sort of school project together…although you’d have never known it by all the laughing and giggling going on until almost dawn." Sighing just a bit, "Such are the trials and tribulations of parenthood. And I do have to admit that it’s a bit quiet around here now…"

"When will Caitlin be home?" he inquired. He was asking the question more as a matter of courtesy than anything else since he already knew the answer. In fact, Caitlin herself had e-mailed him that she’d be coming home for Thanksgiving break. The on-line conversations between himself and the younger Davis were a secret even from her mother. He had taken the young girl under his wing shortly after their arrival at the Institute. In fact, she looked upon him as sort of a surrogate father.

Karen got up and rinsed out her cup then leaned back against the sink. "Thanksgiving week. However, I’m going back east for Homecoming in a few weeks. Caitlin’s been lucky enough to get some tickets to the football game for me as well as a hotel room. I’m actually looking forward to it…Blacksburg in the fall is a beautiful place to be."

"I’m sure…I’m sure. Well, I’d better be going, Captain. Again, I’m sorry…" he started to rise from the chair to leave.

"Admiral…I was serious when I asked you to stay for dinner. Usually…I just fix enough for myself nowadays. My culinary skills are getting a bit lax without someone else around," she smiled. "I can’t guarantee a 4-star gourmet dinner…but I will say that you won’t leave here hungry."

Harriman looked around the kitchen…there was a feeling of warmth here that he couldn’t explain. In contrast, he knew what awaited him at his own house. So…

"Well, I have to admit that I haven’t had a home cooked meal in a long time. My housekeeper is usually gone at this time of night, so I usually just reheat whatever she’s cooked and left for me."

"Hmmm, well now…that’s no way for a man to live. Ok…tell you what then…I’ll fix the dinner if you’ll find a bottle of wine from the cabinet and open it. I’ve got some chicken thawed, so a good white or there’s some white zinfandel behind there, too. Whichever you like."

"Ok…you talked me into it." He put his briefcase down and unbuttoned his uniform jacket, then removed it and placed it over the back of the chair. "In the cabinet, you said?"

"Yep…ok…well, let’s get to it then. We’ve got dinner to make," she said as she opened the refrigerator door.

 

 

Two hours later, the two were finishing up a hearty meal of baked chicken with rice covered by a mushroom gravy, steamed lemon broccoli, cooked Cointeau carrots, and ice cream with crème de menthe. Karen had made a pot of fresh coffee and they were discussing the beginnings of the Institute when the telephone rang. She excused herself and reached for the phone.

"Davis residence."

"Mom…how goes it?"

"Caitlin…honey, I can barely hear you… there’s a lot of noise in the background. I take it there’s a party going on in your room?" was Karen’s stern reply as she strained to hear her daughter over the loudness across country.

Nelson quietly sipped his coffee as he became aware of who was on the other end of the telephone and what was going on. A smile appeared on his lips as he envisioned the younger Davis in her dorm room, full of people, congenially trying to talk to her mother, who sat in front of him.

"Mom! I got your ticket and it’s right near the 50 yard line. Course you’ll have to sit with a bunch of the ‘Old Guard’, but there’s a whole bunch of other parents there too."

"That’s okay, Caitlin…wherever you got it is okay with me. What about the hotel?"

"At the Old Hotel Roanoke…that’s the closest I could get. I hope that’s okay."

"That’s fine, sweets. Actually, I haven’t been there in years…not since high school. And since I’m in the Alumni Club already, we can park in the enclosed area and do some tailgating if you want. I’ll email you with a list of things for you to get and I’ll fix them when I get there."

"Great…oh, by the way…have you seen the Admiral? I’m in desperate need of some help with my chemistry class and I was going to see if he wouldn’t mind helping when I get home for break?"

"Actually," Karen smiled and glanced in the direction of the man at the kitchen table. "He’s right here. He came over with some information he wanted to go over with me and ended up staying for dinner. Would you like to ask him yourself?"

Harry’s head turned as he realized that the last part of the conversation was obviously about him. Looking over at her with a puzzled look on his face, he saw amusement in her eyes.

"Dinner? Mom…you actually got him to stay for dinner? That’s great! Yeah, let me talk to him, will you?"

