Novella (Excerpt)

All of my life I’ve had these visions. Abrupt. Arresting. Relentless… Sometimes they come at night, waking me, or else they come while I am deep in thought. They are so realistic that it becomes difficult to discern them from reality. I cannot precisely describe them. It is as though a vague feeling of dread washes over me and then I can picture my mother and my father clearly, though both of them have been lost to me since birth.

It is Saturday. The day is only just awakened from the night, and the restlessness of the world has only just begun. In an hour the cars will clog these streets. The noise of the subway trains below the street will be deafening… Now there are only long shadows cast along the empty grey pavement, and I am here. Alive, in a sense.

 

I had a dream in the night. I was driving a long distance with my wife and my cat. The window was cracked and the cat–a black and white, with a black button of a nose–managed to sneak out. From the passenger seat I grabbed the wheel, demanding frantically that my wife pull off the road. When the car stopped the cat jumped down into a gully beside the road, and I jumped out and ran after him, shouting his name. He got atop a rock and looked back at me. His haunches tensed and I could tell he would jump and be gone. I grabbed him by the tail and pulled him to me. I woke in a cold sweat. It was dark in the room, and my wife was still sleeping soundly. The cat, who usually slept on my feet, was asleep on the floor. I have grown accustomed to his closeness… I become restless when he is aloof. I worry how I will be affected when he passes from this world.

 

I can never fall back asleep when I awaken from these vivid dreams. My heart is racing and I cannot help but rub my feet together. Elizabeth hates this. I get up, even though I know I will be sluggish and fairly worthless all day. On my way to the bathroom, I catch a fleeting glimpse of myself in the mirror. I have always found my own image troubling. Its not that I feel unattractive or inadequate, its just the reminder that I’m not invisible, that there is something there that can be touched… I’ve grown grey. Elizabeth demands that its all in my head… But there they are, the little silver proofs of accumulated exhaustion.

 

Lately everything feels restless. I’m aware that I am no longer young, but not yet old either. But, somehow it seems likely that I will age faster if I don’t keep an eye on it. At the same time, I’m aware of the past, and though it didn’t seem that way then, it seems now that I had been much more vigorous and energetic. Is this an illusion that the past always plays on the present? or am I truly getting old and noticing it? I have an irrational fear that one day I shall wake up feeble and wonder how I’d come to such a pass.

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North Woods

The last time I saw Ann, I was still living on Stratton Pond. She came to see me with a friend of hers… an older, mystic sort of man, likely left-over from the back-to-the-land movement in the sixties. He was emaciated and wore tight fighting jean shorts and no shirt. He had a homemade necklace that hung down onto his bare chest. It looked like it may have been made from squirrel bones. He talked passionately about buying grains in bulk, and I don’t remember much else. Ann looked tired… like she couldn’t concentrate on anything. I don’t remember her ever looking so tired before.

We had known each other before, in Philadelphia. She was a hanger-on with the music scene. There was one night—after much drinking and debating whether it was Saturn or Jupiter near the moon—that we stumbled back to her house…. We tried to date afterwards, but it did not work out.

The two of them, Ann and her mystic, sat on the edge of the pond all afternoon, while she lamented some boy, Eamon, she had met in Vermont. He was a controversial figure, I gathered…. He had spent some time in jail for having a relationship with an underage girl. He started doing heroin when he got out. I guess there weren’t many opportunities for ex-cons in Vermont…. There weren’t really opportunities for anyone.

He was in trouble again, now, it seemed…. Drugs, or something. His background meant they were looking to put him away for 15 years. Ann had tried to convince him to move with her to South America… promised him that her parents would pay. That was how she was…. It was not a rational or realistic proposition, but she loved him. Hers was an immediate love. She did not have the will, as a person, to wait out a prison sentence. She wanted everything now or not at all…. He, apparently, disappeared.

The old mystic kept trying to jump into the conversation…. He tried to rationalize some things, but mostly just said that Eamon was a confused and lost person. Ann immediately defended him.

“He isn’t lost, maybe confused, but not lost!” She argued. “Anyways, he is a good person, with a big heart. I just don’t think he knows how to handle what he’s facing.”

“Would anyone?” I put dryly. Certainly I could not imagine facing 15 years in prison, but I also couldn’t exactly imagine putting myself in that kind of position. I also knew she had a penchant for deadbeats–and I don’t disclude myself.

What Ann could not understand–the part that didn’t fit with all the others–was the fact that he had stopped returning her calls. Nothing would get under her skin like being ignored. If he didn’t want her anymore, she wanted him to tell her. Then they could at least have a fight, and fights were at least satisfying.

“I’m going to the bar tonight. He’s playing a show. I’ll find him at the show,” she told us.

“I don’t know how good an idea that is,” the mystic said. “You should let him come to you.” While I found the mystic’s faux-eastern way of saying it grating, I generally agreed. But, I had known Ann very well at one point. I knew she would not leave the situation alone. She would force his hand and probably make it worse.

“It’s on the way home from here,” she told the mystic, who I guess was her ride. It became clear now why she even visited. That had been part of the plan all along. It didn’t bother me any. I had no plan to get involved.

The afternoon progressed, and they stayed just long enough to see the first rays of golden hour light across the pond, spreading that drowsy warm light through the spruce boughs. Before they left, Ann asked me to visit her in the evening. She left me her address in Pawlet, told me she couldn’t bear to be alone when she was so upset. Some part of me felt pity for her. I sent them off and watched them meander down the winding mountain path.

 

When the dark came, I packed my pack and walked down the trail, by headlamp, to where my car was parked…. It was a route I knew well. I drove along the southern Greens, to where there was a pass through the mountains above Manchester. Manchester was a resort town nestled between the Greens and the Taconics… Mt. Equinox and Dorset Peak looming tall over the outlets and hotels. After Manchester the road to Pawlet wound through farm fields, with the darkened outlines of the mountains, faintly perceptible on the horizon… the line delineated only by the spectacularly bright night sky, and the moon, and Saturn.

