Choate’s Hill Holiday
I lay wistfully, wrapped like a mummy, with layers of woolen blankets and protected by piles of pillows that pressed in on me to limit me, to protect me. The house creaked, its window panes chattered like a fearful old man drawn by a siren’s beguiling plea, come to me, come to me. I pulled the blankets up high realizing it wasn’t a siren’s plea but the pee-pot beckoning from the end of my bed. But I resisted the call. I wasn’t ready to leave my nest, my sanctuary. I was enveloped in total darkness, but surrounded by love and I felt happy. I was almost willing to believe we had a home on Choate’s hill.
There was a comforting ritual to mornings on Choate’s hill. It began with whispered voices from beyond the open bedroom doors, as the boys divvied up the morning chores and candle light danced on the hallway ceiling like fireflies on a damp June night.
Like the Three Stooges, Norman, Willard and Charlie tried to descend the staircase without making it squeak, and this morning, like every other morning they failed in their pursuit. I giggled as Charlie cursed louder than the squeak and Willard louder still said, ‘Shut up’.
In unison, I felt the front door at the foot of the staircase close and heard the clank of the woodstove being kindled in the kitchen. I heard mom’s voice drift soothingly up the stairs and the clicking of the grandfather clock in the parlor, tick, tock, tick…
“Delia, Delia, wake up.” I opened my eyes slowly; they were heavy with sleep and a dream I didn’t want to wake from. Get up ‘Dell’ it’s time to get ready for school. I begrudgingly crawled out from under my fortress of woolen blankets and pillows as mom said, “Breakfast is ready, and you need to get ready for school.
“But it’s snowing, hard.” I murmured. As the back of mom’s gray dress disappeared beyond the door.
Jackie said, “Stop muttering.” As she carefully placed her clothes on her bed. Next to Jackie, the room’s tarnished kerosene lantern smoked like a magic lantern that the genie got stuck in. And Peg, being Peg, turned to wink at me, concealing from Jackie the hint of blush she put on her cheeks. Mom would be appalled.
I could hear commotion downstairs as my brothers, the stooges, horsed around. Norman was trying to settle the younger boys down but they wouldn’t hear of it. Willard and Charlie were arguing. They just liked to argue any point at all.
Freddy stood in my doorway, cute as a bug’s ear, and smiled at me, I patted my bed and he leapt through the air, landing beside me, and we hugged a good morning hug. Mom would say that Freddy, with his curly brown hair and sparkling green eyes, was a handful, but dad would just smirk when mom regaled him with Freddy’s antics. Mom said it was because Freddy reminded dad of himself. But I think Freddy was me, that is if I were a boy.
Most of the time mom wouldn’t make us walk to school on days it snowed this hard. But most of the time dad was around to influence her decision. Mom wouldn’t say where dad was, maybe she didn’t know. But the house was cold, the coal for the coal stove was almost gone, and mom was hoarding the last of it for January, that’s when it got really cold. The heat from the cookstove in the kitchen, never reached much further than the parlor, and we didn’t light the fireplace in the parlor because the chimney was dangerous.
The floor in front of the hearth was rotting as rainwater would trickle down the chimney when the wind blew rain from the North. Dad was supposed to have fixed the chimney and mom kept reminding him of that, with sayings like, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” Mom knew a thousand of those sayings. And I’m sure that dad had heard them all, more frequently than he wanted. But that was dad. My dad was tall and slender with hardened skin and rough hands. His overalls were always dirty from the field or fixing machinery, and there were always two things in his pockets, a pack of cigarettes, that he tried to keep secret from mom, and sweets that he handed out liberally, even to mom.
Whenever we had to move, mom made sure she had two things, her kids and our family pictures. On Choates Hill, our family pictures were in the parlor and hung on the back of the staircase wall. Each picture marked a moment and a place we lived. Sometimes we lived in a place for just a few months. The last picture of us all together was in Chicopee. We lived there for more than a year with dad working at the mill. In the picture, Mom and Dad were like bookends with the three oldest boys in the back trying to look important, and the four girls in front, beaming in our Sunday dresses. Mom held her hands forcefully holding Freddy in place, trying to keep him from fidgeting or fleeing. Dad lost his job at the mill and we left Chicopee shortly after that picture. Mae, the oldest, stayed to work as a maid for the rich people that owned property in town.
To the right of that picture, and before the most recent family picture in front of the South Bridgton Church, was a large rip in the flowered wallpaper. That rip could have represented Lawrence Massachusetts or Biddeford Maine. We had lived in both places for a short while before dad said, “It’s time that we made tracks and skedaddle.” We never had much money, few did in the 1930s. So, we’d hurriedly pick up our things and left this town or that, whenever the bill collector came. It seemed we moved like a game of pick-up-sticks, haphazard and without plan, until we came to Bridgton and our house on Choates hill.
I liked the house immediately. Upstairs there was a bedroom for the girls and another for the boys. And downstairs, a parlor, dining room, kitchen and another bedroom for mom and dad. It was an actual farm. The privy was in the barn behind the house separated by a heavy oak door with a crack under it large enough for a mouse to slink under, but not for a cat. We did share the warmth of the kitchen with a mouse or two. Dad had worked in mills and garages and odd jobs anywhere he could find, but now we were in the country and on an actual farm.
Mr. Whitney, the man that owned the farm, thought that my oldest brothers were rugged and he thought they’d do well at farming and logging. He didn’t know the stooges as well as I did. Up to that point, dad had spent more time under the hood of a car than he had with a hoe in his hand and Charlie was as reliable as a clock you’d forget to wind. But Mom knew farm life and what she didn’t know, she’d find out. Mom was never shy to ask questions. And she knew how to influence dad without making him feel bad. We grew carrots, potatoes and corn. That year, there was a great need for feed corn so that sold easily. The potato crop did poorly, as we had so much rain that summer that much of it rotted. But the carrots did okay, because mom suggested we plant them higher on the hill. When the growing season ended dad was actually able to pay Mr. Whitney our rent, and pay our debts in town. It looked for a time that Bridgton might be our home.
But the rains of summer continued into the slushy mush of heavy fall snow and Mr. Whitney’s tractor, that dad used to skid the logs out of the woods, sputtered, and clanked, and bled a billow of black smoke before a final bang and it died.
I remember hearing dad curse as he slogged his way back to the house. Mom didn’t even put her coat on when she went out to meet him. She hugged him to curb his temper. There was some more exasperated cursing and mom kissed him and held him tightly, just as she did Freddy when Freddy had a tantrum. There were farewells and goodbyes, but by the next morning dad was gone to look for work. And that old tractor just sat gathering snow at the edge of the field for the rest of the winter.
Things were different with Dad gone. Mom and Dad were never on the same page with parenting approaches and that was most obvious when it came to their youngest two, Freddy and me. My dad’s name was Fred, I guess it’s kind of strange that they waited until their fourth son before giving Dad a namesake. But the name Fred could only fit Freddy. Norman was too reserved to be dad, too shy, too introspective. Willard was responsible to a fault and selfless. And Charlie, always seemed to be elsewhere, flirtatious, and ready for a fight. But Freddy was dad, carefree and scatterbrained, silly and cute. Nothing seemed to lay heavily on Dad’s or Freddy’s shoulders.
For breakfast, on the morning of the big snow, we had toast and oatmeal and milk from Ethel our cow. Dad insisted on calling the cow Ethel. Ethel was also my mom’s name. Mom would get steely-eyed every time dad told one of us to milk Ethel. Mom always called Ethel, ‘The Cow’, nothing more. Mom saw the world in black and white and dad saw it with all the colors of the rainbow. I think mom’s annoyance made dad’s mischievousness even more fun for them both.
I sat down at my bowl of oatmeal, my fingers protruding from a pair of old worn-out socks. And I started to eat. Mom always called oatmeal porridge, but I remembered ‘Goldie Locks and the Three Bears’ and for some reason ‘porridge’ made me feel poor and desperate, so I always called it oatmeal. As always, the talk around the table was noisy and alive with hopes and dreams.
But then Charlie asked, “When will Dad be home?” Everyone got quiet really quickly. He looked obstinately, straight at Mom. Not something that I would dare to do.
