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The Great Fondue

The Great Fondue
by Susan B

When I was in law and graduate school, I lived near a wildlife refuge that had a very big lake.  Almost every day in the nicer weather, my friend, Sandra*, and I would go to the lake to go swimming.  
* Her name is not really Sandra, but the name "Sandra" seems to connote a woman who is smart, old-fashioned, and sensible -- all of which describes my friend.

Sandra would drive us out to the lake.  We'd park in a parking lot, always the only car and only people there.  The nicely-paved parking lot, with spaces for about 30 cars, seemed like someone must have been expecting something to happen at the wildlife refuge, but nothing ever did. That was fine by us, because we enjoyed the solitude of nature.  From the parking lot, we'd hike about a half mile down a narrow, sandy path with dense vegetation obscuring any view, till we spotted "the tree."  "The tree" stood alone on a little rise, and had a distinctive look of having outstretched, welcoming arms.  The tree was our marker for the beach.  We'd climb up the rise, and look down at a glorious paradisiacal beach.  We once tried finding this beach by getting into the woods from a different spot, and never found the tree.  We had to do it just this way to be able to find this beach.  Sandra had first shown me this beach, and someone had shown her.  Knowledge of the beach was a closely-guarded secret passed down only to trusted people.  

The beach was sandy and in an alcove of the lake such that it could not be viewed from the water unless one were directly in front of it.  It was surrounded by tall trees.  There were eagles, egrets, and great blue herons.  There were snakes in the water.  I learned the trick to sharing a lake with snakes was to quickly wade out to deeper water and swim there.  The snakes kept closer to the shore.  Every now and then, an eagle would swoop out of a tree and dive down and grab a snake from the water, then carry it off to a treetop to eat it. Things like this made it seem like we were in a National Geographic nature show. 

Sandra knew nature.  She had several advanced degrees that were about nature.  For years, she had managed the biggest natural land resource in the state -- a huge, state-owned hunting refuge.  She knew the names of all the trees and wildflowers and birds.  When she heard a frog croak, she knew what kind of frog it was.  She said she learned this from a record of frog croaks.  She listened to the record over and over, until she knew all the croaks and which type of frogs each croak belonged to.  Every now and then, she would go back and review, to brush up and be sure she was not mistaking any croaks.  In the years when I had been listening to the Ramones and the Buzzcocks, Sandra was listening to frog croaks.  Sandra said her older sister had given her the frog croak record as a birthday gift when she turned sixteen. Sandra said she had been filled with tears at the kindness of her sister recognizing her love of nature and her plans to build a career in it.  Her sister had sent away to a nature organization for the record and had kept it hidden for months till Sandra's big birthday, and then wrapped it all special with a big bow and a card with a picture of a frog on it.  "No one had ever done anything so kind for me before that," Sandra said, choking up.  When we were out walking near water at dusk, when there was a frog croak, Sandra would identify it.  "Crawfish frog," or "Southern leopard," she'd announce.  I had no idea if she was right or wrong and in fact, until I met Sandra, I didn't even know frogs made any sound and thought those loud sounds near water were some kind of bird or small animal or maybe even the wooden pylons on a pier creaking.

I like to swim distances in open water.  At the beach, I would put my blanket on the sand and sit down for a while, getting mentally ready for the big sprint.  When I felt ready, I would dash into the water and past what I called the snake line -- the shallow area where snakes tended to swim back and forth.  Once I was out in the deeper open water, I would swim back and forth for an hour or more.  Sandra would stay in the shallower water, walking back and forth, sometimes yelping about a snake or a fish touching her.  I would often try to coax her into coming out to the deeper water, but she'd say no, she liked what she was doing.  The view was just so incredibly gorgeous, and I think she loved looking at it while getting some exercise.  

One day when we were done swimming, Sandra said she wanted to go over to the other side of the lake where there was a marina and boat dock, and snoop around.  I loved snooping adventures, so I was all for this plan.  We drove to the far side of the lake and parked in a different parking lot, which had other cars parked in it.  Sandra wanted to get into the marina and look at the boats.  Someone told her that there were boats for sale and that they posted the "For Sale" signs right on the boats.  The marina had a tall fence around it, with a locked gate with a keyboard buzzer entry.  We hung around the gate until we could walk in as someone was walking out.  People talk about things like white privilege and middle class privilege, and I am sure being allowed into a marina gate, no questions asked, is an example of that.  We looked like middle class white women who belonged near boats.

