A fairly long romp here, so consider yourself warned. Coffee on the boil?
Music? Of course:
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
Theodore RoethkeIn A Dark Time
October 2001 Palo Alto, California
Eugene Sherman was sitting in a hard plastic chair in the waiting room outside of the Radiology North imaging suite at Stanford University Medical Center. He was slumped over in an uncomfortable hard plastic chair with his face in his hands, and he hadn’t slept in 30 hours. He’d driven his mother home to get some rest and had returned just in time to learn that his father had possibly thrown another clot and that he’d been rushed to imaging for a possible diagnosis. He’d been sitting in the same prickly chair for almost an hour when his dad’s neurologist came out with some news…
“I’m sorry, but he’s definitely had another CVA,” the neurologist said in answer to the question he found waiting in Sherman’s eyes. “I don’t think, well, hopefully this one wasn’t as bad as the other two, but we’ll know more later this afternoon.”
“So, he’s going back to the ICU?”
The neurologist nodded. “Yup.”
“Did you make the initial Alzheimer’s diagnosis?”
Again the neurologist nodded. “I did, yes. We’re still in the early stages, so with any luck at all he will have a few, well, he may still get to make a few more good memories before everything slips away.”
Sherman shook his head and then looked away, out a nearby window. “I never saw this coming, Doc. I never saw my old man going out this way…”
“Would you like to talk to someone about it? Maybe an end of life counselor?”
Sherman shook his head again, still looking out the window. “No, I’m not ready to go there just yet.”
“Understand. I’ll see you up in ICU in an hour or so. They should be moving him back up in just a few minutes, and I’ll have a better idea of what comes next by then.”
“Okay. See you there,” Sherman said, then he walked over to the window and looked out over the campus and at all the old oaks leaning as a hot, dry wind came in off the bay – before he saw the old football stadium in the distance. Gauzy memories of Saturdays with his father came rushing in and he felt light-headed for a moment, so he made his way over to the hard plastic chair and sat, face in hand once again as honey colored memories of throwing the football with his old man found their way back to his hands. Then memories of his last Army Navy game his senior year at Annapolis, after he’d driven the Midshipmen down the field for a desperate last minute score to win the game, and his dad had been there on the sideline, cheering him on – just like he always had. When he graduated at Pensacola and got his wings, his dad was there once again, and when he came home from Germany – minus one leg – his father had stayed by his side all the while…getting answers and finding solutions to each new problem that arose.
Always there. He’d always been there for me, hadn’t he?
But…what now? What can I do for him now?
What can I do for mom?
He felt more than saw a girl walk up and stop in front of him. “Are you Mr. Sherman?” the candy-striper said.
He looked up and tried to smile. “Yes, that’s right.”
“I have a message for you,” the girl said as she handed him a note scrawled out on a post-it note.
“Thanks,” he said – but the girl was already walking away so he looked down and read the note – from Betty Cohen: “Please call ASAP,” he read, noting the New York number.
“Well, isn’t this just a kick in the pants?” he sighed, and as there was a phone in the waiting room he walked over and dialed the number, entering his own phone number when prompted for payment information.
“Hello?” Sherman heard Betty Cohen say.
“Hi there. Gene Sherman here. I just got your message.”
“Oh, Gene! Thanks for getting back to me so quickly.”
“No problem. What’s up?”
“Listen, I’m on my way to Kennedy now, but I just wanted to let you know I’m going to be in San Francisco through the weekend, and I wanted to know if you think you might have time to get together for dinner sometime?”
He shrugged, even if the gesture was only to himself, because just then he saw his father in his mind’s eye. “Things are kind of fluid here right now, Betty. Do you have my number at the house?” She read off what she had and he confirmed that was the best number to reach him. “When were you thinking of meeting up?” he added.
“Oh, I thought I’d leave that up to you,” she replied.
“Okay. Well, where are you staying?”