Mom said softly, sternly, “We’ve talked about this. Dad is out finding a job. Once he has one, he’ll be back.” Her eyes turned a bit red and moist as she pursed her lips tightly together. We would never, ever, see my Mother cry.
She lifted the coffee mug to her lips and slowly turned to look out the window. I gained an appreciation for my mother that winter. I didn’t see it when I was eleven, but now I could, Mom was the glue that held our family together. When dad was scatterbrained, mom was restrained. When Freddy was frivolous, mom was sane. When I didn’t study, mom worked alongside me. She was much shorter than dad and he was tall, and she was sturdy where he was wiry. She was meticulous in how she dressed as much as she was precise in how she spoke. And dad used ain’t and swore like a sailor when mom wasn’t around. Mom stood and started to take the dishes to the wash basin. That was our signal to get our winter clothes on.
I was envious of Willard and Norman who headed to the barn. Since Dad was away Mom made them stay home and tend the animals in the drafty barn and keep the stove in the kitchen stoked, while she kept our clothes stitched together. Mending clothes became a greater chore by the day.
With the dawn barely a hint through the trees, the rest of the Town family troupe stepped out into a cold Maine snowstorm and started our trek to school. We must have looked like a parade of circus performers adorned in a collage of clothing that emptied most of our closets.
The winds swirled the snow around in devilish patterns across the snow-covered road. Like tiny tornados, the snow pulled at my jacket and made my chin sting whenever my scarf dipped low. There was little talk above the wind, as we shuffled and slid down Choate’s Hill. It would be hours before the town plow got to our part of town. But for now, we were the plows, a dash, a slide, a recovery from a spill, and we’d push the snow down the hill. We were the five skiers of Choate’s Hill. Freddy the youngest was by far the best. I think it’s because he didn’t care if he fell. And I was second best, because I knew when I fell, it wouldn’t hurt for long.
Some other kids joined us in Sandy Creek and more still along South High Street. When we reached school, we must have looked like an army of snowmen, wet from the snow and exertion. We hung our clothes as best we could, fighting for every open hook. The hooks closest to the potbelly stove were the best, but there was an unspoken rule that the older kids got those hooks.
I liked school, and except for Jackie, I did the best. What I loved most about school was reading. We had a few well-worn books at home and we had some old newspapers too, which found their way to Mom courtesy of her friend Gladys. At school, I devoured mysteries for their glamour and stories of far-off places where I found refuge on a tropical beach, or on a bustling street in the city of my imagination.
The days’ lessons were done, the books put away, the snow had stopped hours before. And thankfully, our clothes for the most part were dry. Freddy and I joined Peg, Jackie, and Charlie for the walk back home. The road was plowed but slippery. When we reached Choate’s hill, we came across Mr. Johnson’s truck. It was in the ditch on the right of the first turn. Freddy rushed over to see if he was dead, but Mr. Johnson was nowhere around. We helped each other over the slippery parts, encouraged because we knew our house was at the top, and we were almost home.
I welcomed the sight of a bold plume of smoke heading up the chimney against the darkening sky. It meant, at least, the kitchen would be warm. It was just two days before Christmas and we still didn’t have a tree. The boys wanted to cut one from out back, but Mom kept saying wait for father. As we walked up the long unmarred road leading to the house, we were suddenly ambushed by Willard and Norman who threw snowballs at us from behind the trees. The five of us were no match for the two of them. They must have stockpiled a hundred snowballs. We couldn’t make our way fast enough to the house, chased by Willard’s roaring laughter. I remember seeing Mom in the doorway smiling. I missed seeing her smile.
The five of us burst inside the house and mom, still smiling, tried to look scornful as clumps of snow fell from each of us and made puddles on the floor. Mom helped to peel off our layers of wet outerwear to get to our skin beneath. Our cheeks were red and I felt the bite of a thousand tiny needles as the warmth drove the cold from my cheeks and fingers. The boys went about their chores, but Mom needed to remind Freddy and me that we both left our honey pots in the bedrooms this morning.
Mom said, “Take care of those pots then wash for dinner.”
We both knew the pots would be bad by now. There was one in each bedroom and it was Freddy’s and my responsibility to empty them each morning. Our rule was the pots were for pee. But Norman always refused to go to the barn at night. And he always seemed to have to go. Freddy held his tin pot as far away from himself as possible. We both gingerly walked down the stairs, Freddy leading the way.
Peg appeared at the foot of the stairs, carrying a laundry basket filled with clothes mom had washed in the sink that day.
“Stay Clear!”, Freddy boldly announced, “I’ve got half of Norman here.”
Peg took heed and swayed to the left at the foot of the stairs, staying clear of Freddy’s sloshing bucket.
“Best not spill Freddy.” She continued, “Delia, look out, those bumps in the wall are the bones of the tax collector. That’s where dad buried him.” I almost took my eyes off the steps to look at the bulges in the staircase wall.
“Sure Peg, and you left the rest of your brains in there too.”, I replied quickly with pride for my witty reply.
We walked through the kitchen passed mom’s disappointed stare and went into the barn. The privy had two holes that dropped down into a nasty pit under the barn. I never knew why it had two holes. Who would ever go at the same time as someone else? I poured mine quickly and rinsed the pail out in a nearby bucket kept from freezing by the gap under the door to the kitchen. Freddy’s contents just slapped against the frozen excrement below.
We replaced the honey pots at the foot of the beds and then went back downstairs to wash.
When we came into the kitchen, the beating heart of our home on Choate’s Hill, Mom said, “You won’t forget tomorrow morning, will you?”. It was more an order than a question.
Together we turned to mom who was at the sink and replied, “No Ma’am.”
Mom reached for the handle of the pump and pumped it several times before water was drawn from the well to fill the pot that sat in the huge black slate sink. It was the only running water we had in the house, and that sink was large enough for Freddy or me to take a bath; but we never would. We had stayed in other places that had indoor plumbing so it was hard to bathe here. You had to draw water into a pot, heat it on the stove, then we’d generally carry it into mom and dad’s bedroom for privacy. We would take with us a bar of ivory soap and a cloth to clean ourselves. But at least we didn’t have to go outside to fetch water from the well. We could stay inside, close to the kitchen and the stove.
Midway along the outside wall of the kitchen was the cookstove. It seemed to be a living breathing thing in and of itself. It was black like coal, except for a bit of rust on the plates of the cook surface. You could sense its weight by standing nearby. And when it was stoked, and the fire was roaring inside, it would creak and groan and bellow out smoke from the chimney like King Arthur’s dragon. Near the stove, but not too close was our kitchen table. It was made for six but we could squeeze eight. We’d be happy as clams, squished together like cigarettes in a pack.
It was here, seated at this kitchen table, next to the complaining stove and arguing brothers, and while listening to mom’s clanking of tin pots and pans, and my elder sister’s gossip, that I felt most at home of any place we had ever lived. I hoped. I prayed that we could stay.
Mom always insisted on a dinner prayer. Her prayers varied by her mood and with our circumstances, tonight was no different. “Dear Lord,” She began, “We are grateful for the food before us and the love and health of our family. Please be watchful of our beloved Fred and help him to find his way home to his loving family. Amen.”
In unison we all echoed, “Amen!” We all seemed a bit relieved this prayer was shorter than most.
Mom ladled out ‘Carrot Stew’ and we each dipped our bread in the stew. The stew had some meat broth, the last bit of deer that Mr. Pearly gave us the month before, but the stew was mostly carrots. We knew not to say a word. But that night, I went to sleep with my stomach complaining enough for the whole family. One by one, I pulled the blankets up to my chin, each one insulating me more and more from the cold, and I fell asleep.
I heard a rumble in the night. A night so dark I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I saw lights sparkle across the ceiling of my room. I got up and went to the frost coated window. It took my breath and the warmth of my palm to melt away enough ice to see clearly out the window pain. And I watched as a car slipped and bounced up our unplowed road. I felt the house’s front door close firmly and saw mom in her robe move out into the freezing cold. She was a haunting apparition in white. Her shadow danced across the snow as the car’s lights bobbed up and down towards the house. The car stopped just short of her, and a figure emerged and raced towards mom. The two merged together, awash in the lights from the headlamps. Dad was home.
By now the house was awake, and kids with pajamas and slippers rushed outside and Freddy darted into my room and hugged me around my waist. He said, ‘Dad is home!’