Davis looked at Nelson with a bemused look. "My daughter wants to speak to you, sir."

He coughed suddenly and asked, "Me?"

"Yes, you. She wants to ask you something." She handed him the telephone and then started to clear the table.

"Miss Davis…Caitlin…what can I help you with?" he started. Karen continued to clear the table as he talked with the young girl. As their conversation lengthened, the mother poured a cup of coffee and slipped quietly from the kitchen and out onto the balcony overlooking the Pacific.

About fifteen minutes later, he came out holding his mug of coffee. He stood at the doorway and watched her for a few moments, framed by the moonlight. Remembering the night of the Holly Ball, he suddenly felt a bit uneasy. He couldn’t help but wonder…

She turned slightly and smiled. "Solve her problem?"

"Humph," he chuckled. "She wanted to know if I’d mind helping her a bit with a chemistry problem. I don’t mind, really. She’s an intuitive young woman." Taking a drink of his coffee, he nodded, "much like her mother."

"Ahhhhh, I see my daughter’s getting you to do her bidding. Better watch out, Admiral Nelson. Caitlin’s got a way about her," Karen slightly laughed in response. "Or need I remind you of how she conned you into ‘escorting’ us to the Holly Ball last Christmas when you had no intention on going?"

"And may I remind you, Captain Davis, that I taught at the Academy for several years and can spot someone who’s shoveling the proverbial BS from a mile away?" was his smug retort as he sat down in one of the patio chairs.

"Why, Admiral…I’m surprised at you," she teased. "Teaching a classroom full of middies is a whole lot different than dealing with my daughter. Of that I can assure you, sir. However, I do wish you luck. Actually, I’m glad she feels comfortable enough with you and the fact that you’re kind enough to help her is more than I can repay…" She suddenly became very quiet. "It hasn’t been easy for her…what with my assignments and having to be away from home a lot. I’ve tried to make sure I was there or, depending on the assignment, that she could come with me. The first time I taught at Miramar, it was during the summer and I rented a house so she could be with me. The last time was toward the end of the school year and she stayed with my sister-in-law."

Taking another sip of coffee, he said, "Well, it looks like she’s none the worse for wear. You’ve done a very good job if her academic performance is any indication. And from what I’ve seen, she also seems to be pretty well rounded for someone of her age. She…ah…does have a way of being completely up front, though. Tells it like it is."

Karen laughed a bit. "Yes…yes, she does. I guess, in a way…she comes by that honestly."

There was a momentary lull in the conversation as Karen turned and gazed out over the ocean. The waves were calm this evening…only a slight breeze was stirring. Nelson sat watching her, intrigued at her sudden quiet demeanor and he was surprised that he found a kind of solace here, something that he hadn’t known in a long time.

Putting his coffee cup down he kept staring at the woman by the railing. Realizing that he was getting a little uncomfortable, he felt it was time to leave. "Well…I guess I’d better call it a night. I’m sorry I intruded on your evening."

She turned back around and leaned back against the rail. "You didn’t intrude…the only thing I had on tap was a quiet dinner and a movie on the VCR. Actually…" she bit her lip just a bit. "…I was glad for the company. As I said, it’s a little lonely around here. I think I may actually have the beginnings of ‘empty nest syndrome’."

He looked puzzled. "Empty nest syndrome? I don’t think I’ve heard…"

Karen Davis chuckled. "You wouldn’t, Admiral. It’s actually a common term associated with parents when their children are old enough to ‘leave the nest’…and do so. You’re so used to having them around all the time…that when the time comes, they exert their independence and go off to college or move out on their own, leaving the parent or parents alone for the first time in a minimum of 18 years. There’s a void there for the parent…some people do okay with it…some…well, some not so well. I guess I’m still getting used to it. So now…I’m on my own again…for the first time in 20 years…" There was a sudden tinge of sadness to her voice mixed with a bit of irony.

He wasn’t sure what to say to her. She was right…he’d never had to face it…and knew he never would. Hesitating just a bit, he then replied, "Well, I’d better get going…I’ve imposed on you too much." Getting up, he slowly walked back into the living room and then to the kitchen, placing his cup in the sink. Turning around, he again scanned the kitchen. He wasn’t hallucinating…there was a feeling of warmth here. Sighing a bit, he walked back into the living room and stood at the patio door, observing her.