“I’m downtown, at the Stanford Court. I’m slated to speak at a conference on Friday morning, so I’m kind of free until then, and after, for that matter.”
“When does your flight get in?”
He heard her fumbling through papers, then: “Scheduled arrival is eight-ten this evening, on American.”
“Okay…well, how ‘bout I pick you up at the baggage claim and I’ll take you into the city. We can grab a bite and talk over things then?”
“You know, I hate to put you out like that…”
“You’re not. Matter of fact, I kind of need to get out of the house right about now, if you know what I mean.”
“How’s your dad?”
“Getting another MRI right now; he threw another clot.”
“I’m sorry, Gene. I know this is a tough patch, so if…”
“Betty, I friendly face would be great right now, so don’t…”
“I am. I’ll see you at the airport. Now – go, catch your airplane!”
She rang off and then he smiled – though as he thought about the incongruity of her timing he shook his head and chuckled a little. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he whispered, rubbing the top of his left thigh to get the circulation going again, before he made his way back to the ICU.
Betty Cohen’s flight was ten minutes late, which worked out well enough as traffic had been heavier than expected, but even so he made it to the baggage claim before she arrived – and he was more than a little surprised – once again – by how overtly elegant she appeared as she walked up to him. Most of the men gathered around the carousel cast little covert, sidelong glances her way, their eyes lingering on her legs a little longer than what might be considered polite, and the first thing that popped into his mind was that Markus Cohen was a pure-bred idiot.
“How’s the leg?” she asked as she walked up and kissed him on the cheek.
“A little stiff today. I’ve been walking on it more than I have in a while.”
“Maybe we can get some exercise,” she said, grinning. “You know, maybe work out the kinks?”
He cleared his throat as he met her grin: “Well, I have to say I’m up for anything.”
“Good,” she said as she turned to the carousel, suddenly darting over to the slowly spinning ramp and grabbing a medium sized tan leather suitcase.
“Can I get that for you?”
“Nope. You just work that cane,” she said, her accent now like something out of the Deep South. “I can handle this thing just fine.”
“Okay, I’ll bite. You originally from Georgia, or South Carolina?”
“Oh? What gave me away?”
“Seriously?” he chuckled.
“Savannah,” she answered, though she was laying it on thick now. “Pure low country, I think they call it. Shrimp and grits for breakfast, don’t you know.”
“Never been,” Sherman said, “but I hear the food’s decent.”
Decent? Decent? Those are fightin’ words, Sherman!” she said, laughing gayly.
“Well, I’d think with a name like Sherman…”
“Ooh, that’s right. Say, you ain’t related, are you?”
“He was my great, great grandfather.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Well, yes, I am…but it was worth it to see the look on your face.”
She slapped his arm playfully, then she fell in beside him as he began walking for the day lot, and they made idle chit-chat all the way out to his mother’s car.
“Your mother drives a Porsche?” Betty exclaimed when she saw the old dark green ’78 911 Targa.
“Yup. She’s the original ‘Little Old Lady from Pasadena,’ if you get my drift.”
“Pardon my asking, but how do you manage?”
“Oh, a bit of luck, really. Porsche had the Sportomatic transmission back then, a forerunner of the current Tiptronic version, and Mom just had to have it. It’s kind of complicated, but once you get used to modulating the throttle it’s a decent system.”
“That’s right, and that means it was just made for people modified just like me!”
“Oh, Gene, I didn’t mean to make fun…”
“You didn’t, Betty. I did. Maybe that’s just the way I deal with it these days, but let’s not tip-toe around my leg, okay? Just say what you’re thinking, because I can handle it.”
“So, heard from your girl?” he asked as he opened the front boot.
“You do know she has a little crush on you, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I kind of figured something like that was going on, maybe a kind of ‘daddy-transference’ thing…in a Freudian manner of speaking.”
“Ooh, I’m impressed. You speak Freud?”