In the years since, I’ve had seven children of my own. And the youngest sits across from me at our own cozy kitchen table in Bridgton feverishly taking notes as I reminisce. As he looks up at me, I see a bit of Freddy in the sparkle of his bespectacled eyes. I continued.
And I wonder about that touring car, that we did not own, with a Christmas tree tied across its roof. And I recall hearing my parents muted argument the next day, about that car and whiskey. But prohibition or not, depression or not, my Dad came home. We had a Christmas tree. We no longer ate carrot stew. There was enough coal that winter to warm the entire house. And we got to live in that house on Choate’s hill for many years to come. All because my dad came home.
I watched, for billions of years as the earth matured and I encouraged life to form as it may. It always intrigues me what my materialize. And things were good, modern day earth biologist refer to as sustainable yield; A concept that implies harmonious continuation of a species with its environment. As has happened time and time again, on worlds too numerous to mention, something is thrown into the brew and the scales are tipped and harmony is jeapordized. In the wink of a cosmic second, Earth, was struck by its greatest challenge, how to coupe with the intelligence of the human species.
The Earth is a particularly favorite gem of mine, located in a distant arm of the Milky Way galaxy (732312042.320). She was spun off a galactic arm and her future matter coalesce like most others. Over billions of years the matter solidified and cooled at just the right distance from her indistinguishable star. A skin of water formed over the bulk of her surface, and it was spotted by masses of dense material that became the land. This material is not securely rooted, but rather floats on magma seething in her belly still upset from her initial creation and agitated by denser matter that releases energy as it decays. This turmoil causes the motion moving the land across her surface causing fissures to erupt in her beauty and spew forth the myriad of denser matter from her heart. In these cool seas, were areas where volcanism mixed essential ingredients into the broth. Electrical impulses pulsed disparate charges in the thin but intriguing ocean of gases that enveloped her. All this energy came together to form knew compounds. These new compounds replicated chemically and over billions of years, replicated organically and life was born.
I was pleased, to see the diversity of life spring up on her skin and on the land. Energy and matter was renewed and introduced in the usual ways. On schedule some comets, with the beautiful curving tails, penetrated her, adding their make-up to the earth's. Of course this, copulation, is filled with the pangs of passion and some life gave way for others. A process that never ceases to fascinate me. I love the Earth and her capriciousness. Indeed, like any child, she surprised me with variations that I hadn’t conceived. In her creativity, she at times impressed me. I tried not to intervene, but from time to time, a subtly nudge was needed, but I did so sparingly. I wanted her to self determine.
Hello! what’s this, mammalian life, warm blooded, adequate life-spans, enlarged brain cavities, appendages to manipulate their environment. This life-form would bare closer scrutiny. Man as it became known, has been a real rush. It developed incredibly fast, as these things go. I was impressed, the Earth had done well. She wore all her species like jewels dotting her skin. But she somehow knew that these busy creatures would please me most because of their intellect.
I enjoy creatures that can conceptualize me. If for know other reason to marvel at how they worshipped me. But this worship came from the fear of their own mortality. I haven’t witnessed this level of awareness often. And this worshipping thing became trite and I lost interest. But humanity had good ideas and true creativity. Indeed the art, music and passion they displayed reminded me of myself. Indeed Earth had done well in rearing this offspring.
Earth had learned one very important lesson from me--Patience. But I wondered about her wisdom as I watched this human life proliferate, and to have an ever increasing deleterious impact on the Earth. Indeed, the nature of some of these rapid changes occurred at a scale mirroring some of my cataclysmic events. While they apparently held the intellect to conceive of these global changes, they obviously lacked the wisdom to moderate their tinkering. How could they know otherwise, they are so young.
So I watched my Earth struggle with man, and was proud to see her nudge man with subtle reminders of the folly of their ways. She made subtle hints about the consequences of their waste and abuses. I scoffed at how they seemed to tolerate it in their own environment. Indeed they breathed it in their own air, and bathed in their own seas. And Earth started to have trouble as the air and water changed. She fell behind and things got out of control very quickly. And I'm thinking it's time for me to help my Earth.
I looked around space at the comets and asteroids and wondered if I should provide a nudge to help the earth out. I wondered if perhaps it was time for a calamity. I would just change the trajectory of a large enough object. Oh, I don’t like doing this, but Earth is a real gem. I’m wondering if I should do something more direct to my grandchildren, these humans. But they have such a collective tendency towards hysteria. It is right to let Earth sort this out. It is after all, her body, her children. Earth will, still be beautiful, even if she had a yellowish tint of sulfur dioxide in her sky. But I am partial to the blue of water molecules.
Moving on to planetoid (P27421203523.3523.264623). It is a lifeless sphere…..
The knife's handle protruded from his abdomen. In the dim light from the doorway, she knelt beside her rescuer and looked beyond the grey speckled beard at the eyes that she instantly recognized. To her horror it was Kevin lying and bleeding next to her.
For Alice the night started out as so many others had. She left work at 5:30 and hurried to meet some friends in the Old Port. As usual the bars and shops were filled with people enjoying one of summer's last gasps before autumn's cool breezes started blowing from off the Atlantic. She met two other women in Gritty McDuff's, famous as a local microbrewery and pub. After some gossip and a couple of drinks one woman left. Alice was never one to say good night early, so she and her other friend decided to visit another local bar. When she walked into Cadillac Jack's many of the men took notice. Even at 50, Alice's appearance always commanded attention. She was 5' 4" with auburn colored hair, hypnotic green eyes and a shape that men find irresistible. For those that may have missed her entrance, her vibrant personality and uninhibited laughter made it impossible for her to go unnoticed for long . Within minutes she had struck up conversations with several men.
In the corner bar stool, furthest from Alice, sat a man sporting a speckled brown beard. He was sipping the same beer, he had been nursing since his arrival shortly after Alice. For more than an hour he just sat and watched Alice dance and talk with one man and then another. At 10:30 the woman she was with, whispered something into her ear and left. Alice was left to fend for herself. But in this bar with so many men she was anything but alone.
He watched how each man she talked with seized any opportunity to brush up against her. He watched with jealousy and longing as their gazes were drawn from her finely sculptured lips towards her ample cleavage.
It had been sixteen years since they were lovers, and that wonderful experience had been all too brief for him. His mistake with her then was that he loved her too much, and she knew it. He once told her he'd do anything for her. She said, "Never tell anyone that." He now knew what she meant. If someone understands the power they have over another that person may be tempted to exploit it. Had he been exploited, perhaps. Their affair lasted for a few months but than winked out as stars flee from the approaching day. As the twinkle faded from his heart he reconciled himself to just watching her. He knew there was no room in her life for him. He knew he obsessed after her--after all she was the love of his life and he wouldn’t do anything that would make her hate him. He was careful not to reveal his obsession; she'd hate him for it. He couldn't live with that. It was hard enough to live without her. He certainly wouldn't do anything to hurt her. So he only watched her in public places, where his beard concealed his identity. On evenings like this, he would sit at some bar stool or behind her at a theater and quietly watch her and all too often remember. On these evenings, when she was finally ready to call it a night, he'd discretely and distantly follow her back to her car and make sure she was safe inside. At least in this small way he felt he was still looking out for her. He'd watch her each night pull her car away from the curb and it's tail lights dim in the distance. And each night he'd again be awash in the sadness of being apart. He saw beyond her façade of happiness. He knew better than anyone that she guarded herself against feeling too much for anyone. Many times he wanted to approach her and speak with her again, but it had been 5 years since they last spoke. He didn't want to upset her. He scratched the beard on his chin wanting to shave the hair, wanting to reveal himself to her. He wanted to return to the days when they laughed and talked for hours on end, and made love until the faint glimmer of the sun etched its pink and orange hues across the morning sky.
