A little of everything in this story. Salt & pepper, shaken, not stirred. I quit at 21 pages as I found a good stopping off point, and I need a few hours to reload the battery and play a few notes. So…it’s unfinished. Still, I think there’s some entertainment value in this one, a good dose of sunshine for a winter weekend. Have fun.
Straight On ‘Til Morning
Not sure I remember too much about actually graduating from high school, but I do remember the summer after. Those first three months after – when I could finally say something like ‘Free at last, free at last, God Almighty – free at last!’ – and not feel like a complete idiot. Of course, only an idiot would think that – but suddenly life, and everything about it, felt so different. The idea that the drudgery of school was somehow over and done with, that life would be smooth sailing ahead, all clear skies and fair winds over the stern rail – forever. And I think it was the certainty I felt that seemed so entrancing. That everything going forward would just be – better. Better than the last four months had been, anyway.
There was only one cloud on my horizon, and she was, or so I’d thought, behind me.
Her name was Jen – Jennifer, and we’d broken up midyear, in December – though I didn’t quite know it at the time.
I’d gone to Colorado for Christmas break, that ritual parole from boarding school purgatory I looked forward to – beginning some time in September – and I said goodbye to Jen knowing full well that when I got back to campus life would resume right where we’d left off. She was going to the Caribbean to meet her father – sailing, I think, was the original plan, but of course she met someone. A kid from St Paul’s over in Concord, and they, presumably, fell in love. By the time we got back to campus there was nothing left to say; I could see it in her eyes, just as I had seen it with my own. As soon as I saw them, as a matter of fact, I knew we were done.
Boarding schools – or more to the point, co-ed boarding schools in the 60s – were seething caldrons of hormones, stirred constantly by needful, fragile egos. They’re living plays about small town life writ small, with a cast of characters that included a collection of beady-eyed con-men and more than a few cheating housewives, the lid screwed down tight by underpaid staff who would rather have been somewhere, anywhere else. From the moment you arrived in the Fall until the moment you left in early summer, there are two things you thought about: why did my parents send me here; and when was all this bullshit going to be over and done with.
Of course, there was an easy remedy not so easily had. For boys, nirvana lay just across the quad – in the girl’s dorms. The Holy Land, the Forbidden Zone – and images of Steve McQueen sliding out of a dimly lit tunnel and onto that drab motorcycle in The Great Escape ought to come to mind right about now – this was where our teenaged salvation lay. Just a few hundred yards away, supposedly just out of reach. We, of course, saw each other in class and at meals, and for those who kept up their grades, during ‘study hall’ in the library after the evening meal, yet sooner or later we all discovered the secret routes out of our dorms – and into their’s.
Jen and I had hooked up early in our junior year and we’d been ‘an item’ ever since. We were inseparable, I thought. We ate together, and on weekends I’d sit on a sofa in the commons room with her head on my lap while we read Milton and Vonnegut together. When it was warm at night we’d sneak out to the fields on the other side of Greenfield’s Road, and some nights we’d even take a moment to look up at the stars. After a year together I was sure I’d discovered the gossamer contours of forever, my very own womb with a view, but things change.
The prospect of a summer apart was shattering, and we parted that spring vowing to write every day. I cheated. I wrote two, sometimes three letters a day – though usually at night – and in just a few weeks I started getting a couple a day from Jen. I’d look at the postmark, from Galveston, Texas, rip the letter open and start reading.
We had it, I think you could say, bad.
That summer was my third flying, and I was working on my multi-engine rating that June, so was in ground school most mornings and flying at least two to three hours a week – more on the weekends with my father. When time came for me to make my first extended solo cross country flight, the choice of destinations was easy, and obvious. Galveston, Texas, here I come!
I made the flight in an old Beech Travel Air, an old if reliable twin engined airplane, too well equipped for what it was, and I left Addison Airport, on the north side of Dallas, around midday. Heading almost due south, I skirted Austin and San Antonio, leaving them to the west of my line, and I arced west of the Houston area and slipped on into Galveston before two. Before the really big thunderstorms formed, in other words. So as soon as I had the Beech tied down I called my instructor, then my father, telling them that big storms were moving in and that I’d fly back the next morning.
“Good call,” said my flight instructor.
“Well, did you pack any goddamn rubbers?” my father snorted. Which was, all in all, odd – as I shouldn’t have needed to pack anything for a day trip. It was, I’m trying to say, hard to pull one over on my old man.
And yes, Jen was waiting for me in the parking lot by the little terminal.
With her father, by the way.
He was a professor of gynecology at the medical school in Galveston, and I’d met him in passing at Parent’s Day that last October. We’d hit it off, and he’d been impressed I was so committed to flying – and at such an early age, I guess. He, of course, wanted to see the Beechcraft so I walked them out to the flight line and gave them the nickel tour, and had to explain that I couldn’t take them up for a ride as I hadn’t taken my check-ride yet. He seemed satisfied that I was a responsible young man after that, then we hopped in his Cadillac and drove into town. He had a house not far from the seawall, maybe a block in, and I remember the lawn was half grass and half white sand. I’d never seen anything like it. Galveston seemed a city perched on the ragged edge of survival, one hurricane away from oblivion, and the muddy water in the Gulf looked anything but inviting.
“Blows in from the beach,” Dr Flesh said as I looked at the yard. Oh, yes, that was his name. Harry Flesh – I kid you not. He tried to talk me into medical school later that evening, too. “You should think about, Spud. There are a lot of openings in gynecology, despite all the hairy situations you can find yourself in.”
And as if right on cue, Jen rolled her eyes. She’d heard it all before, I guessed.
Yet I laughed until I cried. And I think I was his new best friend after that.
He took us out to dinner that night, a seafood place named Gaido’s, and I think that was the first time I’d ever eaten over a pound of butter with dinner. Everything was slathered in butter, or drowning in bubbling vats of butter, and in my plate of sautéed lump crabmeat the poor critters were doing the backstroke through oceans of silky, golden butter. He left us alone on the back porch after we got back to their place, and I guess that was the first time I’d noticed there was no Mrs Flesh.
“She died a couple of years ago,” Jen told me, but she was evasive around that memory.