“Sure. Doesn’t everybody?” he sighed.
“Not really. In fact, you’d be surprised how far he’s fallen out of favor.”
“Doesn’t mean he was wrong, Betty.”
“You’re probably right. Say, can we pop the top, ride into the city with the top off?”
He reached in and popped the levers, then collapsed the top and put the top into it’s bag and then into the boot. “Ready when you are,” he said as he opened her door for her.
“I’ll let you do this just once, okay?” she said.
“Yes Ma’am. Anything you say Ma’am.”
Again she slapped his arm, again playfully, but then she turned and faced him and kissed him full on the lips, and she wasn’t being particularly shy about the way she kissed him, either.
And so, when they came up for air a few minutes later, Gene Sherman kind of settled back against the car and grinned. “Wow. Where’d that come from?” he asked as he looked into her eyes.
“I didn’t want all our baggage hanging around waiting for us, Gene. I wanted to get this out there in the open so we can see if there’s something there…”
“Well Hell, darlin’…I felt that one in my toes, so if that means something…”
“You think we could head on over to the hotel right now? I kind of feel something going on down there, too.”
“Let’s do that,” he said as he helped her into the low-slung seat, then, ignoring an uncertain stiffness in his groin, he went around and hopped behind the wheel. “So,” he continued, “what did Beth have to say?”
“Well, she did say she thought that you and I would make a cute couple…”
“Cute, huh? Well, I’ve heard worse…”
“I can’t tell you how much you impressed her at dinner last weekend. Her father knocked her for a loop, she was really off balance, but there you were. You know what to say, what to do, and instead of a horrible night she said it turned out to be almost hopeful.”
“Hopeful?” he said. “Now that I did not expect.”
“You have no idea how you make people feel, Gene. I mean, not really.”
He accelerated onto the 101, heading north into the city, and with the top off the buffeting grew too loud for casual conversation, but he was conscious that Betty was looking at him as he drove, and at one point she leaned over and slipped her hand around his arm…and he felt that same electric messaging between them.
A half hour later he pulled up to the valet stand in front of the hotel and, as she went up to the lobby, he put the top back on and instructed the attendant on the intricacies of the transmission before he joined her in the reception. A few minutes later they were in her room, and he was suddenly so nervous, so unsure of his appearance and his self, that he began pulling away from her.
Yet she seemed to have anticipated this reaction and took over from there. She guided him to the precipice and then let him decide whether he wanted to make the leap with her.
It was, he decided, not so far to fall.
“Hi, Mom. How is he?”
“We had a good night. He managed to say a couple of words, so maybe there’s hope.”
“Oh, that’s so good to hear. How are you this morning?”
“Okay. Are you home now?”
“No, still up in the city.”
“Well, when you come I’ll just go home and get cleaned up a little then come on back. Maybe he’ll recognize you this morning.”
“Maybe so. I’ll be there in an hour.”
“Okay. Just come on up when you get here.”
He rang off and turned to Betty. “You sure you want to come down?”
“Yes, Id like to meet your mother, and I’d like to have a picture of your father in my mind, so, if you don’t mind?”
“No, not at all. You ready?”
When they were back in the Porsche he turned to her once and looked at her, still not sure how to think about last night. Was she on the rebound? Had that bastard really been having one affair after another for the past ten or so years, and had she truly been – essentially – leading a celibate life…? If all that was so…perhaps that explained the explosion of sexual energy he’d experienced. Yet the truth of the matter was simple enough: he’d never experienced anything like last night ever before, and he suddenly felt more unsure of himself than ever before. Sex had never been all that important to him – yet it obviously was to her. She’d been simply insatiable and had only grown more so as the night wore on, yet now, sitting beside him, she was acting in the most demure way imaginable, almost pensive and bordering on the contrite – like last night had been a pleasurable thing, but a guilty pleasure nevertheless.
“So, did you call Beth?” he asked.
“I did. She sends you her love.”