Sandra and I walked around the piers, looking for "For Sale" signs on boats.  I was the secretary with a pad of paper and pen.  I would jot down Sandra's observations, as well as the phone number.  "Huge double decker boat, gives no price, probably too expensive."  "Party type boat, probably rented to frat boys."  "Houseboat needs work, but low price, wonder if it is seaworthy."  Sandra said she wanted to call that one. 

 I was definitely just a looky-loo, but Sandra seemed to actually want to buy a boat.  She was vague about why she would want a boat, but it sounded sort of like she thought she would want to live on a boat on the weekends.  It also sounded like she thought her boyfriend would enjoy staying on the boat and working on it and fixing it up.  Sandra's fantasies about her boyfriend being a cheerful fix-it guy were not based in reality.  He was the kind of man with few practical skills and almost no self-motivation to fix or maintain anything.  But, in Sandra's fantasies, he would be happy to be sun-soaked and scraping barnacles from the bilge, or whatever it is that people do on boats.  In reality, he was the kind of man who had to be nagged to take out the trash and who probably did not even own a screwdriver set.

We found a boat that seemed promising.  It looked like a 2-story floating house with a walkway all around and a deck out back.  There were lots of windows.  The boat looked older, but in decent condition.  The stated price was very affordable.  Sandra wanted to call the phone number, but she did not want to do that while in the marina, because she did not want to seem too nearby.  She insisted we had to go out the marina gate and walk back toward the parking lot and make the call from there.  She also insisted I had to make the call, and she would tell me what to say.  That was because she sometimes got wishy-washy on the phone and she was afraid she would not be able to get the answers she needed or would agree to go see the boat even if she did not want to.  So, we stood in the parking lot, pretending we were far away, and I called to inquire about the boat.   

A woman answered the call.  She said the boat was for sale because she had several boats and this one wasn't being used.  She lived year-round on a boat in the marina and bought up other peoples' boats as they came up for sale.  The boat we were talking about was in good condition, she said.  We should come see it, she said.  I had been instructed by Sandra to ask, "Is the boat seaworthy?"  The boat lady answered, "What?! Come and you will see if you think it is worthy."  I had the call on speakerphone so Sandra could hear.  Sandra started whispering instructions to me of what I should say to the boat lady.  "I mean, does the boat run?  Can it go out on the water?"  The boat lady replied that the boat was on the water right now and we should come and take a look at it.  I asked her if we could come by and see it, that we could get there in 10 minutes, would that be okay?  The boat lady said yes.  Little did she know we were right outside the marina gate and had been right outside the boat mere minutes ago.  The boat lady said to call her again when we got to the marina gate and she would walk on out and let us in.  

Sandra and I hung out in the parking lot for 10 minutes.  We spent that time reading the bulletin board for boat owners. There were notices from the management, some that seemed to date back years, based on the yellowing of the paper.  One notice said not to shoot off fireworks from a boat while parked in the marina, that if you want to shoot off fireworks to take your boat out onto the lake.  Another notice warned not to play loud music on the marina and if you are renting your boat for fraternity parties and they act wild, your boat might get kicked out of the marina.  Another notice was from a boat owner looking to pool with others and have bottled drinking water delivered to a lot of them at once.  Someone had a bilge pump for sale.  Someone else was offering handmade deck chairs with seat cushions in bright stripes.  Someone posted a picture of a lost parrot. 

After 10 minutes, Sandra and I stood by the marina gate and called the boat lady on the phone.  After a few minutes, the boat lady came walking over to us, followed by her big dog.   "You got here fast!" she said.  She seemed to be checking us out, then opened the gate.  We were checking her out, too, and I was instantly a bit wary.  She was wearing a tube top, and to me, that said just about everything I needed to know.  Pardon my prejudices, but in my mind, wearing a tube top comes with all sorts of connotations, none of which are favorable.  I imagine the girlfriends of serial killers from warm climates would wear tube tops, maybe even have a whole collection of them. 