Pawlet was a small town, with a bar and a general store. Ann lived on the right side of the road, on the second floor of a house with a two story porch. She could see the Mettawee flowing through the rolling hills, forested all around by sugar maple and paper birch. She was alone on the porch when I parked. She did not wave or call out. I thought of making a joke about her clearly not present boyfriend, but decided to leave it alone.

“This is a nice spot,” I said.

“Come inside. He has friends here. I don’t want them to think anything.”

 

These are things you have to worry about in Vermont. I remember a time when Ann and I were still dating, back when we first moved from Philadelphia. We had a fight, and it was pretty bad. After a while we made up, but it took a lot out of me. I went to the bar, and we planned to meet there later on. I saved a seat for her next to me. After a while the bar got full and there was a couple looking for a seat. The bartender offered the seat next to me. I thought she would have assumed I was saving it. After all, she had seen me in there plenty of times, and always with Ann. I stopped the couple from sitting down.

“I’m saving it,” I said, so both the couple and bartender could hear.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t think Ann would be joining you tonight.”

I guess things like that make you realize how small these towns are. I used to like Philadelphia because I felt invisible. It was nice. Getting to choose who you know, at least to some degree… or at least who you didn’t know. There were so many people and so few of them mattered. But, it is not like that in Vermont.

 

The inside of the apartment was small and cluttered. It smelled like cigarette smoke and mold. Ann went to the kitchen and got me a beer without my asking. I caught a look at her in the light when she came back in. She had aged so much from when I had known her. Certain things were the same… the straight dirty blonde hair, her vintage summer dress—red with white polka dots. Her eyes seemed to have changed from bright blue to ashen gray, and her skin was so tanned it almost looked dirty. It made the whites of her eyes stand out. Her face was drawn, and I could tell she had been crying.

She sat me down in the front room and put on bluegrass music. The whole scene felt strangely familiar.

“I’m thinking of staying in Vermont this year,” she told me.

“Is the farm keeping you on?”

“No, it’s a long story. You know Bill, from the pond today? He told me that when something is supposed to happen it does…”

“That sounds like something he would say,” I said, smirking, but trying to hold it back.

Yea,” she drawled and squinted her eyes. I guess she had caught my sarcasm and didn’t appreciate it. “So, I was up in Poultney,” she started, “There is a new coffee shop there. This woman always comes in with her kids…. They are the cutest kids, and super smart. All the kids in Vermont are so, so smart… so well behaved. She told me her kids’ school, the Mettawee School, is hiring…. Do you know of the Mettawee School?” She squinted again, and asked the question with a hint of condescension.

“No. I mean, I assume it’s near the Mettawee….”

“You would think it’s great. You bring the kids on walks in the woods, and that is how they learn science. They learn it by experiencing it.”

“I would’ve loved a school like that as a kid…. Instead, I got New York City schools,” I said.

“I’m going to apply tomorrow. You have to go there to apply, and they interview you right then. I’ve been teaching in Philly for so long, and teaching kids about social justice is super important to me, but I just feel it’s right to move on.”

“What’s the story with Eamon? Did you work things out?” I asked.

“We didn’t go to his show. Bill wouldn’t go.”

“Maybe that is best.”

“Bill doesn’t think much of Eamon, but he is a good person. Everyone around here judges him because he made mistakes when he was young…. And the whole thing about him sleeping with an underage girl… he was 18 and she was 17. Her parents didn’t like him so they pressed charges.” She said all this viciously, almost… squinting with each word she emphasized. By now the story felt a little over-rehearsed… like I wasn’t the first person she had to say it all to.

“That’s one of those difficult situations,” I said, a little disinterested.

“You were a year older than me,” she reminded me.

“I still am.”

“You know what I mean. He isn’t a pedophile like they call him. I met him at one of Steve’s parties, now Steve is going around calling him a pervert to everyone…. And the whole drugs thing, he smokes weed, that’s all. He got caught while driving, and they saw his record. He doesn’t deserve it.”

It wasn’t an unfamiliar story in the north woods. People tend to make trouble out of boredom, or whatever else. It’s not like I hadn’t had friends like that throughout my life…. At the same time, the way she defended him felt off… like she was trying to anticipate any criticisms I might have. I never met Eamon. How could I really pass judgment one way or the other? I couldn’t be the one to vindicate how she felt about it.

did feel bad. It seemed like the stress had completely worn her down. Now… with planning to stay, and teach, and live in Vermont…. It’s not an easy life. She would find some things out about the way people are, too. Vermont may be the first state to have abolished slavery, but it wasn’t exactly a diverse community…. All the prejudices of rural America exist in various pockets.

 

In 2009, the owner of one of the cheesesteak joints in Philly put a sign out that read, “Order in English.” Ann was so incensed that, every time she passed the place she would yell, “racist cheesesteaks!” at the crowd gathered in front. How would someone like that handle the deeper and more malignant views that find safe harbor in the hearts of the rural poor? When Eamon finally went to jail, that would leave her isolated in a culture she didn’t really understand.

 

I started to feel tired. It was a long way back, and I felt that I had a lot to think about… a lot that needed time to process. It wasn’t my affair, but it made me feel bad about a lot of things that seemed to be just beyond it… things that bled over into my Vermont. Had I also idealized this place? Was there really anything for me here? I told Ann I needed to go.

“Don’t go. I can’t be alone tonight. I’m too upset,” she told me.

“I don’t want Eamon or his friends to think anything, and I really am very tired. I’m sorry.”

“Just stay and watch a movie with me,” she pleaded. It was a familiar tactic. It reminded me of all the times I had tried to leave. All the times I had caved in. I knew if I did stay I’d fall asleep and stay the whole night.