"Captain…thank you for dinner," he quietly said as she turned around at the first sound of his voice. "I don’t know when I’ve had a good hot home cooked meal."

Davis smiled politely and started inside. "You’re more than welcome. As I said before…it gets a little lonely and I enjoyed the company."

As they stopped at the front door, he caught another whiff of her scent. What was it about her that he was finding interesting yet…? "Well…thank you again. And I’ll expect to see those reports on my desk early Monday morning…"

"You’ll have them…I promise." She stood inches from him and gazed back into his blue eyes. "And thank you for the company." She too was hesitant, not sure exactly what to say next; all of a sudden, she felt…awkward.

There was a momentary hesitation before he took hold of the doorknob, opened it, and left for his own home.

 

 

 

He opened the door to the expansive brick tri-level home at the furtherest end of the compound grounds and walked in, placing his briefcase in the chair nearest the door. Turning on the lamp next to the phone, he punched the button on the answering machine to play back any messages he might have gotten in the past few hours. Undoing his tie as he listened, he flipped the light switch to turn on the lights in the living room. Stopping short in the doorway, he scanned the room before him. The contrast between what he’d just come from and this was startling. Suddenly…the house seemed cold…forbidden…uninviting. He’d never really noticed it before…never really thought about it. But now….it stood up and slapped him the face like a pan of ice cold water.

The house was immaculate, kept just so by his housekeeper, Maria. The woman had been with him for what seemed to be an eternity and, in a way, her family had become his surrogate one. He’d seen her through her children growing up, attended graduations, weddings and now an onslaught of grandchildren. Yet, for himself, there was an emptiness in this house…

He’d resigned himself to his fate after Katherine Campbell’s death. He couldn’t live in the old house where she’d been found those many years ago, so he’d had this one built within the confines of the compound. Maybe it was a quest of a feeling of safety…or maybe it was just an attempt to forget…he wasn’t quite sure. Whatever the reason, it almost seemed he spent very little time here, preferring instead his cabin aboard Seaview. This was simply a place to lay his head.

Ascending the half flight of stairs to the master bedroom, he opened the expansive closet door and started to change. As he moved effortlessly throughout the room, he started to notice things…things that weren’t there…and things that were…almost for the very first time since he’d moved in here. He was startled to realize there were no family pictures in the bedroom. The one he had of Edith was in his study and the other one was in his desk aboard Seaview. Those of his parents had been long since put away. For some reason, he’d never felt the need to display them. Standing in the middle of the room, he stared at the furniture; it was tasteful and functional…yet utilitarian. One could almost describe it as ‘luxury hotelesque’…He never really had given much thought to decorations for the house, outside of a few naval memorabilia. There were a few pieces of art on the wall…a couple of small Monets…a glass sculpture on the dresser. It was almost as if someone had come in and done the interior decorating for him …that nothing here really reflected the man who occupied it. And then he remembered the apartment he’d just come from.

He changed into a pair of slacks and a polo shirt then silently walked barefoot down to the wet bar in the great room and made himself a drink. Looking around, he realized that this room was just as sterile as his bedroom seemed to be. Granted, there some mementos scattered about…pictures of his various commands, of he and Jiggs Stark, and others of his various friends. But all of them had something to do with the Navy. There was a Waterford cut glass figurine representation of Seaview that stood on a solid cherry base in the dining room across from the dining room table. Even that seemed…cold…uninviting. Nothing was out of place…nothing ever was. Maria was completely efficient. However, even she hadn’t been able to change his attitude toward the residence.

Downing about half of his glass of Glen Livet scotch, he slowly walked out onto the deck just off the great room. The moon hung high in the night sky now…the stars twinkled against the black like diamonds on velvet. Sitting down in one of the chairs, he looked out at the expansiveness before him. Quietly he sipped on the mellowed scotch and reflected back on earlier events of the evening. The silence in his house was deafening…and so was the vast feeling of loneliness. Maybe there really was something to the old saying that there was a difference in a house and a home. He began to think that his was the house…and the apartment he’d come from was a home.