“Oh? What happened? Did she get sick?”
She shook her head, looked away. “No. She was murdered.”
I don’t think I said a word.
“She was up in Houston. They found her in a hotel room.”
“Maybe a day after it happened. She’d picked up some man and gone to this hotel downtown, and he killed her. Took everything from her purse, which was how they caught the guy.”
“Jesus,” I whispered.
“That’s when my dad decided to send me away to school.”
“Were you close? With your mother, I mean.”
She shook her head. “No,” she said, and her voice flat, dull – and barren.
“How’s did your old man deal with it?”
“He doesn’t. He goes to school, he teaches class. He comes home then eats dinner and goes to sleep. Then he gets up and does it all over again.”
And that’s all we said about it. She fell asleep with her head on my lap, and I rubbed her head until I too found sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night and she was gone; I passed her room on the way to the bathroom and heard her crying in her bedroom. When I walked back to my sofa I saw Dr Flesh walking around, down to the kitchen, tying his necktie as he went about making coffee – yet for some reason it looked like he was working on a gallows’s noose to me.
I tried to sleep after that, but found myself thinking about one of Dickens’ characters, old Thomas Gradgrind, and I woke up later that morning with Jen by my side – like nothing bad had ever happened. Dr Flesh swung by after his morning class and took us out for breakfast, yet all he wanted to talk about was airplanes. So, we talked airplanes, then we drove back to the airport and they looked on as I made my pre-flight walk-around, then Jen ran out and kissed me, told me that she loved me, and that her father did too, then she ran to the car.
Dr Flesh watched as I started the Beechcraft, and I saw him on my takeoff roll, still standing there behind a little chain-linked fence, staring at me as I flew away.
I went down to Galveston a few more times that summer, but took the old Texas Chief down the next two times. Dr Flesh always seemed happy to see me, and he stayed up late with us one night and talked about his one passion – sailing. And the next day he took us down to his boat, a huge wooden schooner built in Maine before the war, and he told me if I wanted the next time I came down he’d take us out.
I was fascinated by this man now. He seemed a walking contradiction, and very unlike my own father. Studious in the extreme, yet adventurous. Rather than spend his time off walking a golf course, he was getting his boat ready for an extended trip to the Caribbean, and as he led me around her innards I could see the pride in his accomplishment shining through. I was envious, in the way someone clueless about boats is envious.
The last time I went to Galveston that summer I flew down early on a Saturday morning, and when they met me at the airport I took them out onto the ramp and helped Jen into the backseat, then I went up and asked Dr Flesh to follow me up the wing once I was seated. When they were buckled-in I started the engines and taxied out to the end of the runway, and I was feeling a little smug by that point, too. We took off and I turned to the northwest, and the doc asked where we were going.
“Get something to eat,” I said, grinning.
“Oh. How far?”
“Couple of hours. Each way.”
The place was at once legendary – and yet almost mythical. A ranch house out in the middle of nowhere, there was a grass ‘airstrip’ by the main building – and nothing else. No way in, and no way out – unless, that is, it had wings. We circled the field once and I checked the air-sock, then settled into a long final and touched down gently – as I knew my old man was watching – then taxied up to the ranch house. There were a half dozen or so aircraft there already, and Jen was perplexed.
“What is this place,” she asked.
“What place?” I asked.
“This place!” she asked, now clearly pissed.
“This Place Does Not Exist,” I said, then the doc got out and walked down the wing – his bladder about to burst – then I got out and helped Jen down to the ground.
“What do you mean it doesn’t exist?” she groused.
“Just that. This Place Does Not Exist.”
“What do you mean?”
“You asked me it’s name. I told you.”
“You mean it’s called…This Place Does Not Exist?”
“You catch on fast, for a girl.” She could hit pretty hard, too, for a girl. “Better cover your ears,” I said when we were down on the ground.
But is was already too late. The silver P-51D roared by about twenty feet off the grass – then went into a ballistic climb, the old Rolls-Royce Merlin popping as my father chopped the throttle into his wing-over.
“Is that your father?” the doc asked, and I nodded as I watched my old man crab into an impossibly steep descent. He popped the gears at the very last moment and flared, touched down so gently it made my heart leap, and I kept them back until he taxied up next to the Travel Air and cut the engine. I helped him tie the Mustang down, then we went over and I introduced my dad to Jen and her father. At one point he looked at his watch and then to the east.
“You expecting company?” Dr Flesh asked.
My father nodded, and pointed. “Yes. There he is.”
“Who is it? Bill?” I asked.
Again, he just nodded, and a minute later a mint B-17 flew over, then circled and landed. We watched as the Alice From Dallas taxied up to the Mustang on two engines, then we tied that beast down too.
And then all of us went inside and had the very best steak in Texas.
When I got back to Massachusetts that September I could tell something had changed. Jen was a little more reserved in public, and downright quiet when it was just the two of us, and she didn’t want to talk about it, either.
And she didn’t, at least not for a week or so.
We were walking out of chapel one Sunday morning and she told me her father was sick.
“Sick?” I asked. “How sick?”
“Cancer of some kind. He told me…” she gasped, “…maybe…next summer.”
I stared at her for the longest time, then we both started to cry.
My dad traded in the old Travel Air for a new Baron, and he flew the doc up for Parent’s Weekend in early October. Even though Jen had made me promise to not let on I knew anything about the doc’s illness, I found it hard not to stare when I first saw him that Saturday morning. The skin on his wrists and hands was a little yellow, the skin around his eyes was a little darker than I remembered, and maybe the eyes were deeper set, too – yet he was his same, boisterous self.
“Spud! Howya doin’!” he yelled from across the quad.
“Doc!” I called back – as I jogged over to take his hand.
But he wasn’t havin’ any of that. He grabbed me by the hand and pulled me into a hug, a great big bear slapping hug, and after he pounded me on the back a few times he pushed me back gently and looked at me. “You ain’t eatin’ enough, Spud. You gonna up and blow away.”
“Maybe we can fly down for a steak,” I said, grinning.
“Naw. I’m taking Sirius out next week. Bound for Mexico, Grand Cayman and the British Virgins by Christmas. Wish you could come – it’s gonna be a slice.”