“If it means that much to you I’ll stay,” I said.

There really was nowhere for me to stay. There was only her bed, which she assured me was okay to lie down in. I had no intentions, and it wouldn’t have been the right way even if I had…. Still, it felt overly familiar to lay in her bed. It seemed like the sort of thing that could make the wrong impression.

 

For a long time after Ann and I had dated, she still relied on me as an emotional support. I never really appreciated it. I wanted a clean break… but, there were things she had trouble letting go of. She would call me out of loneliness, the way you call a significant other. This felt a bit too much like that. Back then, it had taken a lot to break that pattern, and I think it hurt both of us to some degree.

 

I got into bed and she put on the movie. I felt nervous, the way you do with a new lover. I didn’t want to touch her at all. I started to doze, and when I woke the movie was over and it was quiet. It had become cold in the room and I dozed off again. In the night I woke again, this time she was pressed against me, with her head resting on my shoulder. It was a position that she used to lay in. I surrendered to it, even though it didn’t feel quite right.

In the morning, I woke before her. I got up and left, trying not to wake her. It was the last time I ever saw her. Two weeks after, she called me in the late afternoon to tell me Eamon had shot himself. I packed my car and drove south.

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Rezanoff Drive

I can no longer remember certain things about the past. Faces dissolve…. A gentle touch… gone like a candle blown out by the wind. There are still shapes in the fog…. A sort of pestering form in the darkness. I can still remember the disjointed rattling of the el train as it passes by my window. I can still remember the sensation of familiar voices in the street… scenes of sidewalks buttressed with snow, and cars buried underneath… smoothed over by the dim orange street lights. These things remain with me.

The time is gone to me now… beyond reach. Yet, its remembrance is suffused with rich melancholic hues…. It all seems better, or at least easier, to forget. Ideas, like pages ripped out and cast into flames, have dissipated… their effect no longer distinct, their totality lost. Only corners… disjointed corners remain. But, I still feel their importance… with all the desperation of one caught in a flood.

All these places have merged in my remembrances. An alleyway, still cobbled, at the edge of the macadam… in Philadelphia… or San Francisco. A motel room, the walls yellow from smoke, the TV glowing with white noise… somewhere in the north woods. An apartment looking over Broad or Main Street. A bar across the street, where crowds mill about outside smoking cigarettes. A path in the woods, up the side of Snowy or Haystack Mountain… which, I can’t remember. My brown leather shoes, pacing across the ashen grey sidewalk, casting long shadows across the pavement.

I have rest my weary head too many places. They have all become the same upon waking. I no longer know one from the other. Each seems unlikely… too much like a dream… and I am troubled by the lost time.

I am restless now, and I wish to repeat certain things… if only to myself… to be sure they are real. I don’t know how much longer any of this may go on. After all, it was maybe ten years ago since…. I’m not even sure now… perhaps it never was. It seems a ghost to me….

 

I had been living near the ocean… at the far end of Rezanoff, near Fort Abercrombie. For weeks on end it would rain. I can still see the dense fog, the mountains lost behind it… the eerie, constant turning of the wind turbines on Barometer Peak… the puttering engine of the 4 pm plane coming in.

Kodiak is an isolating place. Only really Coast Guard and fishermen. I would walk up Rezanoff to the bar, drizzling rain ever falling. In the square, ancient looking Alutiiq natives lined up around the welfare office… neither menacing nor friendly. The bar was filled with dim light, and bearded men lined the counter drinking pints. The fishing ships hadn’t yet put out for the late summer salmon runs, and all the men got drunk while waiting.

When the fog broke enough from the wind coming in off the ocean, you could just make out the blue domes and triple crosses of the Church of the Holy Resurrection. It’s one of the oldest Russian Orthodox Churches in the United States…. A reminder of who got here first. Somehow, there seemed to be a lingering presence of the Russian Empire on the archipelago… hermetic cabins, deep in the woods, emblazoned with the triple cross…. Monks in long robes and Rasputin beards pacing the grounds. The only thing truly American were the sailors.

Somehow Aida was always present at the bar. She was 22, with dark hair and fair, freckled skin. Her eyes were light blue, almost grey like the fog. Her husband was a fisherman. I kiddingly asked her once; how could she put up with the smell of dead fish when he came home. “He stinks like money,” she said.

She was the kind of woman who had grown up around men, so she tried to be tough like the men. She would cut firewood in her husband’s absence, even refusing her father’s help. She was fiercely independent, in a way many people only pretend to be.

 

Growing up in Alaska was a tough life, I gathered…. Once, while walking the trails on Near Island, she told me about how her father used to be a fisherman. While out in the Gulf of Alaska his boat was capsized from a stiff, high-pressure wind. This was common. The winds came off the back side of the tall peaks, blowing down across the water at over 100 miles an hour. All the fisherman knew this; they said you could see it a long way off…. But, by the time you’d see it, it was too late…. His boat got caught, nets in the water, with a heavy load on the wrong side.

The coast guard called Aida, asking if she knew any reason why his emergency beacon may have sent out a signal…. “Some reason that would not be an emergency, you mean?” She asked the dispatcher…. She suggested, strongly I imagine, that they mobilize the search.

For three days, she didn’t know whether he was dead or alive. When he came home, he didn’t buy another boat. He became a welder. The only one on the island.

 

She was standing in the background, on the other side of the bar, talking tough with the sailors—most of whom, it seemed, knew her father. When she noticed me, she smiled and waved…. I waved back but didn’t go over. I just went back to resting my chin on the palm of my hand, and having a staring contest with my beer. When she finished the conversation, she came around the bar to where I was sitting.

“Why so glum, chum?” She joked in a hoarse, raspy voice… patting me on the back the way working men do.

“I’ve decided to leave,” I said, almost ignoring her attempt at humor, but cracking a half-smile to let her know I had caught the attempt.