So many years before, his love for her had turned his life upside down. Since her, he couldn't love anyone else and found life cold and meaningless. Falling in love with her hadn't taken long. But it was taking forever for him to learn how to live a happy life without her. His greatest problem was he was certain she wasn't happy. If only she was happy with her life than he thought it would be easier to let her go. She walked up to the bar and took the stool next to his. She smiled and said, "Hello!" But he only nodded, never taking his eyes from his beer. He could feel his face going flush and was again thankful for the concealment of the beard. She sipped her cocktail and struck up a conversation with the man on her other side. He listened to her but only focused on the song of her voice. He remembered all the secret phone calls, her suggestive, sensual talk and her coy, girlish laughter. He remembered the cottage by the sea where she came to visit him. He remembered all those wonderful times that they held each other in their arms. All of that was before he began to ask her how she felt. When he began to look for more from her than love making she began to offer less of herself. Sex was easy for her but love was very difficult. He knew that then, but felt that if he could keep them together than his love and devotion would work through this barrier. The dream never materialized.
She thanked the man who payed her tab and then he watched her leave. He nodded to the bartender and left her a generous tip for he felt guilty for nursing the one beer. He walked to the door, and stood out on the sidewalk. She had slipped out of sight. He wasn't certain where she may have left her car, but she was a creature of habit and he knew where she commonly parked. He started to walk down towards Commercial Street, near the docks and the harbor. It was late in Portland, the night’s fog had rolled in, and these popular streets were quiet. He listened to the clop of shoes on distant cobblestones and smiled, knowing from the gait and the confident stride that it was her. He heard a muffled scream and his heart raced. Like a sprinter at the start, he rushed from dimly lit street into an alley. He saw a shadowy figured slammed against a dumpster at the back of the ally. In horror, he knew it was was Alice, she was in trouble. As he raced towards them, he cry for help cut through his own fear, as the blaring fog horn from Portland Head Light. He threw himself at the taller of two figures and wrestled the man off her. He threw two solid blows to the man's stomach before the blade entered his abdomen. The assailant ran off down the ally and the bearded man slumped to his knees and rolled onto his side. Then he heard her shouts for help.
An intense white light engulfed him and beckoned him forward. In the distance, he heard voices and shouts, but they were barely discernible, growing fainter, further away. Ahead, towards the light was the future, behind was the pain of his past, yet he heard one voice that made him linger. "Kevin, please come back, it's me!!!!" The love he still felt for her surged through him and he knew he could fight his way back, but at the same time he knew his pain would just surface again. "Kevin, I do love you", she whispered into his ear. As Kevin stepped into the light, he thought one last thought about her. "Alice, I love you. I'll wait for you on this side where you won't be afraid."
The stillness of this early Saturday morning was broken only by the faint hum of the computer's fan. Poised on the monitor's off-white screen was the blinking cursor, never yielding, never tiring, as it prompted him for a response. On the screen, ready to transmit, was his response to the question:
Why are you feeling down today, RainMan?
He re-read the passage he'd typed in. In a flash the screen scrolled and a new line appeared before his eyes: Are you still there?
Again that accusatory finger of light blinked, goading him to press enter. Mark bit absentmindly into his lower lip as he held his finger above the enter key. On the screen was the phrase he'd typed:
It’s complicated, but I’ve lost my reason for living. He looked away from the computer and keyboard, into the darkness of the surrounding room and pressed enter. The message traveled out over the phone lines almost instantly appearing on the computers of six other people that participated in this weekly Mental Health Forum.
In Venice, California, Melissa, who used the name CA_GIRL while she was on line, read RainMan's words. Melissa used her desktop computer to reach out to others to help fill the empty hours of her life. She had many friends on InterNet ranging from people she shared common interests with to those she'd given her love to. RainMan, was the person she'd bared her soul to. She lowered her head under the weight of his words, and a tear slowly traveled down the familiar course of her face.
She met RainMan seven months earlier, when hoping to find the cure for an abusive online affair, she sent a plea out over the net Several people responded, but she found in RainMan’s response an apparent honesty and genuine concern that was unlike any a man had ever shown her. They became each other's confidants, friends distanced by an entire country, but who were closer to each other than they were to their own families. Recently, RainMan had written that he was planning on meeting his on line romantic interest, and judging from his apparent state of mind, it hadn’t gone well, but she couldn't fathom the depth of his depression or what he might do.
While the others looked on, CA_GIRL began typing: RainMan, your meeting with Carol Ann didn’t go well?
How could you tell? No, it didn’t go well, CA_GIRL.
At her home in Chicago, overlooking the lake, Dr. Roberta Michaels, Dr. Rob as she was known on line, had been participating in this group of distressed night owls for the past few weeks. Her divorce was final. Her husband also a prominent Chicago psychiatrist had traded her in for a newer model. The presence of her graying hair, cellulose, and varicose veins made her reluctant to start dating. She knew they were also the reasons her husband left her. So she sought the comfort and anonymity of socializing on line. Like everyone that used the net, she first had come to know these acquaintances by their online names and profiles, but these were often misleading.
RainMan’s change in personality was apparent and curious to her. In earlier conversations, he had always appeared bright, outspoken, and a little cold.
She began, RainMan would you like to share what happened with us.
It’s hard for me.
She continued, We’re all your friends and willing to help you just as you’ve helped us?
DeeDee pressed her size nine finger onto the enter key. Her message left her home in Baton Rouge at the same time that Tom & Sue's message arrived from Tennessee. Both messages asked the same question, Who is Carol Ann?
DeeDee, never one to mind her own business, jumped in, Rainman, we've all shared our skeletons; now it's time for you to pay-up!
RainMan began composing his response; Several months ago I met this woman online. We found we shared a certain kismet. She was witty and wonderful, interesting and imaginative. We created fantasies and touched each other's souls. We finally made arrangements to meet. That was last weekend. It didn't go well.
From their small town home in Tennesse, Sue spoke to Tom who was brushing his teeth, getting ready for bed, "It seems like it's RainMan's evening tonight." Tom mumbled something. "You know I can't hear you over the water. RainMan has a life after all, he apparently met an on line romance. Another thing he hasn't mentioned to us. And she must have dumped him."
Tom walked over to the computer and tenderly kissed Sue on the back of neck, "Not everyone will be as lucky as we were."
Roberta, dug deeper, Yes RainMan, again you disguised your emotions in your pro's, it's more than that isn't it? You can't dismiss it that easily can you?
Mark bit down harder on his lip, We had an affair, of the CyberSex variety. It went on for a couple of months. She was everything I ever wanted. I learned about her family, her passions, her interests. I wanted it to become real, to hold her, to smell her perfume, to look deep into her eyes and see what she saw. I was ready to lay down my life for her, sight unseen. She was equally as interested in getting together. We met along the shores of the Charles River in Boston. She was as beautiful physically as she was spiritually. I was immediately self-conscious, I'm plain at best. In just minutes though, she had placed me at ease with a kiss. I remember how she said, with a hint of sarcasm in her voice, "Now that wasn't as great as you thought it would be?" She was right, that first one wasn't, but we kissed some more and I started to feel a passion and love that I had never felt before. We spent the weekend together.
Go on RainMan, what happened? Roberta keyed.
Mark responded, She boarded the plan and flew away. She said, we were just friends.
Dr. Rob typed, RainMan, everyone has to learn to deal with loss. It's a normal part of life. In time the pain of her memory will vanish and you'll find happiness with another.
RainMan jumped in, Oh Dr. Rob, that's what I keep telling myself. But her face is everywhere I turn. Her laughter is in the darkness around my bed. Her eyes haunt my dreams. She was everything I wanted, everything I ever dreamed of.
RainMan, Dr. Rob began. Perhaps that's the key. She was your dream, a fantasy, dreams are better left in our sleep. We awaken trouble when we try to make them our reality. Just give it time. Look everyone I've got to sign off--busy day tomorrow. That is if you're doing all right RainMan?
Mark was shaking like a wet kitten, as much from the fear in confiding in these people as the kitten would be from the cold. Sure, Good Night. It's late here on the East Coast, RainMan said. He quickly left Internet. The modem clicked off and he was alone again, cut off from world. He returned to his journal. On the screen was the following passage:
I hear her sweet voice once again echoing through my memory, "Mark, I do have feelings for you, but not now." She said she had things to resolve in her own life. At the airport she kissed me good-bye. That kiss could have been from my sister kissing me good night, for all the passion she mustered. I remember telling her that I couldn't help but feel that was the last kiss we'd ever have. She looked at me, forced a smile, and said, "We'll be friends and I'll always remember you."