“I know, sir. I’m envious.”
The three watched me in a soccer game a little later, then there was a great lunch scheduled and we all sat together, reminisced about airplanes and steaks, and while Jen was certainly there – she was somewhere else, too. Someplace far away, and I couldn’t help thinking she was in a hotel room, in Houston, looking at her mother.
And it was the same between us after Parent’s weekend. The same, but different, like she was someplace else. We were still close, she was affectionate, but she had slipped away – to I knew not where. She flew down to Grand Cayman for Thanksgiving and came back wearing bruised, dented armor, and she withdrew behind hollow plates of cold withered iron after that, hiding from me now, lest the truth be known. The three weeks between vacations should have been all about prepping for exams – and the coming break – but I was consumed by her retreat.
We hopped the shuttle to Logan in silence, and when we parted at the airport she barely said “Bye” before she slipped into the crowd.
And, I don’t know, maybe I knew we were done right then and there. Maybe I knew she’d find someone else down on those crystalline seas – where everything was the polar opposite of Massachusetts in late autumn. Snow had been late in coming that year, and we’d taken endless walks around campus in the interregnum, walks under leaden skies among black trees and dead leaves. And her eyes, always bright and so full of life, had changed by then. They were dull now, gray and dull, and when we held hands her skin was like ice.
So, I met my parents in Aspen. Dad had bought a lot out on Woody Creek, and he was meeting with a local architect that week, and we all went down to the office and looked at the renderings – and we oohed over this detail and that – then dad looked over the details and signed on the dotted line. We’d have our house late next summer, early autumn latest, and happy as larks we skipped out into the snow and walked over to the little park in the middle of town and had crepes made right there in a little rolling cart. We looked around and could see our future, and I could see my father’s eyes just then as we ate and brushed snow off each others shoulders. I could see him looking at me, measuring me. And he never once asked about Jen or the doc.
My mother and I were not close. We never were, and it just kind of worked out that way. To me it always felt like she resented my coming into her world, like I was an inconvenience. I always wondered what I cost her in physical terms – in the beginning, anyway, let alone the mounting cost over the years.
She’d gone to Hollywood right out of college, and yes, she’d made a couple of movies – but she had a problem with bourbon and that problem only grew out there. She’d met my father at Harvard and they married before he went off to the war, but my father was a pilot – and he wasn’t a drinker. They grew apart in time, because, I think, he had trouble with her drinking, and we, my father and I, came together in the vacuum their drift created. We flew together, we played tennis, we went to Red River, north of Taos, and learned to ski – together – while my mother enjoyed her memories of Hollywood with bourbon and orange juice. No other activity seemed to suit her, or so she told me once, and the whole Aspen thing had begun to weigh heavily on her by that afternoon – so she ate her crepe in silence and refused to smile at the future. I think now, as I look back on those days, that if I’d taken her hand that day I’d have found skin as cold as ice – as cold as Jen’s had been.
And now, as I think back on those two women’s lives, I look at the choices they made and see two kindred spirits, two troubled souls crashing through life – heedless to the damage they left in their wake. More troubling still, I look back from fifty years on and in Jen I see I’d unwittingly found an almost perfect clone of my mother. Easy to see now, from the comfort of another life, but what troubles me is simply this: was there no element of chance – and therefore nothing accidental – in our coming together? Were we drawn to one another through some innate genetic predisposition, something written in our code, if you will? What else could have taken us so close to the edge of the abyss?
I was waiting at the gate in Boston. Waiting for Jen to come off the plane from Miami. I saw her walking hand-in-hand with a blond headed guy, a long-haired freak, and they kissed once, passionately I might add, before they split and went their separate ways. Then she turned and saw me standing there, and I think she smiled just a bit, before she turned and walked off to the baggage claim.
I did not follow her.
I was devastated, but I did not follow her.
I did not sit by her on the shuttle back to campus. I did not sit by her at dinner that night, nor by her in classes that next week. I did grow dark and despondent, and alarmingly so, I think. My roommate asked probing questions and my house mother came and talked to me, asked if I was feeling okay, if there was anything she could do to help.
There wasn’t, I said. And I think she understood. I think everyone on campus understood.
But high school is high school, and teenagers are just that and simply so. As Jen’s new friend went to a school in nearby Concord, New Hampshire, he drove over on weekends and they went out to lunch and I watched and knew we’d run into the end of that particular future. I subsequently tried out for the ski team and blew out my leg in our first race; when I got back to campus my right leg was in a massive cast and that put an end to skiing for a while. Dad showed up the next day and we sat by a roaring fireplace in a nearby inn and we talked about life and women and all the confounding choices people make, then we talked about Aspen and skiing and all was right with our little world again.
He barely mentioned Jen that day, yet he had brought bad news about the doc.
He was back in Galveston, sicker than hell and the word my dad had was that he wouldn’t make it another month. And his boat, the Sirius, had been, in effect, abandoned somewhere in the BVI.
“I called him last week. Offered to buy the boat,” my father said. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I just hate to see something of value go to waste.”
“What would you do with it?”
“Sail it up to Maine, I think, then get her fixed up and sold.”
Yes, Maine. That made sense. My mother was from Maine – Camden, Maine, a mill town on Penobscot Bay; lots of boat builders, wealthy people from Boston coming up – looking for a nice schooner. And if there was one thing in life my mother enjoyed, it was sailing.
My father was looking to make a few repairs of his own, I think I saw. Fix things before rot settled into the wood.
“So? What do you think? Feel like sailing up to Maine this summer?”
A few days later I was sitting in study hall when a girl came over and sat across from me. I knew her, of course; we’d known each other for three and a half years, but I didn’t know her well. Her name was Mary Ann Oberon, and she was from Louisiana, her family Acadian French. She was dark haired and dark eyed and she had the brightest soul, the kindest heart of anyone on campus, and everyone loved her kindness of spirit. She wanted to become a physician, and everyone knew she would. She was, I think everyone know, meant to be a healer.
And she had come to sit by me that night with purpose in her eyes. She had come to heal me.
And she did, too. It took her, maybe, a half hour to complete the job.