“I can’t say I’m terribly surprised,” she said. “But why are you sad then? I thought you wanted to go home?”

“I always get sad leaving,” I said. “It’s like all the things you took for granted, or failed to fully appreciate, remind you that they’re there….”

“It’s not like you’ve been particularly happy here…. Won’t it be better?”

“Yes, I’m sure it will be…. Once I get over it.”

“Tell you what, I’ll write you letters so you can remember how much this place sucks!” We both laughed, and I took a long drink off my pint.

“It’s been nice to have you around,” she said, looking at me over her glass, which she held in front of her face with both hands.

“Bullshit it has,” I scoffed. “I’m a regular ray of sunshine….”

“No it has. But I understand… You miss your old life… You miss…”

“Yea… Caitlin…. I do miss her.” It was a sore spot. I didn’t really want to talk about it, so I stuck only to what was vaguely true. “Don’t you miss Sam when he goes away?” I asked.

“I do… But I keep myself busy. I don’t let it get me so upset. But, then again he isn’t 3,000 miles away.”

“No, but what he does is pretty dangerous. Don’t you ever worry that what happened with your dad could happen with him?”

She looked suddenly distant when I said that, and I felt immediately that I shouldn’t have brought it up. It was a journalist’s question… one of disinterested fascination.

“Sorry,” I said.

“No. It’s fine. I just try not to think about it. It’s kind of a way of life around here. If I had a penny for everyone I’ve ever heard of disappearing in a float plane, or not coming back from sea…. But, you get a thick skin… You have to.”

“Yea, I guess so.”

“When do you leave?”

“Tonight’s my last night…. Tomorrow I leave on the 4 pm.”

Tomorrow?

“Yea…” I said. I suddenly felt drunk.

I motioned to the bartender and settled up. Aida settled up too. We went out of the bar and wandered around somewhat aimlessly in the fog. I felt nervous somehow, like so much wasn’t being said… Like a lot of it shouldn’t be. Sometimes we walked in silence. I could feel her standing next to me without looking at her. It felt strange.

We walked past the church. I admired its Russian domes, all carved of Sitka spruce. “I’ve always liked this place,” I said.

“The island?” she glanced at me, confused.

“Well, the island is nice, but I meant the church. It’s been standing in this place since we were fighting our revolution, bottled up on the other coast. We hardly even knew it was here.”

“It still feels that way sometimes.”

We walked up Kashavaroff and back down Rezanoff towards Mill Bay, where I lived. There was a fog horn sounding periodically. It reminded me of the Presidio in San Francisco…. All of that seemed so far in the past. Years past.

It was a long time before we came to the house. It was a drab-brown chalet style house, with a wraparound porch and a large window facing the ocean. It appeared to blend in with the Sitka spruces that surrounded it. We were shivering from the wet fog, and I invited her in to sit by the stove while I packed. She came in and sat down on the bed.

“It almost doesn’t seem right,” she started, “that they brought you out here to do the story on the oil spill.”

“What do you mean? Somebody had to write it.”

“Yea, but for three months? That’s long enough to start a life… to start to feel like you belong somewhere.” She drawled the world ‘belong’, as though it held some special fascination.

“Unless you’re like I am,” I said.

“What? You don’t ever start to get attached?”

“I do, but only once I’m about to leave. That has nothing to do with time…. I’ve missed places and even people after a day. Most of them I’ve never seen again…. But, I’ve been doing this for a long time…. I’ve lived in just about every city at one point or another. While I’m there, I never really feel like I belong. I just feel like an interloper. It’s only right when I’m leaving… then I start to miss everyone…. Before they’re ever even gone really.”

“Have you tried to keep in contact with anyone?” She leaned back against the bed and stared up at the ceiling. It seemed like a loaded question.

“No,” I said, kneeling on the floor, fussing with odds and ends… shoving them into my suitcase. “Keeping in contact makes it worse. You start to regret where you are, and where you have to go…. You just wish you were in that place again. I try to only feel that way as long as I have to. I try not to prolong it….”

“I understand.” She said.

She seemed to be somewhere far off…. Thinking of Sam on some boat somewhere, I imagined.

“If you actually did write me, I would write back,” I said, somewhat sheepishly.

“No, nobody writes anymore,” she said. I got up off the floor and sat at the edge of the bed, feeling worn out.

“I have appreciated my time here…” I said. “It’s weird to say it. It would’ve been harder if you hadn’t been around….” A long silence passed between us. The gulf seemed unbridgeable….

 

“I think I got married too young,” she said. “It’s part of this place. But, then, you can’t ever leave.”

“You would want to leave? This place seems so much a part of you,” I said.

“Sometimes. I mean it is home…. It’s a hard place to get back to, so I just stay.”

“It must be nice to feel grounded… Like there’s a place that is home,” I said.

 

“What’s Caitlin like?” She asked abruptly, still looking at the ceiling.

“She’s alright, I guess….”

Alright?” she screwed her eyes up a bit, sounding incredulous… like she couldn’t quite place the remark. After a moment she said, “You seemed to miss her…. Isn’t she the reason you’re such a miserable bastard?”

“No, honestly, it hasn’t been that exactly.”

“You don’t miss her, then?”

“I don’t even know if things are working out,” I said, not really grasping the weight of it. “But, I feel like I should be there… whatever that means.”

“To try and fix it?”

“No…” I said, trying to find the right words. “To try and end it. To try and start over from scratch… find a… place that feels like home….” I must have sounded a bit cruel, but I had put a lot of thought into that. Things were not going well before I left. They hadn’t improved while I was gone. I wrote her letters, but never got any in return. I started to feel the distance.

“I don’t know, at your age, that you can just find a place that feels like home. It doesn’t work like that…. It takes having had the time to attach all your memories to a place. You can’t just make one.”