“Hey…her words, not mine,” she said, grinning sheepishly.
“She is a sweetheart.”
“She always has been, but that’s been her achilles heel, too. Her father was merciless, always taking advantage of her eagerness to please. Kind of like Charlie Brown and Lucy holding that football.”
“Really. I’d imagine she’s got trust issues after going through all that…?”
“You have no idea.”
“Geez, I’m sorry she had to grow up with someone like that.”
“I feel like a lot of it was my fault, but like most physicians I was never around to mitigate.”
“I know. My mom was the same. Dedicated, in love with what she chosen to do with her life.”
“Did you feel that way? Like she loved her work more than you or your father?”
“No, not really. I think I found her passion more inspiring than anything else, and I know my dad certainly did. It’s a calling, Betty. I understand that, and what’s more, I respect the nature of the passion, too.”
“Yeah, I think so. When you get out there on the floor time just disappears. You can help people, they need you, and you really make a difference. Maybe some people can’t see that, maybe they even get jealous, but that doesn’t take away from the nature of the calling…what you’ve chosen as your life’s work.”
“Mark hated me for it.”
“And yet he married you. Why do you think that happened? Was it love?”
“Mark has never loved anybody, or anything for that matter, other than money.”
“And did you know that going in?”
She looked away. “I saw it in him, but I thought I could…”
“What? Change him?”
She nodded her head. “Yeah.”
“We can’t change what people are, Betty. I’m not really sure such elemental change is even possible. You set yourself up for infinite struggle if you do that, as a spouse, I mean. Yet sometimes we fall in love, or think we do, when all we’re really feeling is a little less lonely.”
“Is that what you’re feeling right now? A little less lonely?”
“Me? Hell, Betty, I feel like a teenager right now. I feel like I’m in love for the very first time.”
She took his hand in hers as she nodded and smiled. “Me, too,” she cried. “And the sun is out and shining on my face and I’m in love with life for the first time in my life, too! Oh, God, I feel like a slave who’s just been cut loose and set free! Oh, Gene, you’ve made me feel this way and I love it. I love you, and I love the way I feel right now.”
“Gee,” he added – a little sheepishly, “why don’t you tell me how you really feel?”
“Say, Beth reminded me. She had an idea and I want you to hear me out, think it over before you answer. Okay?”
“Sure. Fire away.”
“We planned a trip for Christmas vacation this year, the three of us, to go skiing in Switzerland. Beth still wants to go, too, only she wanted me to ask and see if you might like to come with us?”
“What? Skiing…in Switzerland? Are you serious?”
“You know how to ski, don’t you?”
“I did, yes, but that was…”
“And Beth has already checked. There are ski schools there set up to teach people with all kinds of challenges – even blind people, for heaven’s sake – and besides, we booked two rooms so you would have your own space and everything…”
He shook his head while he grinned, then he took a deep breath and stepped right up to the edge. “Well, who am I to argue with the two most headstrong women I know? So sure, I’ll go. Let’s do it!”
“You will!? Really?”
He squeezed her hand and marveled at the return pressure, and the way that made his heart sing. “You know, the way I’m feeling right now, Betty, I’d do just about anything to see you smile like that…”
Looking out the 757s window on final to Logan, dark splotches of Massachusetts appearing between variegated openings in the low hanging layer of slate blues clouds just below – then this changing world defined by pulsing blue-white strobes inside the softness. Five hours since he’d left her at the airport in San Francisco, five hours since he’d cried when the reality of leaving her slammed home. What an impossible week. What a soft cascade of emotion.
Finally breaking through to his mother, finally talking to her about all the things they’d never talked about before. His father in and out, little lucid flashes of recognition between variegated splotches of the dark landscape that waited for him just ahead, in a darkness all his own. And when Gene wasn’t lost inside all those mesmerizing cloudscapes, he was finding his way through the lofty softness of Betty Cohen’s entrancing eyes, more often than not his lips grazing the infinite softness of her enveloping smile.