He added one more sentence, In the abscense of light, there is only darkness.... He quickly hit the power switch, killing the modem and burying the trail of words on the screen. The powerless screen glowed momentarily than faded, the room grew black.
Melissa was eager for the session, she sent several messages to RainMan but he hadn't responded. That was unlike him. She signed onto the net an hour early and joined a role playing game for a time before she entered the Mental Health Forum. She was the first to sign in. She waited for the others to join her. One by one the members logged in.
Hi DeeDee, how are you and the kids? , Melissa asked.
Kids! is that what they are. I sometimes wish my husband had been awarded them. They're still doing poorly in school and my oldest was caught with cocaine. He spent a night in juvenile hall. I'm glad he's still a minor.
Melissa watched as Tom & Sue joined the group, Hi guys whose driving the computer tonight?
You've got us both, but it's Tom at the helm and Sue is lying next to me in a very tantalizing pose. The description of that is better left in some of the more adult rooms... .What's our topic tonight?
Dr. Rob greeted each of them. Then asked where RainMan was. She explained that he'd sent her a rather cryptic message . Melissa wrote, I wrote him several times; he didn't respond. I don't mind saying I'm a little concerned. This just isn't like him.
CA_Girl, Tom began, maybe he's just on vacation. Last week he sounded down I'm sure everything is fine.
Melissa wrote, He didn't go into the detail with you that he did with me regarding his romance. He really went overboard with this woman. It was sort of fairy tale for him. He was planning to live the rest of his life with her. I suggested he was just fantasizing about her, and he should start more slowly, but he wouldn't hear of it. He's such a nice guy. I feel sorry it didn't work out for him. What was in his message to you Dr. Rob?
Let me send it to you. A few moments later Melissa's computer beeped signaling she had a new EMail. She read her it:
You just don't seem to understand. You're not the first woman I've had trouble communicating with....This is something I wrote for her a few months ago. It will show you what she means to me.
If every person has one wish in life, I would not waste mine on wealth or fame.
I would honestly wish to spend my life with you. I just made that wish.
Silently the epitaph reads...
In wisdom we are poor.
In turmoil we are rich.
In death we are silent.
Roberta continued to write, Look does anyone know who he really is. I'd like to call him. How about you CA_GIRL?
Although most of the participants had letters from him he hadn't divulged his true identity to anyone. That wasn't uncommon for people on the Net who distanced themselves from their lives by putting on the mask of a new personae. As characters in an 18th century masquerade ball they were then able to move about the affair, unencumbered by connections, safe in their own anonymity. The masks, they chose to wear, were their on line names. The costumes, the colorful words they used to communicate. In the morning, they were again themselves, the excitement of the night before just a memory.
Melissa finished reading her mail. With her concern fueled she wrote, I don't know his name either. Maybe we could check with the administrator of his FreeNet.
DeeDee broke in, Let me do that. I'm a hacker anyway. I know my way around InterNet.
They decided to reconvene the following Night. CA_GIRL, took it upon herself to write to RainMan again informing him of their concern.
DeeDee, a teacher in Baton Rouge, began composing her request for information. Before she went to bed she placed it on the System Operator's bulletin board. She had third period off and from the terminal in the teacher's lounge she logged into InterNet to look for the response. She was instantly engrossed by the computer, it commanded all of her attention. So she missed the cruel comments by the teacher's aid's. In this world of bits and bytes she could be as young and petit as her imagination allowed. Online she was queen, measured not by her girth but by her wit and knowledge of the InterNet.
Royality or not the SysOps are Gods, the response read, It is against policy to provide the information you requested.
That evening the group met. Of the Tom & Sue duo, Tom was at the keyboard. He smiled at Sue who was perched like a fragile hummingbird on his lap. Then turned back to the glow and continued to type, So DeeDee what did you find out?
I found out that all men are assholes, except you Tom. The SysOp wasn't any help.
You all probably remember that I'm a former police officer. I can probably pull some strings and get more information.
DeeDee reflected for a moment, Yes Tom please do that. And by-the-way how are you doing, with the memory of that boy and that other baggage?
Oh fine, DeeDee. Thank you for asking.
Tom fought back the tremors and glanced at the unopened bottle of scotch on his bookshelf. Sue craddled him in her arms and listened again because the police psychiatrist had insisted that it was good for him to open up.
"It's been three years and I can still vividly remember that night.", his voice quivered. "The sky was orange from the halogen street lights and their hum was deafening. I looked up and felt the cold drizzle on my face. The rain sizzled on the gun barrel and this steam rose and mixed with my breath. At my feet, was this boy and so much blood. He was just kid with a toy gun and a bottle stolen from the package store down the street. I remember how the only movement from him was the steam rising from him came from his chest cavity." In a determined voice Tom said, "I still have that damn memory, but at least I don't need that crutch anymore."
He clung to Sue and she pressed herself against him.
Sue whispered in his ear, "Let's go to bed.". She let her nightgown slip to the floor. Tom quickly said good night to the group. In the moonlight, Sue moved to the bed and climbed in pulling the sheets back inviting Tom in.
A second weekly session began, and still no word from RainMan. Melissa tapped on the table. Tom reported that his friends had convinced the administrator of the urgency of their questioning. It turned out that the information RainMan had filed with the FreeNet was bogus. Their sleuthing had turned out be a dead end.
DeeDee typed, I don't know where we can go from here. If we knew more about him.
Tom wrote, Maybe we could find him through someone else on the Internet, maybe from the woman who dumped him. Does anyone know someone else he communicates with?
Melissa typed, Everyone I'm going to check something that RainMan sent me several months ago.
I'll be back shortly. She viewed the documents stored under RainMan. After a few minutes she found what she was looking for. It was dated several months earlier and it was his first love poem to Carol Ann. He had sent it Melissa because he wanted her advice on whether it was appropriate.
What do you think about this CA_GIRL, she's into gardening so I wrote her poem about my feelings for her using a rose metaphor.
The rose is singular, lovely, and unique. To flower it must be properly tended. The rewards of care and concern are the joys of watching this rose bloom. To enjoy a rose breathe its scent deeply, carefully study each pedal, and feel the cool dampness of its leaves. Before you can fathom a rose gently touch its thorns, observe their sharpness, understand their points, and then the rose may be carefully held without pricking a careless finger. The rose is so fragile, yet its beauty surpasses all others. There can never be too much tending when caring for a rose.
Melissa returned to the group, She's into gardening, maybe we can search gardening groups and make posting on gardening bulletin boards. I'm not really that good on InterNet, but maybe together we could track her down.
DeeDee instructions were succinct on how each of them would conduct their own search. She instructed Melissa to enter forums and how she might located Carol Ann. Tom & Sue and Dr Rob would post bulletins on any appropriate bulletin board. While DeeDee would search the various FreeNets. FreeNets grouped users together into common directories, and served as the address for EMail. She didn't hold out much hope that they would find Carol Ann through a FreeNet; because they're millions of computers on InterNet, and DeeDee knew only too well that most of the users gain access through universities or corporations which didn't publish user lists. This was worse than a needle in the haystack. In this case the needle was invisible and the haystack was potentially the whole world.
Melissa liked the assignment, satisfied that something was being done. Her task involved logging into channels involved in gardening. She was an assistant editor for a cult blog "Solitude", which was a women's blog geared to women, for woman, and about women with women. Her interest in lesbian affairs surpassed the professional. She kept this part of life secret to most of her on screen friends and family. After two weeks of searching it seemed that everyone was losing interest, but Melissa still took the time. She owed it to RainMan. He had commiserated with her about her last love. Unlike most her family, he didn't question her bisexuality or seem uncomfortable writing her. He was honest when it was appropriate; He skirted delicate subjects when they’d do harm. She wanted him back.
It was Tuesday, hot and dry, typical of southern California. Melissa's newest friend couldn't stay the night. Her husband was back in town. Boy she needed to talk to RainMan about this one. She sat in front of the open window the lace curtains delicately fluttered in the breeze. Her chest was bare and she looked at the sheen of perspiration between her breasts. God she was hot. She been skirting different forums for hours. Finally, she entered one called, Victory Garden.
The conversation was dull. Too much nitrogen can actually stunt the growth of tubers.