“Sometimes I get to thinking I feel that way about my town, but then I get there and I wonder what the hell made me so homesick. I always think I miss my friends, but I get there and none of them live there anymore, or they have jobs and don’t have time anymore…. The things I idealized to myself are all gone. I’ve been to a lot of different places, and none of them felt like home either. I keep hoping one day I’ll just have that feeling, you know? Like the nostalgia you get for a place when you are idealizing how it used to be. I imagine that to be what home feels like.”

Aida was no longer staring at the ceiling. Her eyes had closed, but she wasn’t asleep. I gently touched her shoulder, pretending to try and wake her. It seemed like the best way to break the silence. She reached up and trailed her hand along my arm, until it reached my shoulder. She pulled me towards her. I pulled away weakly. “What about Sam?” I whispered. She pulled me more urgently and kissed me deeply.

 

In the night, she left while it was still foggy. I wanted her to stay until I had to go, but I understood that she wouldn’t… or couldn’t. When the light came up, I went to the café for the last time, and watched the morning plane come in. I decided to climb Barometer one more time. It was early August, but already it smelled like fall. There was a persistent chill to the air. The peaks, which remained snow-capped year round, had received a fresh coating overnight. I got up to the snowline, and it became difficult to walk in the slushy wet snow.

From the top you could see all of Chiniak Bay. It was a clear-blue day. The blue was punctuated only by the white-caps, which went on as far as you can see. Out past the town there was nothing. No roads, no houses… just mountains, alpine meadows and stunted Sitka spruce. Looking out at it was like looking at the farthest reach of civilization.

 

The plane came in on time. I watched it swing around the mountains, wobbling back and forth on its wings. I had hoped Aida might come to the airport to see me off, but she didn’t. I knew there wouldn’t be any letters. I just hoped to say goodbye. To stamp something firm and final on the whole thing.

The plane took off at five. I took a seat by the propeller, so I could watch that tiny island disappear.

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Arch Street Hotel

The bar was loud and crowded now… Not as it had been, as when he had remembered it. Then it had been dark, and there had only been the two men at the pool table. But now, even as he sat in the same place, it seemed altogether different. The pool table was surrounded by young men in t-shirts, and there was the smell of alcohol and sweat. It was so loud you couldn’t hear the music. But, back then, he had sat across from her, and even now, he could remember how she had looked…

When he had first seen her, almost a year before, she had been sitting behind the pool table… He had looked at her over the book he had been reading. They locked eyes for only a moment, but he had known he had been caught. He did not approach her, as he only intended to stay for one beer. But they looked at each other a number of times over their books, and when he left he was caught again, looking in the window as he walked away… He remembered that the last time she had smiled.

She had remembered this exchange, and, a long time after they had met, she asked him if he had remembered it.

“Of course. You were sitting right there.” He indicated the place with his eyes, and she looked and smiled.

“I thought you were so dreamy,” She said.

“Thought?”

“Hah! Of course I still do,” Her face lit up, and for a while they just looked at each other. It seemed like a very long time. It was finally broken when the waiter arrived to take drinks. They both laughed.

“What will you have?” He asked, looking confused and perhaps a bit peeved.

They looked at each other briefly, and the woman with the deep, shining, blue eyes said, “We need a minute.” She laughed nervously, and when the waiter left, they both sighed and fell back into looking at each other.

“Did you feel that?” She asked.

“Yes,” He said.

“When time stopped?”

“Yes,” He smiled and meant it, and she knew he meant it. Nobody had ever made the time stop before, and he figured it was significant.

When the waiter returned, they ordered drinks. When he left, the young man and the woman with blue eyes got to talking again.

“People must hate us,” He said.

“Why?”

“Nothing… Just that we are happy, and people are always annoyed by happiness in others.”

She said nothing, and he was not sure if she had understood him.

“I used to hate seeing people kiss or hold hands in public,” He continued, “but I kind of like that we can’t help ourselves.”

She reached across the table and squeezed his hand.

“I know,” She said, sighing deeply and looking somewhat past him. “I can’t believe you are leaving in a week.”

“Let’s not think about that now.”

They both looked away.

***

It had been a long time now. Alaska came and went… When he came home, things were different. He would look at her a long time, and did not see what had stopped the time then. She did not look at him that way anymore. He studied her glances… Each of them… But, he could no longer find it. “It is like fishing the Poultney River. You can see right to the bottom, and you will not catch fish that are not there to be caught,” he thought to himself.

“Do you remember?” He asked her now.

“Remember what?” She asked, but her reply was not tender, it was short and curt.

“The time… Before Alaska…?”

“I remember times before Alaska, yes.” She placed a strong emphasis on the word times, and he suspected that she did this, so as not to be reproached for anything specific. He decided to try and play the hand, even if it were a bad one.

“Better to go for broke,” he thought.

“Do you remember when the time stopped?” He asked her directly, and kept his eyes locked on hers. He wanted to study this new look of hers… He wanted to find the artifice behind it.

She looked at him blankly.

“We were sitting right here, in love, and it seemed like the time had stopped,” He tried to remind her, though he already resented her for not remembering on her own.

“Yes,” She said, with a quizzical expression.

“Do you ever miss that?” He asked.

“Why should I miss it? You are here now.”

“That’s not what I mean. Never mind.” He said, becoming agitated. She put on a smile he had only recently come to know. He knew it was designed to placate him.

“You don’t look at me like you used to anymore…” He said.

They didn’t speak for a time, both of them looking in different directions.

“It is not the same as it was,” She said.

“I know that.”

“Well, what did you expect?”

“Nothing,” he said. “It’s just, I still love you… As much as I did then.”

“As do I.” Again she put on the placating smile. It was so vacant he could not bear to look at it.

“I really can’t stand it,” he said firmly.

“Can’t stand what?” Her eyebrows twitched upward, and her face became interested, but still far from tender.

“The farce of it all. Doesn’t it feel like a farce now?”