The stillness was suddenly broken by the obnoxious beeping sound of his pager. Cursing slightly under his breath, he picked it up and scanned the number flashing across in red. He then reached for the portable telephone on the table next to his chair and called the extension.

"Nelson," he said wearily.

"Admiral," the voice replied. "Sorry to disturb you, sir. I know it’s Friday night but we’ve got a slight problem down at the dock with some of the new equipment that’s being installed. We’re about four hours behind schedule."

He sighed. Nothing was ever easy. "Okay…knock it off for tonight. You might as well. It is the weekend and I’m sure your men would much rather be home with their families. But understand this, Tom…I want that equipment installed by the end of Monday…no excuses. Understood?"

"Yes sir," Tom Watson, one of the senior dock mechanics, replied. "I guarantee it, sir."

"Good. See you Monday then," Nelson replied and then hung up. As he clicked off the phone, the door bell rang. "Damn! Can’t I be left alone at all?!"

As he made his way to the front door, he saw a tall, lean, bearded figure through the window. Opening the door, he found Tony Rennalt, his chief electronics engineer, on his front doorstep, holding a six pack of beer.

"Tony, what the hell are you doing here?"

"Hey, I was wondering when you were finally going to get home. Where the hell you been? Security said you left the Admin building hours ago," the man said as he walked on in without Nelson saying another word. "I figured since I didn’t have a date…and obviously neither did you…I’d come over and grace you with my presence and we’d keep each other company. I even brought refreshments."

"Well, come on in and make yourself at home," came the sarcastic reply from Harriman Nelson as he shut the door. However, the words fell on deaf ears since Rennalt had already headed for the back deck. Harry simply shook his head. Looks like going to bed’s out of the picture for a while. Damn, Tony…I don’t need you here right now. Wandering back out on deck, he sat back down in his chair as Tony pulled up a second chair, turned it around and plopped his long legs into it.

Rennalt was tall and lanky, dressed in holey cut-off jeans and tennis shoes. He wore a faded red Hawaiian print shirt and a NIMR ball cap and the only true way to describe him was ‘beach bum’. A Texas beach bum. But as many of the NIMR staff had ultimately learned, looks are often very deceiving. Anthony Maurice Rennalt, Ph.D., was, in fact, the Chief Electronics Engineer for the NIMR and a long-time friend of Harriman Nelson.

"Beer, Harry?" the younger man drawled and held out a can.

"No, thank you. I’ll stick to my Scotch."

"Humph…" was the reply as he sipped congenially on the tall can. "Too rich for my blood."

"Uh huh…and just what do you call that 100 year old Cognac I see you with ever so often?"

"That? Well…I gotta have some vices here and there…" the taller man laughed. "Hey…where were you earlier, anyway? I came by to see if you wanted to go in and get something to eat but the guard said you’d headed out around six with your briefcase. It’s after ten now. Something wrong down on the sub?"

"Just who died and appointed you my keeper, Tony?" was Nelson’s testy reply. He had no intentions of revealing where he’d spent his evening, although common sense dictated there was nothing to hide in the first place. It was just that Harry saw no need to divulge his personal goings on with anyone, much less Tony.

Rennalt arched an eyebrow and automatically sensed Nelson’s defensiveness. Why, he wasn’t quite sure but he fully intended to get to the bottom of it if it took him all evening to do it. "Who? Well, I don’t need somebody to appoint me. I appointed myself…a few years ago. However…if you don’t want to tell me…that’s your own damned business." He took another sip and sprawled out between the two chairs. "I just kinda figured that you’d headed to your cabin when you didn’t come here."

The Admiral didn’t say anything; instead, he continued to sip on his drink and gazed aimlessly over the ocean below. He finally realized that sooner or later, the truth of his whereabouts would come out. Moments later…"I had some business to take care of…with Captain Davis. The IG’s office has been asking some questions about some of the expenditures…so I needed some answers."

"At six o’clock on a Friday night?! Harry…for cryin’ out loud! That’s somethin’ that could’ve waited until Monday. Besides that woman doesn’t work ‘round the clock like you do. She’s got a life," Rennalt chastised him. "Also…I know she was out on the Vulcan all day with the team getting them acclimated to the suits. She musta been exhausted…and here you come…hammering on her about some damned expense question. You know…sometimes, old friend…I think you need an infusion of some common sense."