“What’d you do to your leg,” she asked.
“I tripped, on my stupidity.”
She laughed. “And?”
“I’ve been skiing a couple of times, so of course thought I’d enjoy racing.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I said, right when I started sliding into the trees.”
“What are you reading?”
“Oh – going sailing?”
“This summer, yes. I think so.”
“I love sailing.”
“We sail all summer, up in Maine. Have since I can remember.”
“My parents have. Not me.”
“You’re the flyer, right?”
“Not much difference between sailing and flying,” she said. “Both involve wings, both involve navigating difficult currents, avoiding rocks and other hard things. It’s all just Time Speed and Distance.”
I looked at her like I was looking at a kindred spirit – which of course she was.
Study hall was up and it was time to head back to our dorms, and she asked me to walk with her. She stopped at one point and pulled me close, looked me in the eye. “I’ve been wanting to do this for ages,” she said, and she pulled my face to hers and let slip the wettest, most tongue-laden kiss in the history of kissing, and it was like an electric charge went off in my feet and roared up my legs like a three alarm blaze. By the time it hit my face I was all conflagration, all crazy emotion lit up and out of control.
She pulled away a moment later and looked into my eyes, and I think she wiped a tear from my face. “You needed that,” she said, and then she kissed the tip of my nose. “And you may not know it yet, but you need me, too.” Then she skipped off to her house, leaving me breathless and completely confused – almost unsure of my footing. Which was, I think, her point, the strategy behind the moment – but even so, not really a nice thing to do to someone in an almost three foot long cast on a snowy sidewalk.
So within days Mary Ann and I started sitting next to one another at meals, and in class. She helped me with latin, I helped her with calculus. We held hands, looked deeply into each other’s eyes, and soon I was curled up beside her – with my head in her lap, with her fingers drawing little arcs through my hair. She always wore black tights and I loved to tickle behind her knees while she twirled-away through my hair, I loved the way she giggled and whispered “stop it!” And I remember turning over once and looking up into her eyes.
“I love you,” I told her one snowy February afternoon.
“I know,” she said, then she smiled and leaned forward and bit my ear. “I love you to, smart ass,” she whispered.
And that, in a nutshell, was Mary Ann. All warm and cuddly, everything wrapped in layers of impenetrable joy. And the thing is, I could see she was perfect for me, that we’d make a good team, and that we’d be happy together – forever.
Which was, of course, why I knew we’d never last.
Jen came and sat next to us a few weeks later, and she looked at Mary Ann with something akin to regret in her eyes, then she turned to me. “I’m flying home tomorrow,” she said. “Dad wants you to come, too. I think your father is arranging things with the Dean’s office this morning.”
“How is he?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I think he wants to say goodbye.”
Then she got up and walked away.
And I could it in Mary Ann’s eyes. The fear. I would be out of reach, out of her control – so the story in her eyes was a simple one: was love enough to keep me in her stable orbit?
When we got on the shuttle the next morning she looked bright, almost happy.
“Is your boyfriend going to meet us at the airport?” I asked.
She shook her head. “We broke up a few days ago.”
“Oh.” And I saw Mary Ann in my mind’s eye one moment, my mother the next.
Yin and yang. Opposites pulling me to their uncertain orbits, Jen a distant supernova on verge of collapse, her imploding gravity threatening to consume everything. We boarded a shiny new Delta 727 and flew to Dallas, and dad was waiting for us on the general aviation ramp at Love Field in his Baron. He helped Jen aboard, then sent me up next.
“What?” I said, suddenly concerned by the tired note I picked up in his voice.
“You take the left seat. I don’t feel like flying today.”
So, I taxied out to 13 Right – with two Braniff 707s ahead and a Delta DC9 just behind the Baron, and I’d have felt a little like a flea on an elephant’s ass if I hadn’t been so nervous about flying for the first time in months. Dad ignored me completely, of course; he turned and talked with Jen all the way out to the end of the taxiway, left me to it. I had to leave a lot of room ahead for the 707s; their jet-wash – even from a few hundred feet – was making the Baron tremble like a leaf in a gale, but then it was our turn.
“Baron triple two niner five, you’re clear for take-off. Be aware of heavy wake turbulence and contact departure on one one eight decimal two five.”
“Two niner five, wake turbulence, departure eighteen twenty-five.” I finished the run-up and pulled onto the active, looked at the clock and made my countdown – then advanced the throttles and started watching the gauges as we ran down the runway. We rotated well before the area where the 707s had, and I slipped south immediately to put more distance between the Baron and all that roiled air, then confirmed our flight plan with departure control. There were already heavy storms near Waco, my father said, and that’s why our flight plan was taking east towards Lufkin. I was reading the NOTAMs and looking over the weather when I felt her hand on my shoulder, then in my hair.
I turned, looked at her.
“You belong up here, Spud. You know that, don’t you?”
“And where do you belong, Jennifer?”
And I think I saw my father look at me for a moment, then he turned and looked out beyond the wing – at the towering anvil-headed thunderstorms brewing over central Texas.
And Jen looked me in the eye. “I belong to you.”
I turned back to the instruments, of course, tried to focus for a moment – until dad tapped my leg.
“My airplane,” he said.
“Your airplane,” I recited, then I turned to look at her again. “I don’t get you, Jen. Not one little bit.”
“You don’t have to Spud. Just understand what is. Okay?”
And dad started whistling that little ditty John Wayne did at the end of The High and The Mighty, and he had the biggest shit-eating grin on his face just then. He saw me looking and turned away, and I could tell he was trying his hardest not to laugh – and then the dam broke. He laughed so hard I thought the door was going to burst off it’s hinges, then I started laughing too.
“Uh, I hate to ask,” Jen said. “But who’s flying the airplane right now?”
Which only made things worse. Thank God for autopilots, right?
We declared VFR near Beaumont and I arced out over the Gulf and made a straight in approach to runway 36, and once we were on the ramp Dad had the ground crew tie the Baron down and gas her up, then he went off to rent a car. We drove to the hospital in silence, the enormity of the looming confrontation no longer something in a distant future – the moment was on us now, and we parked, went up to his room flying low and slow.