“A farce?”

“I mean, I’m leaving again, and there is no trace in you that you feel anything one way or another about that.”

She didn’t say anything.

“And its all I can do to get you to pencil me into your schedule.”

“I have a lot of obligations.”

“I’m not interested in being considered amongst your obligations. There was a time when it was all we could do to keep away from each other for a day or two… Now you are exasperated that I come around at all. I mean, I can’t even tell if you want to be here now… I know that over the course of time things change, but I mean, I’m leaving and its like you couldn’t care.”

“Just because you are leaving, does not mean I suddenly have more time.”

“You used to find it when you wanted to. Its not like you had less obligations then.”

She did not answer and he could feel himself becoming agitated.

“Do you feel okay living in a farce? Because, I sure as hell don’t. You give me this look like I must be an idiot or something… But I recognize something has changed, and unless you want to talk about it, I have to know it has changed, but have no idea why. As far as I can tell, there is nothing left… It is all spent up.”

“Don’t yell at me. People are looking at us,” She said, and her eyes became suddenly panicked. The change happened almost too abruptly… As though completely contrived for just such a situation.

“I’m not yelling. I’m telling you I won’t live this way. It’s not fair to let somebody hang onto something that isn’t there anymore.”

“Stop it.”

“Stop what?”

She said nothing else, but got up and stormed out. He thought of following her, trying to make it up to her. He even thought that might be precisely the kind of show she had wanted. But, immediately he thought better of it. He’d be chasing the past, and however he felt about that, he knew it was all spent up.

When he had been away, in Alaska, all he could think of then was her, as she was then, when the time stopped… The way she looked him in the eyes, and there was no mistaking that look. She would put her hand in his and squeeze it, and the way it had felt was final. Thinking of it was a torture… He never thought you could spend something like that up…

He saw her car pull away. He could see her face, and he knew she’d been crying. For a moment he wondered if he’d actually been unfair. The tail lights drifted away, and he became intensely aware of the conversations around him, and the clanking glasses of beer, and the shuffle of the waiters.

“Will you be having anything else?” He looked up at the familiar voice, and there was the waiter. The young man wiped his brow and finally answered.

“No. Nothing else… I’ll settle up.” He pulled out the billfold… That was it then. You just settled up. It was all paid out.

After paying the bill he stood out on the sidewalk watching the cars pass, and the neon lights, blinking in and out. He hailed a cab.

“Where are you heading?”

“I don’t know yet, just drive.”

After a while he told the cab to drive him home. He could not think of anywhere else to go. It all felt futile…

He got out on Broad Street and paid up. When he got up the stairs he could see the cars passing in the street below. It was dark and the cat was mewing for food. It felt like something was missing… Like the room was empty… Devoid of anything that gives a space character. It had felt that way a long time.

He sat a long time, looking out the window. He could see the bars as they cleared out. The young man thought he would read, but he could not keep his mind on it. After a long time watching, he grew tired, and his eyes closed. He could feel everything coming and going, like waves, washing over him… and when he finally slept it was devoid of dreams.

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West Lake

It was nearing seven in the evening, and the sun was going down over the lake. A man in a dark flannel shirt rolled down his sleeves, pulling the cuffs together and buttoning them. He looked out over the lake to where the hills rose up, rising and falling like the backs of resting cattle, reflecting in the stillness of the water. He could see the rain clouds coming together, far off over the hills, near the place where the sun was fading away. He picked up the last of the heavy logs and put it on the fire, and climbed up onto the wooden floor of the lean-to shelter.

 

“Its going to be cold tonight,” he thought to himself, pulling over his ripped green sweater, that he kept solely for wearing in the woods. “Yes, it will be cold.” He thought of his wife, along with the words. He thought of her alone in their bed, with the cat tucked away by her feet.

 

“Its much easier to have a woman that understands you,” he thought, though he did not know exactly what he meant by that. He had been with many women before, and he had known he was never understood as he had wanted to be… But, even now, he was not sure he was understood.

 

“I suppose if she knew, she would be here. Surely other men had brought their wives here… It is not an easy walk. I know that.”

 

To get to the lake, the man had had to walk a long way through a swamp. When he got to the lake, his feet hurt, and his shoulders felt as though they were collapsing from the weight of the pack. Somehow, he could not imagine that his wife would endure the pain in her feet, though he knew others had. None that he knew… But he was sure others had.

 

“And who is married to such a woman?” He wondered, though he was unsure if it would be a curse or a blessing. Sometimes it was good to be alone, and to listen to the loons echoing their tremolo call across the water. He thought of the loons… Such solitary creatures of the wilderness. They were found only on the loneliest lakes. They would not mate elsewhere. he remembered being told that they mated for life, but wintered separately. “So much the wiser for the loon.”

 

He thought of his wife again, and wondered if she were truly alone in their bed, or if she had gone out. He had known many women and he remembered that they were not so good as he was at being alone. He thought about her going out, but decided he’d better put it out of his mind.

 

The sun was nearly down and the clouds had passed. There was just enough light to see the insects on the still water. In the reflection he saw the first stars. His eyes grew heavy and he felt sleep coming in and out, as his sore feet throbbed. He rolled out along the hard, wooden floor, and pulled the sleeping bag over him, and was asleep.

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Cedar River

Cedar River

By

Glenn Nelson

The road was dusty and wound high against the Blue ridge, dropping down so that the river was occasionally in view, and then winding around and rising again. It hadn’t rained and the motorcar left a cloud lingering on the road where we passed. The trees closed in, until there were only tall White Pines, and we wound around the trees and came down into a clearing. There was a dam where the water backed up, and we put the canoe in, Nathan sitting behind steering and myself in the front. We rode out onto the flow early and there was no current, and the mountains rose up around us, reflecting still against the water as though in a mirror. We made quick time to the inlet, where the river poured across the marshy flats, before winding between the tall spruce and balsam trees. We followed the river, winding and winding through sharp oxbow turns. The water was cold and colored as ruddy brown as tea. We portaged at the Carry where there was a shelter, and we set our camp there for the night.