We all walked along the pier toward the boat.  The boat lady was not walking toward the boat we expected, so Sandra said, "Wait -- isn't it this way?"  The lady was confused.  Sandra said, "We saw the sign on that boat over there."  The boat lady said, "I just have a sign up on that one, but it is really this other boat that I am selling."  Aaahh, the old bait and switch, I thought.  Sandra and I looked at each other, asking with our eyes whether we were being set up.  The boat lady sensed our hesitance and started talking too much and explaining.  "A lot of people walk past my boat where I live, so's I put the sign there so they can stop and talk to me about it.  But it's really this other boat over here I am selling.  I don't put a sign up on it because I am not there to watch the boat and don't want anyone doing anything."  This explanation seemed to make sense, somewhat, more or less.  

The boat lady walked us back to the boat that was actually for sale.  It was also a 2-story that looked like a house, but smaller than the other one.  This one had dead, dried plants in pots on the back deck and a railing that needed repairs.  This boat looked like it had been repainted throughout the years, and now had several colors of paint showing through.  Overall, the boat looked cute, rustic, like it needed a good dose of TLC.  It looked like the kind of boat where people would spend the day smoking weed and drinking cold wine and barbecuing on a hibachi grill.

The boat lady first took us to the top floor, and showed us how nice the view was.  There was a spot near the shore where a lot of big birds hung out -- great blue herons and egrets. There was an upper sun deck with more dead plants and a dilapidated hammock.  Sandra had gotten a look on her face, the kind of look one might have after biting into a sour plum.  Trying to recapture the upbeat mood, I started praising the old hammock.  "Wow, I bet this was a great place to take a nap!" I said with enough perkiness for all of us.  The boat lady said, "The boat comes with a great fondue and you will love it."

"Fondue?" Sandra asked, all sour plum face.  "I don't think we need any fondue."

The boat lady looked slightly miffed. "You will love it. Everyone loves it."  Sandra and I sent eyeball messages to each other.  The main message we sent each other was that neither one of us was going to eat anything offered by the boat lady, let alone dip anything into a sizzling pot of who knows what.  

The boat lady asked if we had any questions about the upper deck and then led us down the narrow side steps, "Come on down this way.  You are gonna love the fondue!"  

We got to the lower deck.  There was a big open back sun deck, with more sun-bleached chairs.  There was an alcove with a really big built-in bed with a thin cushion mattress.  The bed was big enough for 4 people, a lake orgy bed, I supposed.  The boat lady gestured at the bed, like a game show prize lady, and said, "Here she is, the fondue! Now tell me you don't love this!"

I could not help myself.  "I think you mean futon. It's called a futon, not a fondue."  I tried to sound nice and informative, but surely sounded like a bossy librarian.  

The boat lady looked puzzled, then surprised, then resolute, then smiling and condescending.  "Well, we call it a fondue."  The boat lady thought we were idiots to not recognize a fondue when we saw one. 

I tried to go with the flow.  "It sure is fantastic!  What a great place to .. sleep."

The boat lady wanted to get into details.  "You bet it is.  You can fit you and all your friends on the fondue.  It don't rock or nothing.  You can be banging all around back there and the boat stays steady.  It fits regular king-size bedsheets, too!"

Sandra had long decided it was hopeless to ask if the boat was seaworthy.  Instead, she asked simple questions such as if the boat had ever leaked or taken on water.  The boat lady said she did not know, but said someone told her the boat needed a new bilge pump.  I swear to god, she pronounced it "bitch pum."  Sandra repeated this pronunciation while discussing with the boat lady, I guess to seem nice and approachable.  "Do you happen to know how much a bitch pum would cost?" Sandra asked, kindly.  The boat lady said sometimes people post on the bulletin board when they have a bitch pum for sale, but then, she went on, she didn't know why would they be selling a bitch pum if it works.  I agreed aloud that she was right, she was so smart.  Boat lady smiled and liked us now. 

Finally, we thanked the boat lady profusely, praised her wonderful boat, told her we loved the fondue, and said goodbye.  The boat lady told Sandra, "You all think about it, but don't wait too long because this baby is going first come, first served."  Sandra said she needed to discuss it with her boyfriend.  I knew that was a fancy way of saying, "No way."

The boat lady walked us to the marina gate and made sure it locked after us.  That was her way of saying "Goodbye and good riddance, you two who don't like my fondue." Sandra and I got in her car.  She turned on the air conditioning.  We both started laughing.