Which was quite unnecessary, as it turned out. The Doc was going to die, that much was certain, but he was going to go out with a bang.
“Which one of you brought the goddam dancin’ girls?” he asked as we came in the room.
“Uh, that slipped my mind, Harry,” my father said.
“Well, dammit, go get a bunch of red headed gals with hairy pussies. I feel like eating something red today!”
And Jen stepped into view.
“Well, shit,” Harry said sheepishly. “How you doin’, muffin? You fly down with this raggedy lookin’ bunch?”
Harry’s skin was deep orange that afternoon; he was in liver failure and the cancer had metastasized throughout his gut and chest, but if he was in pain it wasn’t showing just then. Jen went to him and held onto his arm, looked in his eyes and started crying.
“What’s the matter, muffin?”
“Oh, Daddy,” she whispered, and he looked up at my father, shook his head just a little.
“Let’s go find us a few dancin’ girls, Spud,” my father said, and we went and stood in the bustling corridor for a while, let the world walk on by while they talked, and we looked at one another for a long time. I guess, without saying a word to one another, we were thinking ahead. About, maybe, the day we’d have such a conversation. I guess most fathers and sons eventually do, but we’d never crossed that bridge before.
She came out a minute later, then asked me – and only me – to go in. “He wants to talk to you, Spud,” she said, and I went to her and held her when our tears came. After a while she whispered “Go…” in my ear, and I went.
The doc was quiet now, more subdued as I came in, and he looked at me as I closed the door and walked to his side.
“Don’t be afraid of all this shit,” he said, sweeping his hand around at all the IVs and instruments. “It ain’t gonna bite you, and neither am I.”
“Spud? I’m glad I got to know, even if it was just for a little bit. I’m gonna miss you, miss watchin’ you grow up.”
“Yessir. I know what you mean.”
“What are you going to do about Jennifer?”
“Jennifer. What the hell are you going to do about that girl?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“You want some advice?”
“Yessir, I guess.”
“Get away from her, son. She’s just like her mother, in every way. She’ll make your life a living hell, and try to tear your world apart every chance she gets. And all the while she’ll tell you how much she loves you, how you mean everything in the world to her.”
“That blond haired freak, as you call him? Over Christmas? That’s just a taste of what she has in store for you, so you think carefully about what you want out of life. Okay, Spud? ‘Cause she’ll suck the life right out of you.”
“Sir, why are you telling me this?”
“Because I happen to love you, kid. I never had a boy, never had a son, and I’ve come to look at you that way. Sorry, but there it is. Now, don’t start cryin’ – I’ve had enough cryin’ to last two goddamn lifetimes. Jen’s mother was nothin’ but one heartache after another, and Jen’s turnin’ out just like her. Nothin’ I can do about it, never has been, and that’s just the way it is.”
“I’m leavin’ everything to her, by the way, everything but Sirius. She’s yours, and a little money to help you look after her until you’re on your feet.”
“The boat, Spud. She’s yours now. You take her and follow your heart – straight on ‘til morning – and you see what there is to see out there. I wanted to and can’t, so it’s your turn. I want you to go out there and live, and when I see you next time you can tell me what you found.” He held out his hand just then, and looked up at me. “This is goodbye, Spud. No tears, and none of that other bullshit, just think about what I said, and take care of her as best you can.”
“Go now, Spud. Please, and send Jen and your father in, would you?”
I had a hard time leaving, couldn’t let go of his hand, you see. A pause, a sigh passed between us, then he smiled and we let go. I nodded my head once, then turned and left that room, passed them in the hall on my way outside, told them to go in.
I went outside and watched billowing, anvil-headed monsters forming north of Houston, lightning flickering in their gray bellies, and some time later my father came out and joined me.
“He’s gone,” he said quietly, and I looked at him.
“What? So fast?”
“Morphine,” my father said, looking down at the ground. “I think he’d had enough.”
Jen came out a few minutes later and she walked up to my dad and hugged him for the longest time. Somehow, for whatever reason, the Doc and my father had become friends over the past half year, really close friends, and Jen grounded herself in that sudden reality. I suspect the Doc told her how he felt, maybe even what he wanted of them both, but if so that remained something between them, and that something remained unspoken, and unbroken – for many years to come.
But his last words to me lingered. What did he mean by “take care of her as best you can?” Jen? The boat? Both of them?
We were his family by then, the three of us, and we concluded his business, had his friends over to the house after services at the local temple, then the three of us got in the Baron and flew to Springfield, Massachusetts. We drove up 91 and to the Inn in near silence, lost in our respective thoughts, I guess, and we had a last supper together. There wasn’t much to say that hadn’t been said by then, and we talked about sailing one last time.
My mom and dad wanted to make the trip, but Jen still wasn’t sure.
Because she still didn’t know where she stood with me.
Because, perhaps, I didn’t exactly know how I felt about her.
Yet I was pretty sure how I felt about Mary Ann, and I thought that strange – in a way. Strange, in a way I didn’t quite understand yet.
So, graduation. The big change. When you go from having no control over your fate, to having about ninety-nine percent control – even if all control is an illusion.
In other words, there comes a point where you own all your fuck-ups, and that time usually comes about two days after graduating from high school. Before you graduate, you can at least pretend to blame everything bad on your parents, and hell, who knows, maybe there are a few times when people actually believe you when you try.
But probably fewer times than you think.
Anyway, I got home, to our old house on Belclaire in Highland Park, and surveyed life as I knew it.
College was next, but I’d been rejected by Harvard and Stanford, my two favorites, and I’d been wait-listed by Dartmouth, my third choice – so that one was a ‘maybe’ but it was already June so time wasn’t on my side. Columbia was a go, and so was NYU, but the idea of living on an island surrounded by eight million New Yorkers made me ill. That left two schools in California in contention: Claremont College near LA, and UC Berkeley. I chose Berkeley.