Then lining up for 4-Right, flaring just after clearing the ship channel and then the soft runout after touchdown, and he suddenly realized just how much he missed flying…because this whole Swiss vacation had snapped him out of the silken reveries of all his silent denials. ‘Goddamn! If I can ski…what else can I do? Could I pass the physical, get my license and start flying again? And if I can do that, what would keep me from…”
All these renewed possibilities were suddenly intoxicating in the extreme, and in a very real sense he had Beth Cohen to thank for this expansive new view. As the jet turned off the runway he looked at the terminal building and he was struck by the thought – about the how and the why of this girl asking him out to dinner with her parents. Life turned on a dime, didn’t it?
“You never know when,” he muttered, just under his breath – as the airliner pulled up to the gate and stopped. Doors opened, his wheelchair produced, a RedCap called. After everyone else deplaned he was pushed up the Jetway and down to the baggage claim area, and yes, there she was – and with the same blissfully aware eyes her mother had bestowed on him. Even the same smile graced her face.
And he was surprised how glad he was to see those echoes.
So as she walked up he stood and held out his arms. She fell into his embrace, buried her face in his chest and wrapped her arms around him, and perhaps everyone in the area – if anyone even bothered to notice such things – might have thought this just another heartfelt reunion between father and daughter, because that’s exactly what this looked to be.
And in truth, maybe in their innocence that’s exactly what had sprung up between these two, yet there were other things floating in the air between them, tiny little things in new orbits around halos rarely seen and never heard, but felt most deeply in the heart.
Two months later, Sherman and Beth Cohen checked their bags at the Swissair counter in Logan’s Terminal 5, then they went upstairs to wait for the boarding call. Sherman had grown increasingly worried about the choice to fly Swissair as they’d declared some sort of bankruptcy earlier, in October, but then again almost every carrier was struggling in the wake of events on September 11th. He walked up to the huge expanse of glass that looked out over the busy ramp and saw that their jet, a wide body MD-11, was already at the gate, then he recalled this was the same aircraft type that Swissair had lost back in ’98 due to an unconfined electrical system fire…
“You okay?” Beth asked. “You look kind of worried…?”
“Oh, not really worried, but I’ve found that more and more often I feel edgy when I fly commercially, like I’m not the one flying and I can’t see what’s happening on the flight deck and that just bugs the shit out of me.”
“Is that called being a control freak?”
“Probably,” he said, grinning madly from ear to ear.
“Maybe you need something to drink…like a stiff belt of bourbon or something…?”
He looked at his wrist and shook his head. “Nah…I want to keep close to the gate.”
She nodded. “How’s your leg feel?”
“You know, not too bad. Those exercises have really helped. So did the new padding.”
“Good. Do you remember what time Mom’s flight left?”
“Twenty minutes ago…that is, if they left on time. I’m going to go pick up a couple of magazines or something. Want anything?” he asked.
“Maybe a bottle of water?”
He nodded and started to walk off, but the announcement for pre-boarding their flight came over the PA and he stopped and turned to Beth, shrugging as she came up and took his arm in hers.
“Goodness, but you are as antsy as a cat on a hot tin roof!” she sighed.
“I guess its been a while since I took an honest-to-Pete vacation…”
“Maybe you should take more, you know?”
The gate agents checked their boarding passes and waved them on, and Sherman held on to Beth with one arm while they walked out the Jetway, and they made their way to seats 4A&B and he stood aside in the aisle and waited for her to get her small carry-on stowed. “You want the window or the aisle?” he asked.
“I took a water pill,” she whispered. “You take the window…not that it matters much.”
“Yeah. It’ll be dark all the way, so what’s to see?”
Sherman grinned. “Stars, for one thing, but there’s a good chance we’ll have a strong aurora tonight, and we’re on the left side of the aircraft so we might catch a sight of it.”