Her mind began to wander. She looked out the window of her darkened room at the kids on the corner and smelled the pungent aroma of pot drifting up to her. She felt some rap tune's heavy base through the floor. She was starting to feel quite bored and tired, when she noticed that someone named Carol Ann had joined the conversation. Melissa's heart skipped a beat like she just swerved her car to avoid a dog. She couldn't believe her eyes. There in the darkness was Carol Ann thanking everyone for the discussion but also bidding everyone a good night.
Melissa would have to hurry. She needed to know who this woman was and was she the right woman, before she signed off.
Dn't go Carol Ann!!!, she typed quickly. She didn't even have time to fix the typo. Please don't go. I need to talk to you.
She didn't want to mention RainMan at first. She didn't want to scare her away since this was a public forum and who knows who might be looking over her screen.
Hello CA_GIRL, have we talked before?, Carol Ann wrote. She was a little surprised about the seeming urgency.
Wow Carol Ann thanks for not going. We may share a common friend. Is this a good time to talk. Melissa was still searching, she couldn't certain if this was the right Carol Ann. I'd like to go private if that's all right.
Carol Ann began. Well I usually don't go private on the first date but since we have a mutual friend. They set up a private channel. This gave Melissa the freedom to discuss RainMan.
Okay Carol Ann, Do you know someone named RainMain?
Carol Ann looked at her screen. Her eyes dropped from the screen and her eyes moistened. She would play it carefully. Yes, I know RainMan, she began. How is he doing?
Melissa typed, We were hoping you could tell us. He's sort of missing. It's been several weeks since he's written to any of his friends on line. We've been...concerned.
Why are you concerned CA_GIRL?
Melissa was reluctant to explain in more detail. She went on, We just wanted to call him. And I thought you might have his number.
Who is 'We' and how did you get my name? What did he tell you?
Melissa, now protective of RainMan and reading the belligerence in that last line was careful to suppress her own anger not wanting Carol Ann to end the conversation:
He mentioned he was an on line friend of yours. We are a group of his friends that get together Friday nights on the Cleveland Freenet in the Mental Health Forum. We talk about life issues. He's been rather depressed and I just wanted to cheer him up. Since he's not responding to his EMail I thought a call might be appropriate.
Talking about life issues!, Carol Ann wrote. Look CA_GIRL, if he's such a good friend of yours why don't you have his phone number. I've got to go. Good night!!!.
Wait...., CA_GIRL typed. In the darkness of her California home she watched the blinking cursor and that pale white screen. She was overwhelmed by a sense of emptiness, failure. She knew their last link to RainMan was gone.
Across the country, in her splendid sea-side home. Carol Ann fought back the tears that had been building. The light from the computer cast shadows against the far wall, these shadows were her friends. They didn't demand anything from her. They didn't cause her any pain. They were unlike Mark, who demanded so much, he demanded love. She struggled with an EMail to him:
The weekend in Boston was perfect, you're perfect. I want to explain better what happened. I fell in love with you, and that is what I'm afraid of. I've loved before and was hurt very badly. I'm just too afraid to love again--to be hurt again. Mark, I'm so sorry, but now is not the right time.
She looked at the message on her screen, her vision blurred by tears. She nodded her head from side to side. Then reached for the power switch and turned the computer off. The message was lost.
On the following Friday, Carol Ann decided to find the group. She was not particularly skilled on Internet. It took her quite a while to find her way there. It was 12:30 A.M. and the group had been in session since 11:00 P.M. She watched the banter. She noticed that CA_GIRL was talking heavily with someone named DeeDee. There was apparently an issue of sex discrimination at the school where DeeDee taught. She thought this might be a good topic for her to jump in on. She had first hand experience.
She began to type, I know just how you feel, DeeDee" She was reluctant to press enter. She wasn't sure what kind of reception she'd receive. Some of these channels became hostile when others entered them uninvited. Other's simply grew uncomfortably quiet. She hit the enter key. The message traveled out over the net. Moments later various greetings flooded in.
Tom jumped in, Hi Carol Ann, we weren't holding out any hope for you. But Glad you could make it.
CA_GIRL's greeting read, I'm delighted you found your way here.
Dr. Rob, described the nature of their concern for RainMan and asked for RainMan's phone number. In a matter of moments it was decided that CA_GIRL (Melissa), should call Mark. She dialed the number. It was almost 1:00 A.M. on Saturday morning in Portland Maine when the phone rang. The answering machine answered on the fifth ring. Melissa heard for the first time Mark's deep masculine voice, he sounded like a radio personality..
She spoke, "Hi Mark, sorry to call so late. This is CA_GIRL, my name is really Melissa, we're all interested in hearing what's going on with you please come join us again. She left her number and told him to call anytime." She hung up the phone and reported back to the group.
Tom interrupted, Well it's a good sign that his answering machine is still active. I doubt that his family or the authorities would want a dead man's voice answering the phone.
The group was ready to break up for the evening when RainMan entered the forum with his particular flair. Scrolling down on everyone's screen came another of RainMan's poems.
Ships At Sea
Warm breezes rustled the locks of children,
On those long summer days of youth.
When each day born a brilliant orb,
That moved through a sea of blue .
The children's cheerful voices rang-out,
Above the din of day-to-day.
Each time a cloud resembled a ship,
That sailed by on its way.
Those clouds, like ships, steered no special course,
As they winded their way through the blue.
The days grew shorter, The ships steered straighter,
Not long til they sailed out of sight.
Summer's brilliance waned, the wind, just a memory
Of ships at sail at sea.
Those ships from this shore are seen no more.
But on a distant shore they may....
As the other's welcomed RainMan back, Roberta looked over the text of the poem.
She wrote, Feeling better RainMan?
Ah! Dr. Rob and Carol Ann too, I suspect Doctor, that your the master mind behind this conspiracy, Mark quipped.
Let's just say we all had a part. You had us a little nervous.
Oh ya, that's me. Let's just say I've been a little self-indulgent. Now my feet are once again firmly under me. Hey Carol Ann, how's tricks?
Mark said good night to the group in general, promising to return next week. He took a moment and care to say one last farewell. Thanks Carol Ann, take care my love and look out for yourself. With his usual flair he sent one last message, When love is opened it must be consumed without reservation or it will sour like milk.
He watched the others say good night. His computer beeped signaling a new personal message. He was surprised to see it was from CA_GIRL.
We still haven't been formally introduced, I'm Melissa. I'm 5'4" tall, a petite blond, with blue eyes, "Very Sexy". Would you like to get to know me better?
Mark smiled a bit and decided he'd have to sleep on this invitation. He'd reply tomorrow. He switched the power off and that blinking cursor disappeared. He slept well.
He was my closest friend. As kids we started our own informal bicycle club. He had that inexplicable way of drawing people to him. Our ranks grew to six. Some days we'd race, John usually won. On weekends we'd ride out to the lake or over to Pleasant Mountain, and hike the fire-tower. After school we'd play John's version of hide and seek. We'd break into two teams. Each group would pedal away from the other. After fifteen minutes both groups would turn back towards town. Our goal was to reach the grassy mall in front of the Junior High. That was our flag. We could either race there, hoping there were no spy's lurking. Or become a spy and stay behind enemy lines, lurking in the Alley between Allen's Pharmacy and Roy's Barber Shop. John was particularly patient and deadly accurate. If someone on the opposing team saw you first, and shouted out your name; you were dead. This was John's favorite game. But the golden ring would often change for him. Sometimes, the urge would seize him and we'd just keep pedaling. Leisurely, we'd pedal by the fields of corn that swayed in the late afternoon's breeze. We would see old Mr. Petersen, stooped over his potatoes, picking off the potato bugs one by one. Then we'd exchange hellos. Soon afterwards our chests would heave as we labored up the steep hills of the Burnham Road, only to be rewarded by the rich scent of Mr. Lovell's cow dung and the sight of his diary cattle. We oftentimes wouldn't make it back to our houses until nightfall. And I'd find my dinner sitting cold on my plate.
John came into his own in High School. He lettered in: cross-country, basketball, and track. He brought that same dogged persistent to running for class president that had led him to two consequtive triple C cross-country championships. He established himself as our class valedictorian. And I was his lab partner in Mr. Whitney's Biology class. I remember watching John act like a mad scientist transplanting frog organs into last year's overly dissected cat. Oh, I would have bet anything John would have been a scientist. I also thought our friendship would have lasted for life. But Anne stepped in the way of all that.