And right about now I need to re-introduce you to my roommate that last year in Purgatory. A kid named Paul Anderson, and I’ve left him out of the story up to now for no good reason other than he didn’t play that big a role in my life until I came back from Christmas break – when I found that Jen had moved-on to the blond headed freak. Paul was an interesting sort. Almost inert, like a gas at low temperature – before it changes – Paul had the demeanor of, well, a rock. Perhaps even the Rock of Gibraltar. He was solid. And not just physically so, though come to think of it he was built like a brick shit-house and went on to play linebacker at USC. No, Paul was a rock of a totally different texture.
Paul played the guitar – when he wasn’t reading Socrates or bench-pressing Volkswagens – and he wrote his own music, his own lyrics, as well. And interestingly enough, his stuff was good. Real good. That October Jen and I had gone down to Boston to hear him play, where he was approached by a couple of record producers – and he of course turned them down, walked away from all that nonsense – because it wasn’t in his plan. He like music, he told me once, because it kept him centered, kept him focused on what WAS important.
For Paul Anderson, medicine was important. He was like a heat-seeking missile, locked on and closing fast, when it came to medicine. He eschewed team sports, especially sports that embodied conflict, and took up skiing and rock climbing – and he was Hell with bow and arrow. He was, too, the most compassionate human being I’d known up to that point, and a genuine empath, as well. So, the picture you should have in mind is a huge, Zen rock, climbing mountains and playing his guitar when he reached the summit. Maybe shooting the moon with a arrow, and hitting it dead-center.
That fall, one night when he was playing coffee houses in Cambridge, he met a girl. She was a ‘cliffie, a senior at Radcliffe College, and her name was Sara Keaton. She was a brilliant musician, and she fell in love with Paul’s playing and struck up a conversation with him during a break that evening.
We were with him at the table just then – Jen and myself – and I watched as she approached. Dark eyed beauty, I said to myself, locked on and tracking, and she lasered in our table and sat down by Jen. Paul looked at her and smiled – and it was like he’d been waiting for her all his life.
“Who wrote that last song?” she asked Paul.
“The lyric, too?”
He nodded his head.
“Are you, like, into Byron?”
He nodded his head – again.
And that was all there was to it. That simple exchange was all it took. Like a couple of eagles, they met in flight and mated – for life. No hysterics, no fireworks – they just met and connected: end of story. I say this fifty years on – as Godfather to their three kids. Okay?
The point of all this, and there is one, concerns yours truly when I got back from Christmas break, when the reality of Jen’s breaking up began to sink in. I think I mentioned I was despondent, that my housemother tried to intervene? I think Paul saw what was going down long before I did – and he’d just been waiting for Jen to cut me up into little pieces and send me to a sushi bar.
Around October we were sitting around after lights out, sitting in the dark, looking at a storm coming up the Connecticut River Valley, and I could see a little New York Central passenger train across the valley, headed south towards Springfield. “Wish I was on that train,” I said.
“Where would you go?”
“Away from this fuckhole.”
“Fuckhole? Man, this is about the nicest place in the world. Why would you want to get away from here?”
“Sometimes I just can’t stand it here…”
He sighed, then he was quiet for a while, but I could tell he was thinking of the best way to put me out of my misery. “Spud, what do you hope to accomplish by going out with the most vicious, manipulative cunt in the entire universe?”
I was too stunned to answer. “Paul? Did you just say the word ‘cunt’?”
“Yeah, she’s a manipulative cunt. What about it?”
“I’ve never heard you swear before. I may faint.”
“Don’t deflect the question, asswipe. Try answering one – for a change.”
“You know, I was thinking about it over the summer. I realized how much like my mother she is…”
“Oh, God no. You’re not going to blame it all on Freud, are you?”
“I don’t think I’m trying to blame anything on anyone – or anything, Paul. I just realized how much like my mother she is.”
“You’re saying your mother is a scheming, manipulative cunt?”
“You really think Jen is manipulative?”
“Jesus H Christ, Spud! She’s Lady Fucking MacBeth – only with really nice teeth!”
“Paul? You said another cuss word. Are we having an epiphany?”
“No, but you’re going to…when I throw your skinny ass through that window.”
Which gets back to returning from Christmas break, and how I was coming apart at the seams – after the breakup. He asked me questions about Jen a few nights after our return, asked me about my feelings – now that Jen was out of the picture, so to speak. I think I sounded more depressed than I realized, because my house-mother came in the next evening and talked to me, and then there was that ill-chosen race and my father coming up to check on me. Yeah. I think it was because Paul was seriously concerned about me, like maybe he thought I was about to do something stupid.
Well, I did. I joined the ski team. And while it was stupid, I’m not sure it was that stupid. But here’s the thing. He was taking organic chemistry. So was Mary Ann. And guess who was whose lab partner? Reckon he talked to her about me? Or could it be she had been asking about me? And after dad left Mary Ann waltzed into my life.
Hey, what are friends for, right?
So, yeah, we graduated. Jen got into Rice, said she’d decided to stay near home. Paul, like I mentioned, was going to USC – on an archery scholarship that was going to pick up about a third of his tuition. I should mention that during his second day on campus a football coach took one look at him and asked him to try out for the team.
“I don’t want to do anything that will compromise my studies,” Paul told me he said to the coach.
When the coach assured him it wouldn’t he suited up and went down to the practice field, and two hours later he had a full scholarship. Four years later he was drafted by the Detroit Lions, but turned it all down to go to med school at UCLA. He asked Sara to be his wife at Disneyland after his second Rose Bowl appearence, while they were on the It’s a Small World After All ride. She said yes, by the way, but you already knew that.
And I flew down to the British Virgins and had Sirius put back in the water, while Mom and Dad came down a few days later. I could tell things were strained between them, and Dad told me this was probably their last chance to patch things up, to hold things together.
“Who are you holding things together for, Dad?”
“You, I guess.”
“You think it makes me happy to see you guys miserable?”
“I don’t know, Spud. I can’t give up on her. She’ll always be the love of my life.”
“I think if you’re miserable you ought to find out why, then do something about it.”
“Maybe that’s why we’re here,” he said, smiling. “By the way, is Jen coming?”
“Nope. She told me she’s decided Galveston is where she wants to be.”
“Can’t say I blame her. She’s had a rough year.”