Rennalt’s rebuke took Nelson by surprise as did the insinuation of one of the comments. "For your information, she was quite co-operative and I got the answers I needed. The supporting documentation will be on my desk Monday morning," he answered. "Besides, she said it was no problem..."

"Yeah…I just bet she did. So…you spent nearly four hours going over expenditures, huh?" Rennalt grinned slyly. He knew Nelson was trying to avoid the subject but he had no intention of letting him do it. "Interesting topic of conversation for a Friday night with a pretty woman. I’m surprised you found her in her office at that time of the evening…"

Again, there were a few moments of silence while Harry took another sip or two of his drink. "I didn’t," he slowly said. "She, ah…had gone to her apartment. I found her there."

"Oh, really. And you’ve been there all this time, have you? Jeez, Harry…I just bet you made her evening," was the slightly cynical reply.

"You know, Tony…one of these days, your mouth’s going to get you in trouble," was the reply as Nelson gulped down the last of the liquid in the glass. Deciding that the subject needed to be changed, he stated, "Tom Watson called a little bit ago…just before you waltzed in. They’re having some problems getting some of the new computer equipment installed. I told him to have his crew knock off til Monday…but in no uncertain terms, I want it installed and ready for operations on Monday."

"What kind of problems…did he tell you?" There was mild interest in the potential of a major time setback in installing a new computer in the Seaview.

"No…just said they were running behind. I didn’t see any sense in having them work overtime for that. Besides, like you said, it’s Friday and…"

"And they have families," Tony drawled. "Man…when are you ever going to take your own advice? By the way…where is Edith these days? She still in Boston?"

"Yeah…I had an email from her the other day. Said something about coming out here for Christmas." He refilled his glass from the mini-bar next to the door then returned to his seat. "As much as I’d like to see her…I could use the time to work on some things."

The younger man watched his friend intently. Edith Nelson was her bother’s only living relative yet the two saw each other very little. Tony knew that Harry kept himself closed off due to a concern for her safety. That certain things he was involved in might cause problems for her. That was something he didn’t want to happen. Regardless of their infrequency of seeing each other, they did remain close. However, he also knew his old friend and his propensity for closing himself off to any other personal relationships with those of the opposite sex.

"Christmas is a time for families, Harry…not for working. At least…not unless you know somethin’ I don’t about emergencies," Tony said as he took a slow drink from the second can of beer in the six-pack.

"I just have a lot of things to do, Tony. A lot of paper work has piled up and it’s not going to go away. Captain Davis has assured me that the team will be ready for their first assignment around the first part of March and I want something that’ll give them a good workout. Besides…I’ll just be in Edith’s way. She’s the social butterfly of the family anyway. I hate those damn parties she manages to drag me to."

Rennalt shifted a bit in his chair and looked over at his old friend. "Seems to me that you liked the holiday a bit better last year. I heard about you taking Karen to the Holly Ball. Now that must have been a sight to see…especially if you hate those kind of things so damn much."

"I didn’t take her…if that’s what you’re insinuating. I was drafted into it by Caitlin."

"Uh huh…and I’ll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, too. Harriman Nelson, I’ve never seen you ‘conned’ into anything you didn’t want to do, so cut the bullshit, ok? Sure, the kid sorta talked you into it…but you coulda said ‘no’…and you didn’t, did you?" Tony grinned and stood up, stretching his legs a bit. Walking over to the railing, he turned and leaned back against it. "So…you spent four hours at her apartment. I know you couldn’t have spent the entire time talking about expenditures."

"Damn, Tony! It’s none of your damned business. I had questions, she answered them," was the irritated reply. Harry didn’t like anyone interfering in his personal life, and Rennalt was rapidly approaching his boiling point of tolerance.

"Four hours?"

"Yes…well…she fixed some dinner."

"Ah….now the truth starts to come out."

Nelson shot him a scathing look. "She was fixing her own and…she invited me to stay. That’s all."

There was a sudden uneasy silence between the two men. Tony knew why the older man was so edgy about his questioning. Harriman Nelson had always kept his private life separate from his work. However, in this incident, with this particular employee…something was vastly different. And both men knew what it was…and why. Nelson didn’t want to admit his growing attraction to the woman from Virginia.