“This is a good spot,” I told Nathan. I had slept there before, and in the night you could hear the trout smashing against the surface of the cool, slow moving water.

“The leanto is very clean,” he said. “It is nice to see it so clean.”

“There are nicer, but this one is also nice,” I said, looking around at the clearing, grown in with golden rod and prairie grasses. It was not scenic, but it was right on the river, and it would do.

Nathan and I split up to look for firewood. The immediate area was picked pretty well clean, but there were plenty of dead trees in back of the clearing. Nathan searched the river bank for dried out drift wood, and I went up along the trail and into the woodline. Before long I had a good sized hemlock, which I dragged back to camp. We took turns sawing at it, and then I split the logs with my hatchet. We had plenty of wood to last the night by the time we were through, and we set about making dinner.

It was quiet and clear, the last cool evening of July, and the stars came out bright over the camp. We had pasta and wine for dinner, and after we sat about the fire watching the stars.

“It was a good thing, ending it,” Nathan said.

“Ending what?”

“Ending things with Marie. It was no good for you.”

I said nothing. I still did not really know how to feel. It seemed stupid and impulsive, but it also seemed like the right thing to do. Even if it was right, I still felt that I’d regret it. In any case, it was no time to think about it, being out along the river.

“I just mean you seemed miserable. You looked like hell last time you came home.” He was being careful.

“I don’t know. It was stupid. It was stupid and it was probably my fault.”

“Well, you seemed pretty bad. I never heard you say anything good about it.”

“I know, but that doesn’t mean anything… Hell, its all pretty raw still, could we not talk about it.”

“Yea, I just thought it’d help.”

“I don’t know. Just makes me think I’m being pretty stupid.”

“Well, I think it was right, even if it was hard.” Nathan was a pretty smart guy. He knew all about insects and, well, a whole lot of shit I knew nothing about. I’ve wished a long time I could be smart the way Nathan is smart. But, he knows absolutely nothing at all about women. He is a damned good person, and I admired him for all that. It was easy to reduce something like leaving a woman to being the right thing to do, but it was never that simple. When I came out to the North Woods I wanted to be able to live as simply as possible. Cut all the damn fat. Women will fatten a man right up.

I lay down across my hammock. I sat and thought about that for a while, but it just kept coming in and out slowly, and then there was the coyotes, howling gently and far off in the night. Here and there I heard the trout jumping. It was only a short feed. It was done in twenty minutes. “Trout are damned picky,” I thought.

The fire dimmed and there were only coals, glowing red against the empty dark. Nathan was asleep, but I couldn’t sleep. There was nothing but the crack of the fire, as it slowly worked at the damp wood, and the river winding and winding. I could feel my eyelids falling, but I could not keep them closed.

 

***

 

In the morning I woke to the sound of trout jumping. I rolled out of the hammock, jointed up my fly rod, and paddled out across the water to the sand bank on the far side. I flicked the rod back and forth and shot the line down the flow. Before long I saw my fly disappear and I set the hook with a sharp, upward jerk of the rod. The trout jumped. It was big and brown with pink spots all along the side. I pulled the line in and he dove against the tension. I let him run the line out, darting low across the pool. He went below the bank, under the rocks, and it was hell trying to make him move. I tugged on the rod, lifting it slightly, enough to add tension to the line, and finally he started to swim. He shot out across the pool and then cut back towards me and I had to take the line in quick. I lifted him and soon I had him in the boat. He was 14 inches, and I felt badly having to take him like that, but it was over quickly.

“A man and a fish are not too different,” I thought. “Only with a fish you are supposed to put them down.”

When I rowed back across the pool, Nathan was still asleep.

“Did you catch any?” He asked, waking up.

“Yes, a few.”

“Big?”

“One of them is very big,” I said.

“I could hear you with the oar.”

“It has to be done that way.”

Nathan yawned sleepily and I went about the work of cleaning the fish. When they were cleaned they had to be smoked and I made a small, smokey fire to put them over. The fish were still jumping, and I could hear them the whole time, but I did not try to catch any more. While I worked on the fish, Nathan made breakfast of bacon and pancakes. We sat there a while, and I asked him if he wanted to use my rod to fish a little. It was warming up quickly and I did not think he’d catch anything, so I laid out in the hammock lazily and took a nap in the sun.

When I woke, Nathan had not caught any fish. We packed the canoe and paddled back down river. It was a fine day and there were many birds and a marsh hawk circling in the sky. We did not talk anymore about women, or anything else. There was only the dipping of the paddles and the wind behind us, pushing us out onto the flow. The water was bright blue and rippled gently. In it the mountains swayed back and forth lightly. For a time I felt lonely, but that too went away.

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What We Do Not Speak Of

Gradually they traversed the steep incline. The young man walking ahead of the older man, who, though he was old, never fell very far behind. The trail was rough and obstructed at many points with large jagged boulders, and the two men could barely see much beyond the veritable wall of great oaks. Near the apex of the trail, where it cut across the peak, the tree line thinned and they could see where, below, the Lehigh River cleaved through the Kittatiny Ridge. In the clearing, where the forest broke and there was a long meadow, beyond which the whole of the valley was laid out in lush oak and birch forests, full in their summer green, the young man stood a long time looking out. During this pause, his whole expression changed and he breathed deep of the thin mountain air, while the older man walked ahead, still expressionless.