“Yes, she has,” I said as I looked at my mother, still lithe – still athletically inclined – and still morbidly depressed. She was the walking contradiction in our lives – she looked like a marathon runner who’d just lost the most important race of her life – and had decided to commit seppuku. Perhaps, my father and I used to say in jest, she was just waiting for us to lay out the ritual mats and hand her the knife.
I say that because my mother was, and always had been, the laziest human being ever to walk the face of the earth. Father enabled this behavior by surrounding her with housekeepers as soon as he figured out her routine – which was simple even after casual observation. She slept til noon, drank a glass of orange juice then went for a run. Usually ten miles, give or take. She’d come home, shower, then go to the country club for a strenuous afternoon playing bridge, though occasionally she’d play tennis – but no matter which she started in on her bourbon and orange juice around two in the afternoon – then she’d meet up with father in the evening for some serious drinking.
Absent from this routine is, of course, any mention of her son – and taking care of same. This was not in her game plan, and I say this with little regret and no remorse in my heart. I thought then and I still do think that spending more time with her would have been a poisonous venture with a dubious outcome, and my father apparently thought so too, which was why I was shipped off to my first private boarding school, this one in Massachusetts, as well, when I was eight years old. So I was, in effect, raised by a succession of headmasters and house mothers, all who I’ll happily admit did a much better job raising me than my mother would have, even if she’d been so inclined.
So, I lived for vacations, from time off from school, because that’s when I got to spend time with my father. And though he taught me to play golf and tennis, he also introduced me to his one true love: flying. And so with vacations, that added up to about four months a year. We made good use of that time, too.
Because he knew the score, understood what had broken down in our lives, and he felt awful about it. No, he felt guilty as Hell about it. He overcompensated be doting on me, by indulging my desire to grow up too fast, to not do the things other kids my age were doing. I had four different ratings, pilot-speak for something akin to merit badges in the Boy Scouts, before I got my learner’s permit to drive a car. I had no need for a car, or to drive. I was tucked away in western Massachusetts nine months out of the year – with no cars allowed – or at home with father. Note I do not say home with mother. By the time I was a senior in high school she was with Jack Daniels every waking moment of her life, and if she wasn’t walking around drunk, it was because she was asleep.
If you think I hated her, you’d be way wide of the mark. Neither did I pity her. I simply did not understand her. Why she’d chosen to live her life this way. She’d had every material advantage a human being could ask for: a powerful, monied family, a truly superior education, and she married a man with equal amounts of brains and ambition. She’d had it made since she was in diapers, and yet she had simply turned her back on it all and disappeared into the darkness.
Yet I looked at her now – looking at Sirius – and I saw something like magic come alive in her eyes. She walked the length of her down on the dock, her hand caressing the mahogany rail as she walked along, putting her head down on the wood and sighting her lines. When she got to the stem, the very point of the bow, she leapt – cat-like – across the five foot chasm and her foot caught the bobstay, her hand the bow-rail, and she pirouetted up on deck like some kind of able seaman right out of Nelson’s fleet off the Nile.
I was stunned.
My father only smiled.
“So, who else did you talk into making this little trip?” he asked.
“Paul’s here, his girlfriend too. She’s cooked on boats before, has a lot of sailing under her belt.”
“Mary Ann Oberon. I don’t think you’ve met her yet.”
“Ah. The girl you’ve been hiding from us. She must be something special.”
Mother was walking aft along the rail, positively radiant I might add, and she sighted up the shrouds, fiddled with a turnbuckle and asked where the rigger’s tape was.
“The what?” I replied.
She ignored me and looked ashore. “Is there a good marine supply store around here?”
I pointed and she nodded her head, then continued her inspection.
“If there’s one thing your mother knows, it’s boats,” my father said as we watched her disappear down below. “She practically grew up on her grandfather’s yachts, raced old J-Class monsters before the war.”
I was, of course, clueless about all this. After she married my father she turned away from all things Maine, even sailing, and how vowed – if only to herself – to never go back. And she hadn’t. And now I could plainly see the repercussions of that oath. When she turned her back on the sea she had simply begun to come undone.
Now she came up the aft companionway – dragging Mary Ann up the steps behind her.
“Who’s this?” she demanded to know. “And why is she in your stateroom!?”
“Ah, mother, this is Mary Ann, the love of my life. Mary Ann, welcome to the family.”
And with that my mother turned to Mary Ann and looked her over – from stem to stern, if you will – and then pronounced her fit enough. For what, I had no idea – but then my mother hugged my girlfriend and that ice was broken. “Anyone else down there I need to know about?”
“Paul and Sara are bunked forward, but they’re in town right now.”
“So, five staterooms?” she asked.
“Six, if you include the pipe berths in the stem.”
“Let’s not,” she said sarcastically. “So, you’re all the way aft, and Paul and his girl are forward?”
“The biggest stateroom is by the forward mast. Why haven’t you taken that one?”
“I thought you two should have it,” I said.
She considered that for a moment, then let it go – with Mary Ann watching all this warily, as one might a rattlesnake that’d just slipped into the dining room – during Thanksgiving dinner.
“Sara’s at the farmer’s market,” Mary Ann tossed-in helpfully. “Said she’s going to make some kind of curry tonight.”
My mother smiled. “That should be interesting,” she sighed.
Interesting wasn’t the half of it. Sara and Mary Ann cooked while my mother interrogated Paul. “What do you know about sailing?” she began, which led to an endless series of questions and drills, knot-tying demonstrations and verbal floggings. And Paul, poor, stoic Paul, didn’t know what to make of my mother – didn’t know what had hit him. I’d rarely mentioned her existence at school, if only because I barely knew her myself – and wouldn’t have known a polite way to describe her perpetual drunkenness. We were both meeting a creature that had been caged out of sight for twenty years, and who had just regained her freedom. It was a stunning, startling metamorphosis, and even my father was a little amused by her performance.
For she still was, as I mentioned previously, an actress.
A good one.
And if you didn’t understand that one true thing about her, you might have taken her a bit too seriously.
And that my father would not let us do. He knew her acts, all her routines, and had had them down pat for almost thirty years. But he had never, I repeat never, been sailing with her, and what we were proposing to do, in three months, was almost monumental in scope.