The quiet reigned for an eternity until Tony finished off the second can and threw it toward the trash can in the corner. As the can clanged against the side, he turned to his friend and leaned back against the railing. "You know something, Harry…you need to start getting back on track with your life. We ain’t getting any younger."

"Oh, really? You’re a fine one to talk…I don’t see you in any hurry to find someone permanent in your life," was Harry’s pointed reply.

"Well, at least I’m a bit more sociable than you. Hell…you won’t even get out on your own. When was the last time you actually asked a woman out?" Tony asked. "And I don’t mean taking Karen Davis to that overblown snob dance either."

Nelson tensed as red started to appear in his face. He knew what the other man was insinuating and he didn’t like being put on the spot. "My social life is none of your damned business, Rennalt. I don’t need you being my social secretary."

"Well, hell…somebody needs to be." There was a momentary hesitation as he settled back down in the chair opposite Nelson and stretched out his legs. Digging his hands deep into his pockets, he locked eyes with his old friend and softly said, "You can’t make love to a grave, Harry. Katherine’s not going to come back…ever. What’s done is done and can’t ever be undone. It’s about time you realized that and turn your attention to a very interesting lady at the end of this compound. A lady that, I might add, would be good for you."

Harry’s eyes shifted away from Tony’s gaze. "I don’t need you playing matchmaker, too. Caitlin Davis has already got you beat in that department."

"Hmmm, well, maybe you ought to listen to’er, Harry. The kid makes a helluva lot of sense," Rennalt returned fire. "Hey…by the way…you got anything to eat in that kitchen of yours? I’m starved. You had dinner…I haven’t eaten."

"As usual, help yourself to whatever’s in the refrigerator. I don’t know what Maria left for me." Nelson was now getting more than a little put out with Tony’s needling. He watched as his friend got up and wandered into the house and headed toward the kitchen. Focusing his attention back out over the sea, his mind wandered to a few hours earlier. Tony was wrong…he didn’t need a ‘social life’…he had his work, the Institute, the Seaview. But he had to admit that Tony was right in one respect…he wasn’t getting any younger. And whether he wanted to admit it aloud or not, he was lonely.

He sighed to himself and continued to sip his drink while waiting for his ‘guest’ to return. His wait wasn’t to be long. Within minutes, Tony reappeared holding a cold chicken leg and a bowl of potato salad. Pulling his chair up to the table, he started to eat as he continued to observe his old friend. As he finished up his pseudo-meal, he pushed away from the patio table.

"So…she fixed dinner, huh? By chance did she fix any corn bread? She makes the best I’ve ever had," the younger man inquired.

Nelson’s head turned sharply at the comment. An eyebrow arched and he shot back, "No…she didn’t." A moment’s hesitation and with irritation, "How do you know about her cooking?" There was a twinge in the pit of his stomach at the possibility of the answer.  "I mean, other than the Christmas dinners..."

The tone of Nelson’s voice caught Tony’s ear. Was it just a tad bit of jealousy? Almost nonchalantly, he answered, "She cooked dinner a couple of times when we were working late on the electronics for the suits. I thought I was going to bust by the time I pushed away from the table." He arched an eyebrow. "She’s a helluva cook and last I looked, she’s not spoken for either. Or is she?"

"I have no idea," was the short reply and then Nelson chuckled a bit. "I never thought I’d ever hear that someone had fed you too much." Then his mood turned slightly reflective. "You know, it’s funny, Tony…but sitting in her kitchen…was…"

"Was what?"

Nelson seemed almost embarrassed for some reason. "I don’t know…comfortable, I guess, may be the word. Not formal."

"Comfortable…?" Rennalt replied. "You know…I remember my mother always said something about the kitchen being the heart of every home. I guess dear ole Mom knew what she was talkin’ about cause the times I’ve been over there, we’ve hashed every thing out over the kitchen table and not in her study."

"Strange…she said something along the same line. You know…I’d been in there before, for those Christmas dinners,  but I never really looked around. Do you know she’s got candles all over the place? I mean…what’s she preparing for…a blackout? There’s emergency lighting all over the building. She doesn’t need…" Nelson mentioned to him for some unknown reason.