John was a thoughtful Casanova, a womanizer with a heart. He dated many girls but had the uncanny way of making everything seem all right when they broke up. I envied his knack. For three years I had labored over asking Anne out. John was very encouraging but I just couldn't get up the nerve. She was a close friend one of the few girls in our click. But I hadn't the guts to ask out. Although, we could talk freely about almost anything. A week before our Senior Prom Anne cornered me in afternoon home room.
"Hi Tom!" she said. Her dark hair and eyes searing into my own.
"Hiya Anne." I said, sensing her playful tone.
She continued, "The Senior Prom is coming up. Are you going?" She didn't wait for an answer. I was just wondering if you wanted to go."
"Ah...yes!" I felt my face growing flush wondering if she was about to ask me out!
"Great!" she said, "Leslie isn't going either and she'd really like to have you ask her." Anne said, clueless of my fractured heart.
At the prom, I danced with Leslie, but I watched John and Anne. How long had that been going on? And damn him he knew, only too well, my feelings for Anne.
After the prom, I wouldn't speak to John. And I couldn't speak to Anne. That summer came and went and many others passed. Through college, I biked a lot less frequently. And when I did, I biked alone. I never hurried, because I was never going anywhere. Although, I always went very far. After college, I got an invitation to go to the their wedding. I searched deeply inside myself and found my heart was still beating. Their wedding was lovely. John was handsome in his tux. He looked like the President on state business. Anne was regal and beautiful, just as I remembered her. Her alabaster skin was caressed by her dark hair that fell about her shoulders. And those dark penetrating eyes seared into me as we danced, for the very first time.
"Tom I'm so glad you decided to come. I was afraid I'd lost your friendship. John told me about your feelings. If I'd only known."
Embarrassed but prepared, I began, "Ah Anne, I'm no longer the shy boy I once was. I don't keep things like that hidden now. So I'll tell you, you are both very special people to me. I wish you all the happiness imaginable." I continued smiling, " And if that bastard ever hurts you just drop him and I'll be happy to step in."
After the wedding they moved back to town. John apprenticed in his father's law office and studied for his law degree. Anne became a teacher at the high school. I worked as a programmer. We saw each other often. Each summer John and I would make a bike excursion. Over the years traveled through the English countryside. Another trip was through, or rather, over Colorado. But that summer we'd planned to go to the Canadian Maritimes, in particular Cape Breton. It was my suggestion. I'd done the research. There was a 200 mile loop around the Northern part of the island called the Cabot Trail. It sounded fantastic.
He picked me up at 8 A.M. I placed my bike, a Specialized next to his Miyata. This is like parking a silver Porsche next to a blue Camery. John could have afforded any bike in the world, but was the most unpretentious person I've ever known. I was certainly not above a little status symbol. Besides, maybe with my new bike and the steady riding I'd been doing I could finally keep up with him. It was an eleven hour drive to Cape Breton. Normally, we'd talk each other's heads off, catching up on our lives, but not today. John's focus was on the road when he drove. And when we switched driving, he turned his head towards the window and his thoughts miles away, as if he was trying to resolve the riddle in the miles and miles of ochre that the Trans Canada Highway passed through.
"Okay what's up? You're so quiet. How's Anne?"
John looked at me, a stream of tears flowed silently down his face. "Tom I fucked things up pretty badly."
I was dead quiet and shocked. Here was the most able person in the world married to the best woman I knew. I hadn't seen him cry since we were kids.
He continued, stammering now. "I had an affair with the new paralegal. It really didn't mean anything but Anne found out."
I could feel my brow furrow in disbelieve. "You fucking idiot! I don't know what to say." I could feel myself shaking my head from side to side.
"I know. I know! It just happened. Now I'm going to lose Anne. I can't function at the office. I haven't told anyone else there and Cindy, isn't about to quit. I told her it was over and she refused to leave. She continues to flirt with me, and threatens me with sexual harassment and unfair dismal if I let her go. And Anne, she just scoffs at the whole thing....She threw me out last week."
"Jesus John, I can't believe this. How could this have happened? Oh don't answer." I said, picturing Cindy from my visit to his office the month before. I easily visualized her long legs and short black skirt, and her loose blouse which opened invitingly as she bent over John's desk, as she straightened his papers. "You Bastard."
"I know." He said. Then silence fell over us again.
Soon after we crossed the causeway onto Cape Breton. We both rented rooms, in an Inn. Dinner's conversation flirted between Ann, Cindy, his work and our trip. I concluded, what he and Anne already had, that he needed some time to think. I knew this trip would provide him ample opportunity. I vowed to myself to be the best listener I could be and stop my criticism.
I slept soundly. We were bike camping from here on out and this was the last bed I was to sleep in for the next three days. We woke early. The sun cut through the early morning clouds in a blaze of red. We climbed back into our car and headed another 30 miles to Margaree Fork. It was the closest access to the Cabot Trail Loop. Off came my Specialized glimmering in the sun. I pressed it over my shoulder. I said, "It's like a good woman, beautiful, fast, and only 22 pounds."
John leaned his 29 pound Miyata against the car. "Ya! you pedophile you. Funny, when you pay more for a bike you get less. And I'll still get there first with my trusty old $500 Miyata."
We loaded our bikes, decking both of them out with side panniers, front and rear packs and sleeping bags bungied to the rear rack. John lashed the tent down.
"Hey, give me the honors of carrying the tent." I volunteered.
"No, that's okay. The added weight will increase the pain and there's nothing like pain to cleanse the soul." He adjusted his helmet. "Which way skipper?" He asked. "Hell, It's a circle I guess it doesn't matter."
And like that he was off. "Fine, knock yourself out!" I shouted after him. I caught him some miles down the road, on the first hill. I smoothly shifted through my gears, as I passed him. Shouting over my shoulder, "Got to love these thumb index shifters." K knew he had to drop his hand down to his bike's stem to shift his old style hunt and seek shifters.
I had the need for speed so I pedaled hard. After, several minutes I no longer heard his labored breathing and shifting. I supposed I left him in the dirt. I pushed hard, bent to reach Cheticamp, 15 miles away, first. I flew down the grade into town. With my exertion I was like a hot desert wind, chasing the cool St. Lawrence's breeze away. Ahead, I noticed an overlook and pulled off the road expecting to wait minutes for John. As I skidded to a stop. I heard another set of skidding tires immediately behind me.
"You've been there all along." I gasped.
John smiled at me. "I could tell you thought you were alone. Thanks for breaking the wind for me. I've been tucked behind you for the last several miles. You really need to get a biking mirror for your sunglasses."
Cheticamp was the tour book's version of a fishing village. Small, white houses with dirt driveways lined with lobster traps. Each home had piles of lobster pots stacked like candy colored firewood against the white clapboard houses, that cried for some paint. And the lobster boats, some still about in the harbor, spoke of the hard lives that their skippers lead. We both drank from our water bottles, ate our carbohydrates, and took in the scenery.
"How's your spirit?" I asked.
"Still in need of cleansing. How far are we going today?"
"Well, John! I had planned on going counter-clockwise. But thanks to you my plans are all shot."
"Good, I hate plans. He pulled out a map. Let's see Pleasant Bay is another 40 miles. That would make it about 100km day. Let's shoot for there. But wait, there's a campground between these two mountains, MacKenzie and North. I'll meet you there."