We were going to take Sirius from the British Virgins west along the Venezuelan coast to the San Blas Islands, then through the Panama Canal. From there the objective was San Francisco, but because of south setting currents along the Pacific coast of North and Central America, we planned to sail west from Panama to Hawaii, then arc east to the Golden Gate. We planned on two months, two weeks at sea, leaving us just a few weeks margin before school started.
Dad and I had almost no sea time, Paul a bit more, while, oddly enough, the girls were all accomplished sailors – so we had a little role reversal thing going on, which was interesting – and mother seemed to be coming into her own as the skipper of my little menagerie.
That said, we planned to spend the next two days stowing provisions while mother went about completing her inspection, then – barring the unexpected – we’d push off on Friday from Saba Rock, Virgin Gorda, bound for Aruba – a not quite 600 mile run to the south-southwest. Another 650 miles the San Blas Islands, where we planned to spend a few days, then an overnight at the canal for measurements and fees – then a day or so to transit, then, once in the Pacific we’d dash for Honolulu, a 5000 mile, twenty one day sprint, before turning to San Francisco, another 2200 mile, ten day grind – into the wind.
And the Doc had spent tons getting her ready, too. She was as well equipped as any sailboat could be, in 1965, anyway. Which meant we had two really good sextants onboard, a couple of VHF radios, a Ham rig as well as an ADF/VOR set which would have been more appropriate in Dad’s Baron. We laid in supplies and stowed everything safely out of harm’s way, and we spent that Thursday before departure going over our duties and responsibilities while on watch. With hurricane season breathing down our neck, mindful we couldn’t make excuses and postpone our departure even a day, we went ashore for one last meal on dry land that evening.
And I hasten to add that my mother had not consumed one drop of alcohol since her arrival. Take that as you will, but she wasn’t even sneaking a snort after midnight, and it was beginning to show. Alcohol is addictive, and alcohol withdrawal is real. She was becoming grumpy, occasionally grouchy, then downright mean, and as my father had cued us in we did our best to help her along. She stopped eating, until we forced her to eat – something, anything – but it turned out the only thing she wanted to eat was – my father.
They would disappear down below every few hours and we’d hear them giggling and carrying on, and it was contagious. Paul and Sara would disappear as soon as my parents got back in the sunshine, then Mary Ann and I would have a go, and pretty soon I imagined we’d be bounding across the Spanish Main fucking our brains out every few hours. It was a happy, if inconceivably naïve vision of what waited for us.
For you see, when we got back to the Sirius later that night, there was a new duffel bag on deck.
And there was Jen, sitting in the cockpit – waiting for me.
One of the, shall we say, benefits of mother’s alcohol withdrawal was insomnia. She could not sleep, and did not even want to try after the first few attempts. Her motor ran until it stopped, then she conked out for a few hours and was soon up for another twenty hours. When she got too grumpy she took father below and cleaned his clock for a half hour and then all was right with her world – for a few hours, anyway.
And to set the matter straight, they weren’t old, not then and not ever. They graduated from Harvard, well, she from Radcliffe, in 1941, so they were not yet fifty years old, and they were both strong, active people. I say this by way of re-introducing Jennifer back into our midst, and as the last crew member to join the Sirius on her voyage of discovery.
Because my mother took one look at Jen and shook her head. “What are you doing here?” my mother asked.
“This was my father’s dream,” Jen answered, and I’d have to say with more than a little defiance in her voice, “and I’m going to be a part of this.”
Even in the dark I could see Mary Ann glowing, perhaps I should say radiating, fierce heat. Anger? Rage – murderous rage – was seething, all banked down and seething – in her eyes. Paul, bless his heart, walked right on by with Sara in hand and they disappeared to their forepeak stateroom – shutting the stateroom door behind them as they went.
My father of course went to Jen and picked her up, hugged the snot out of her and kissed her on the forehead – so of course my mother grabbed him by the nuts and dragged him to their stateroom. They were quiet about it, but I feel sure she got him off repeatedly, for an hour later we heard cries of ‘Enough, woman! It’s chapped half to death…you’re going to kill me if you keep this up!’
And Mary Ann had the grace to leave me with Jen in the cockpit.
And then we were alone, under the stars and alone in the deepest night of our lives. I went and sat next to her, and she leaned into me. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“I understand,” I had the temerity to say.
“I loved him too.”
“And I still love you,” she whispered. “I’m not going to do a thing to break up what you have with Mary Ann, but I still love you. And I always will.”
I could forgive you for thinking I was naïve enough to believe her, but I had my doubts. It was impossible not to after the Doc’s parting words, and especially not after the blond headed freak episode, so I stood and picked up her duffel and carried it to a stateroom on the far side of my parent’s, and showed her where to stow her foul weather gear and sea boots – then I said goodnight and went aft to Mary Ann.
Who was beyond seething now. She was in full melt-down mode, livid tears falling freely in an uncertain gravity that now seemed too heavy, too laden with grievous expectation.
And I laid her down, smothered her tears with a blanket of kisses, then I looked into her eyes. “There is nothing that girl could ever do to change the way I feel about you, and I’m going to spend every waking moment of my life loving you, so stop it. Just stop it, right now.”
And the strangest thing happened.
I had flipped the right switch, for her – and for me. I declared the truth, and she knew I was telling the truth – and that was the end of that. We made love and went to sleep; the next thing I knew sunlight was streaming in port lights and I smelled bacon frying in the galley. I went on deck and helped Paul with the sails, and with Dad standing at the chart table we cast off lines and motored into the well-marked channel. Once we were off the eastern, lee shore of Virgin Gorda we hoisted sail and we were off. Off like a herd of turtles, as my father used to say.
We, and I mean all of us, Jen included, ate Sara’s breakfast in the cockpit – and in the freshening sea air my mother wolfed down her plate – and asked for more.
I looked at my father – who simply smiled and winked at me – and I shook my head, wondering what lay under the building clouds just ahead.
(C)2017 adrian leverkuhn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | email@example.com | Yes, this is Part I, and yes, as always, it’s just fiction. I’ll be working on a conclusion over the next few days – so stay tuned, and thanks for reading along.