The old man had spent a great deal of time in these hills. He had bushwhacked his way off the trail searching for blueberries, and to find that peace of mind which comes only from knowing one cannot be found…

Though already 78, he still found the vigor to leave the orchards of his Palmerton estate to drag a shovel and pick up the mountainside to repair the trails he had helped once to build. He let the young man walk ahead, not because he could no longer keep pace, but because he did not like the spiders that were now spinning their morning webs. Still, he told the young man that it was time for the young greenhorns to charge ahead. The young man did not understand. So, much of the time they walked on in silence.

Every so often the young man would ask questions, or talk about himself, or complain. Though the old man would have preferred silence, he understood that it was necessary for the young man to speak, even if it was idle chatter… That it made him more comfortable. Most of his questions were, at least, earnest ones, about the history of the area, about what the old man had himself lived through…

“You see, I am a history major and I particularly like environmental history,” the young man had said. “That is why I am so interested in this area. You can see directly the effect on the landscape, all the scars from the extracting.”

Driving up to the mountain, the engine whining, struggling with the hills, the old man’s voice breaking over the sputtering roar, he had told the young man about the west plant that the New Jersey Zinc Company had installed in Palmerton in 1898… How it used to sit just across the river, and how it had long since been torn down. In the years before the doors and the windows had been shuttered up, when the smog still rose from the monumental stacks, it had fogged up the whole valley with a dark grey cloud, so that even on a clear day, driving into Palmerton, one needed to have the headlights on. Now, as they walked along the barren meadow, where there were the ash grey corpses of old trees, the young man asked whether the forest had always looked as it did now.

“No,” the old man replied. “It had burned down three times, and for a long time nothing would grow. Neither here nor over on the other side of the pass.”

“There are still parts where nothing grows.”

“That is from the smog. It would drift north east with the prevailing wind. It would get caught up against the Blue Mountains. On top there, there is still nothing that will grow there. Even the dead trees will not decompose. There had been no bacteria to break them down.”

Looking around as the barren landscape turned again toward the tree line, the young man asked, “Are we nearly there?”

“I think so.”

“About how far?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I no longer know the distance. I cannot think of distance in numbers. I have my anniversary and my social security, and that is all I can think of numbers.”

For a little ways the young man did not speak and the old man was contented with the silence. It was nice to walk such a long way, he thought to himself. They came to another clearing, where again there was the meadow and below it the hills stretching out like veins rising in the skin of the earth. Atop the furthest, which was bare, and where the rocks were purple, there was a tall Victorian house. It stuck up over the valley like a white citadel, with spires that loomed over the porch like minaurettes.

“What is that house?”

“That is the general’s house.”

“Which general?”

“There is nobody that lives there now.”

“It is abandoned? But it looks so clean from here…”

“Nobody lives there now, but it was built by a general of the Union army, in the Civil War. He moved here from New York when his wife had died. He was said to be crazy from the war… He never left the house, until the day he died.”

“Is it purple because of the zinc?”

“No, that is from iron.”

“Did many people here get ill from the zinc?”

“Well…” The old man thought for a minute. “My father, who lived out everyday of his life in Palmerton, lived to be 91 years old. He worked twenty years in that factory, down in the smelter, with all the fog… And he lived to be 91. For a long time Palmerton had the highest life expectancy… The highest in Pennsylvania… or it might have even been the whole nation.”

“That is something, even with all the contamination.”

“Yes.”

“And you? Have you been here the whole time?”

“No. Well… I had been in the navy. Some years I was in the Navy. Before that we used to come up here often. We used to come up here hunting and on fishing trips to the river, but when I got back from the navy, everyone was married, you know, and having kids… So that, for many people I knew, was that… For them, the interest was a fleeting one, but I got a job, and I worked a lot and I got a car… But I didn’t like being in debt. So I paid the damn thing off by taking another job, and these kids with worse jobs than me were my boss… We I just said ‘see ya later.’

“Then I learned to fly fish, and I came up after it had just rained, and I was using worms on a fly line. And I saw this trout, maybe about as far as you are now.” The old man stopped walking, so lost in what he was say was he. “Well, I saw him rising and I quickly tied on a fly and I flung it over there, just like Mark Trail, and as soon as it landed on the water he took it. I been fishing some 40 years since, and I never caught one like that again. Usually I’m splashing around, scaring the fish, and then I catch a tree branch.”

“Were you in the navy during the war?”

“Yes.”

“Did you see much of it?”

“Yes.”

“My grandpa was in the war. I never met him, but I am told he was at D-day.”

“Let’s not talk about it.”

There was a long time in silence. The old man seemed to have drifted somewhere else, and the young man stared sheepishly at his shoes.

“You don’t come up here as often anymore?” The young man asked, finally.

“Well… I joined the hiking club some years back and my buddy and I used to come up here when he was unemployed. We came up here, as you and I are now. To do what work needed to be done… But when he found a job again I was on my own.

“That is how it is with me. Even my girlfriend won’t come up here. She’s from Philly. She doesn’t really understand it. She’s afraid of bears and doesn’t like leaving the concrete. She always wants to go ‘down the shore.'”

“My wife would come, but she is paralyzed.”

The young man hung his head. He felt embarassed for having complained so much. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t be. I shouldn’t have brought it up… Let’s not speak of it.”

“Okay.”

“A man should never speak of his troubles to another man.”

Their eyes did not again meet. The old man set down his pick, “This is the spot I had in mind,” he said. “We will work here to put this dirt… the shale below the ferns, below the duff, over the rocks.” He brought the pick down hard against the rocks above the trail, letting them fall down upon his feet. The young man, using the shovel, picked it up and placed it in buckets. The two of them carried the buckets over the rocks and laid the dirt out, forming a new piece of trail. The shale made it so that the rocks, which started off uneven and jagged, were now flat. They worked at this for nearly two hours without pause. The whole time they dug at the earth without speaking. Only the intermittent whang of the pick against the rocks, and the scraping of the shovel along the ground broke the heavy wooded silence. After two hours the old man stopped and said, “Let us do one more load, then we will call it a day… Then we will go.”

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