"You're a crazy fool John." I put my water bottle in it's cage and pushed off the rock I was leaning against. I felt the gentle touch of a sprinkle against my hand as I gripped the handle bar. "Looks like it's going to rain." I said. But John was already attacking French Mountain and it's rise of 1500 feet. I was quickly into my granny gear, losing ground to John with each stroke he made. The clouds moved in fast. The deep blue of morning was fastly replaced by a tin colored cloud layer. The sprinkles became heavy cold rain as I climbed. I stopped at a sign denoting the high point on the island. I removed my helmet, feeling the cold sting of sleet against my forehead. The clouds were descending and visibility was only a few yards. I heard a car's engine as it moved through the cloud. I saw it's headlights, just feet ahead of me. I pulled myself off the road and walked to a nearby emergency shelter. A white shroud engulfed me. The wind had all but stopped. I sat on the floor of the lean-to, provided by the Canadian National Park Service. My feet dangled over the edge, and I listened to the sound of the rain and sleet on the tin roof. At times the sleet clanked against the metal like a flurry of fingers beating out gibberish on a thousand keyboards. I watched the torrents of water rush underneath my feet as I dangled them from the floor. On a nearby krummholz, bent over and stunted by the altitude and fearful winds. A lone crow screeched out a cry for help. My thoughts were drawn to John. Somewhere down the road, bent on cleansing his soul, he was peddling in the rain. I thought of Anne and their marriage. I remembered my joking promise to her that I'd take John's place. But, I also knew that the attraction I'd once had for her was gone. That my love for her was a love for them. Now, more than anything I wanted their happiness. More than anything I wanted the two of them back together.
It didn't look like it was going to stop raining. But the clouds had lifted off the pavement. I climbed back on my steed and set off to catch John. The downside of French Mountain was dangerous on a good day, steep and windy. But with my rain soaked breaks it was treacherous. Fortunately, it was a short initial descent. After a minute or so it leveled out into a long high plateau that resembled the artic tundra. Ahead I saw the Miyata leaning against a sign that identified this region as an alpine bog. There was a walk-way that wound through the bog and at some distance, I noticed John, decked out in his white rain gear, leaning against a granite crag that sheltered him from the rain. Transfixed, he looked like a marble statue of a sailor wistfully looking out to sea. I tried to imagine what would be inscribed on the plaque.
The sea becons to all men. She entices them to pass between her verdant shores. She graces those of stout heart, quick minds, and rich souls, with smooth pasage. But of lesser men she frowns and will keep all the rest.
I was torn between approaching him and waiting for him in the rain. I didn't see any other shelter. I opted to head out.
The rain stopped by the time I reached Mt. MacKenzie. I'd been pedaling for 6 hours, most of which was in the rain. I was thankful that the late afternoon sun had enough energy to filter through the clouds and give me a glimpse of its shimmering reflection on the water below. I passed several other groups of bikers. I nodded to each of them as I passed. Under their labored breath, they shouted encouragement and praised me for my strength. But I knew that somewhere behind me John was pressing. And when John presses.... I made it to the top. Another pull off. There was a couple, who were riding a motorcycle. Strange the camaraderie we shared. Julie and Kent. were from Moncton and on their honeymoon. They had been rained on as I had. They were enjoying the splendor as I was. Together our eyes followed the road I'd climbed as it traveled from the sea, across the valley floor, and up the road that wound it's way along the ravine. We could see the bicyclists as they walked and pushed, pedaled and road their bikes.
Julie commented first, "And see there's another standing up as he rides."
"Yes, that's called tacking. He's pulling with his arms as he presses with his legs. It's common, what's uncommon is he's doing it fully loaded. "That's got to be my foolish friend."
"Why is it uncommon?", Julie asked.
"Oh, his feet are locked into an old fashion cage so he can pull up with one leg as he pushes down with the other. What is really difficult is he's maintaining his balance with all that extra weight. It's tugging at him from side to side. I'd never be able to balance and tack like that up a hill like this one."
I looked at my $1200 bike. My being in shape or not. This bike or not. If John's pressing I won't be able to stay ahead of him. And John was pressing very hard!
"It was great talking with you, but he's not going to slow down when he reaches to top, that's for sure. We still have about 15 more miles to go." I said as I started out.
I tucked my head down as I raced down the back of the Mountain. It was dry now. I leaned as hard as I could into the switchbacks. The wind whistled through the vents in my helmet. And my eyes started to water.
As I neared the plain below the trees became taller and denser and I found myself riding through the shadows. I had some trouble adjusting to the shadows. I must have wavered a little.
"Hold your line!" I heard John shout out. Just a foot behind my rear wheel. He had caught me again. I held my grip firmly and rode the edge of the road. He sailed by, his face glistening and head low to his handle bars. "About 8 more...", he gasped. I pushed hard trying to ride his wind break. But he had too much initial speed and was gone.
I road down the dirt entrance to the campground.. I raised my hands to the top of my curled handle bars, easing the strain on my lower back. It was the first time since my descent from MacKenzie. The campground was small. A toilet, no power. No running water. A shallow rock strewn stream meandered by, patient to reach it's home in the sea. John's Miyata seemed somehow different to me. It looked more like a classic '57 Chevy. But I knew the credit was due John. He had the tent just about up.
"You rode like the devil, back there." I said, as I pointed back at the looming mountain behind us.
"I am possessed." I want to reach the car tomorrow.
"What! We're only about 80 miles into this trip. We can't do 120 miles tomorrow. Over these mountains'."
"I can. And so can you! Besides there are only two more mountains, North and Smokey. We'll start early I'll carry your bag and the heavier gear in my panniers."
"What about our trip and site-seeing."
"I've got a wife I don't want to lose. I'm going back to resign from the firm. I can get another job. I'm going to crawl back to Anne and grovel at her feet."
"I can make it back just fine." I said. "If that's all I can do to help than that's the very least I'm willing to do."
The next day was pure hell. I managed 100 miles, that's 160 km. two mountains and another thunderstorm, but my knee started acting up. We got a room in Baddeck. I got ice for my knee. And John left his gear with me and pedaled fast and light the remaining twenty miles on my Specialized to get the car. The next evening we were back at home.
That was three years ago. Today, I was riding past Mr. Petersen's garden. He died sometime ago but his daughter lives there with her husband. They tend his garden well. I road up that long hill to Mr. Lovell's farm. It's a little less fragrant these days. His dairy business collapsed against competion with the big agribusiness. He is now semi-retired and earns extra income with a vegetable stand that he and his wife operate. I saw John and Anne's car, parked next to the stand. I took my helmet off and looked around for them. In the doorway to Mr. Lovell's barn I saw the two of them hand and hand. Little Jenny, she must be almost two now, was sitting in a pile of hay with a clutch of tiny cackling chickens about her. She was cackling too.
I walked towards them, "Mind if I intrude?"
I stood in the drafty foyer with plaster strewn about my feet. Dust danced on rays of sunlight from the broken window at the top of the stairs, beckoning me upwards. The stairs complained as I took one careful squeaky step after another. A board gave way. I reached for the banister. Its frail limb feebly quivered against my weight. I reached to the wall for support. Here the wallpaper clung like skin hanging from some horribly tortured soul. In the bedroom, only the springs of an old bed remained. I moved toward a cracked mirror and peered at its cataract of cloudy and wavy glass. The distorted image was not my own. It reflected the face of a young woman.
I gulped air and my heart pounded in my chest. I looked over my shoulder, but I was alone. Still, that face lingered in the glass. I reached out to the mirror, passing my hands through the years of dust that had accumulated. The face shimmered briefly and then faded away, replaced by my own. I stepped back from the mirror and backed into a rickety bureau that tilted to one side, hitting the wall with a clamor. I straighten it, as if its owner would be angry that I misplaced something. I felt compelled to open the drawer. Inside, looking as new as the last day of its use, was a diary. I lifted it up and began to thumb through the pages.It was horribly fascinating, an accounting of a young girl named Carolyn and how she was abused physically and mentally by her father. In fascination, I continued to read as I walked over to the easy chair. With each turn of a page, the horrors revealed themselves. The sun began to set, so I mindlessly turned on an electric lamp. Momentarily, my attention was drawn from the pages by a forgotten but familiar sound floating through the open window. But with my eyes still riveted on the pages, I read.
My dad came home tonight, drunk. He has been running whiskey for the bootlegger. He brings it to Portland most every night. And most every night, he comes home and beats mom and …I found myself crying as if remembering some forgotten pain of my own. I set the book down on the bed stand and needed fresh air from the window. That sound, I know that sound. I looked around the room. My God, this isn’t the room I’d entered! It was no longer run-down. I rushed over to the window. An old touring car, dad pulled in and a large man staggered out. I glanced at my hands on the window sill. They were small and youthful. What the…The mirror! I rushed over to the mirror. And there I was smiling. But I wasn’t smiling. Then the image faded. It was the young girl. I saw her horror, and the horror was mine.