The taller man roared in laughter. "Harry…I swear, if I didn’t know you better…I’d say you had to be either blind or dumb. And you call yourself a scientist, too. Where the hell’s your powers of observation, my friend? You’ve been in that apartment, what…three or four times now…and this is the first time you’ve ever really noticed anything about what’s there??? You know, I grew up with two sisters and between them and my mother, I got a real indoctrination in the things that women put in their homes. They like things around to remind them of family…that makes them feel secure. You know…like curtains and pillows and those woman kind of things."

"Well…I guess my education was woefully inadequate in that area. I was already at the Academy by the time Edith got up to that age. And now that you mention it…I did notice a lot of pictures…a lot of family things…"

"Yeah…she told me one time that she likes having them around…to remind her of her family roots back in Virginia. Southern women are like that, you know. They’re more genteel than Northern women." Rennalt glanced back into Nelson’s great room. "You know, Harry…maybe you ought to get her to come in here and liven up this museum of yours. There’s about as much life in there as there is in King Tut’s tomb."

Harry suddenly started to cough due to the snide remark. "I’ll thank you to remember whose home you’re in, Mr. Rennalt."

Rennalt snorted sarcastically.  "Home? This is no home, Harry…This place is a damned museum…There’s no life here. Just artifacts. Hell, you don’t even have pictures up of Edith…or the rest of your family."

"And your place is any better? The last time I was there, I had to figure out a path through there. And there must be the cure for the common cold living in that house," Harriman Nelson angrily said. "That so-called house of yours would be condemned by the Board of Health if they ever came in there…It’s more pig sty than somewhere to live."

"Well, at least it’s lived in. Sure as hell beats living in a hotel for the rest of your life. For crying out loud, Harry…don’t you understand? For God’s sake, you fool…take a good look around you. What the hell do you see? You want comparisons…okay, I’ll give you comparisons. You were in Karen Davis’ apartment tonight…for four friggin’ hours. You’ve just told me that she’s got candles…family pictures. I know she likes antiques and she likes roses…Caitlin told me that. Got all of that from just being over there for a couple of times and hearing her and the kid talk. Now…take a good, hard look at this house. Since I’ve known you, I’ve never seen any pictures of your family anywhere. Yeah, you’ve got those pictures of you and Stark and your Academy buddies…you’ve even put away any pictures of Katherine. But you’re still mourning her, Harry. You’ve never gone on with your life since she died. You can’t curl up to that Nobel Prize of yours on a cold night. Now…if you can’t see the difference in Davis’ apartment and this museum you call a house, then, old buddy, you really are blind. You know…my sister kidded me that most men don’t care a friggin’ hell what their houses or apartments look like as long as they have a place to sleep and eat. Never really thought about it much…I mean, I happen to like my place as it is. But this house, Harry…jeez almighty, I feel like I’m in some sort of nautical museum. And don’t get me wrong…I like museums…I just don’t want to ever live in one. Oh, and yeah, I’ll agree that my house isn’t the greatest thing in the world…but at least it’s got character."

"Character, my ass. It’s a damn dump!!! You can’t even walk through it without tripping over something. And my house is not a museum, Mr. Rennalt," Nelson replied indignantly.

"Yeah, right, Harry…sure…whatever you say. And I just noted you said house, not home. Even yours truly here knows there’s a big difference, Nelson," Tony capitulated. And then, he slowly queried, "Just answer me this, Admiral Nelson…does that pretty glass Seaview in the dining room keep you warm at night?"

The look Rennalt received from his friend was a hurtful one, yet his tone of voice belied what was truly underneath. "Look, I don’t need, nor want, your interference into my private life. Now…either change the subject matter…or leave!"

"Sure, Harry…but you know something…you can run…but you can’t hide from the truth. I’m not married ‘cause I really don’t think there’s anybody out there that could put up with my ass. I’m too damned contrary and that’s why Carley knows better than to even mention it to me. You, on the other hand…you’ve got this cockamamie notion that whoever you care about is going to get hurt because of who you are and what you do. And that, Harriman Nelson…is just plain down right stupid."

Harriman was getting extremely annoyed with the course of the conversation. He hadn’t asked Rennalt here; he’d simply barged in. He hadn’t wanted this course of conversation and had tried to steer it in other directions. However, Tony kept bringing it back in his own irritating way. He didn’t need someone lecturing him about his life. Edith did that every time she saw him. He also didn’t want someone telling him that he needed to go on with his life. It was his life that had gotten Katherine Campbell killed. His life’s activities that hung like a Sword of Damocles over every person he cared about…even Tony. No, he didn’t need or want the lectures…he already had every word committed to memory from the years of repetition.

His sullen mood became a bit darker and he simply grunted as he took a healthy swig of the scotch. He’d known Tony Rennalt long enough to know that he wouldn’t be able to steer him away from the topic without a very good reason. The tall Texan was on a tear, seemingly taking a secret perverse pleasure at needling his friend. The biggest problem was…and he’d never let Tony know it…was that his friend was right. He’d noticed it earlier when he’d come home after spending the time at Davis’ apartment. The sterility of the house had suddenly struck him in contrast to the comfortable familiarity of the apartment. He’d never really noticed it before. Never really needed to.

He was so deep in thought that he hadn’t noticed that his guest had again disappeared into the house and returned with more food. Glancing over, he saw a plate full of several pieces of chicken, green beans and some potato salad in front of the tall man. Shaking his head just a bit, he asked, "Where the hell do you put all of that?"

"Me? I’ve always had a high metabolic rate…and as I said, you got fed earlier…I didn’t." Picking up another can of the cold beer, he opened it and took a long drink. "Glad you let the guys at the dock knock off for the weekend. That computer equipment will probably go in on the first try when they start in on Monday. I’ll wander down tomorrow morning and take a look at what the problem is."

"Let me know and I’ll meet you down there…" Nelson secretly breathed a sigh of relief that the topic of conversation had changed.

"Yeah…sure."

The next few minutes were spend silently as Rennalt finished his meal and then took the plate and utensils back into the kitchen and returned to the deck. He plopped back down into the chair, leaned back, and simply continued drinking his beer. The two men didn’t say much for a long while.

Finally…Nelson stood and without looking at his old friend, "Tony…it’s midnight…and I’m going to turn in. Take the couch or one of the guest rooms if you want…you’re in no condition to drive since you’ve had too much beer."

"Sure, Harry," the man yawned and stood, stretching his long legs and heading into the great room. "The couch’ll be just fine for me; it’s closer to the outside here. See ya in the am. Oh…and do me a favor, will ya? Don’t be too loud when you get up. Tomorrow is Saturday and I don’t usually get up till around noon."

Nelson turned out the lights as Tony laid down on the long couch near the fireplace. Within moments, he heard snoring and he knew Rennalt was sound asleep. Proceeding to turn out the remaining lights, Harry then headed up to his own bedroom. As he changed into his pajamas, something kept sticking in his mind and the more he kept thinking about it, the more the truth began to invade his being. And the more it did, the more it began to hurt.

Katherine wasn’t coming back. Ever. Nothing he could ever do or say would make it happen, no matter how hard he tried. As he sat in bed, he looked around the bedroom again. He was alone. Maybe Tony was right…he hated to admit it…but maybe he was. But why was everyone trying to push him toward Karen Davis? Tony…Angie…Cathy…Lee...even Maria had said something to him about Senora Davis. He had to admit to himself that this evening had been interesting, standing there next to her while she was wearing her bathrobe. He could smell the freshness of her shower and then the scent she used. It was most definitely interesting…and… sensual? What was it?

Turning out the light, he lay awake in the darkness, contemplating the evening’s events. He had to admit to himself that he’d been attracted to her since the first time he’d seen her nearly a year and a half ago. But he couldn’t…it wouldn’t be prudent for him to become involved with an employee. And yet…everyone kept telling him…kept pointing him…in that direction. Turning over, he glanced over at the vacant side of the bed. Maybe Tony was right. All the awards…all the mementos…all the memories in the world couldn’t occupy the space next to him.

Sighing a bit, he pulled the bedspread up over him and closed his eyes. Vanilla…that’s it. She was wearing vanilla.

 

 

 

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