“Don’t wake me, okay?”
He chuckled at her lack of enthusiasm. “Got it,” he said as he got himself buckled into his seat.
“Did you finish grading our exams?”
“So? I’ve been dying to ask. Are you going to keep me in suspense until we get back?”
She shook her head and groaned. “No preferential treatment, huh?”
“Good for you, Professor Sherman,” she said – with a straight face.
Yet about all he could do was shrug – though maybe he grinned just a little. “How did that ethics paper come out?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I felt kind of lost trying to defend my final position, like I was grasping at straws, ya know?”
He nodded. “Ethical dilemmas are often like that. No clear cut solution, so what matters most is the justification you construct to support your decision. But hey, life is kind of like that too, I guess.”
“So you think ethics is good preparation for life?”
“Hardly. It might be a good framework to employ when you’re confronted with an unusually complex ethical dilemma, but common sense and a decent moral compass are really all you need to get by in life. Spending hours to work out the moral underpinnings of a questionable situation is a luxury most people just don’t have.”
“I’m surprised to hear you say that.”
“Oh really? Why’s that?”
“Well, you strike me as very ethical…”
“Common sense, remember? And a strong moral compass?”
“So, you’re saying, in effect, that some people are born better able to handle difficult moral problems?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Sure you did. Because it seems to me that lots of people lack both those things and who knows, maybe they’re born that way. You know about Piaget and Kohlberg?”
“So, people aren’t born with those things, they develop over time, and that implies that a person’s environment…”
“Are you sure you really want to talk about this for the next ten hours?”
She smiled and shook her head. “Oh, crap! I’m sorry…I’ve been arguing about all this stuff for the past two weeks and…”
“And it’s hard to shift gears. Yeah, I get that, but it’s time to decompress now. Just shake your hands and muss up your hair, do whatever it takes to leave school behind for the next two weeks…”
“But I’m going to stress about my grade the whole time, so how do you expect me to…”
He leaned over and whispered in her ear, and she smiled.
“Really?” she asked.
“Yup,” he said as a flight attendant walked up with hot towels and champagne. “And this is exactly what you need to cut the cord, Beth.”
“A hot towel?”
They were early and met Betty when she deplaned in Geneva, and they grabbed a shuttle to the main train station in the city center. They caught an express that rounded the north shore of Lake Geneva on its way to Lausanne and Montreux. The train turned south and east there and proceeded up the narrow Rhone Valley to Visp, where they transferred to the much smaller line that led directly to Zermatt, and Sherman seemed to spend the entire trip from Geneva on with his face turned to watch the passing landscape…
“My, my, my,” Betty Cohen said after about a half hour of this, “you sure are quiet this morning. Did you get up on there wrong side of the bed or something?”
He turned and looked at Betty, then at Beth. “No sleep last night,” he said as he yawned. “Someone decided she really wanted to stay up and talk.”
“I slept like the dead,” Betty said, grinning guiltily. “At least I did after they served dinner.”
“Did they roll a cart down the aisle?” Beth asked.
“Yes,” Betty replied, “and it was loaded with roast beef and Beef Wellington, carved right there in the aisle.”
“We had creamed spinach,” Beth added, “and Yorkshire pudding! It was almost surreal!”
“Same on our flight,” Betty sighed. “Then it was lights out for yours truly…”
“Not on our airplane,” Sherman growled. “We talked…ethics…all the way to Ireland, then we switched over to what it must be like near the center of a super massive globular cluster.”
“Oh?” Betty said, casting a quizzically sidelong glance Beth’s way while she wondered what was going on. “Now that must have been…interesting.”
“Interesting?” Sherman said as he turned back to the passing landscape. “You should play more chess.”
Betty caught the sinking inflection in Gene’s voice and immediately understood. After Betty had told Beth that she and Gene would share a room once they arrived in Zermatt, her daughter’s whole demeanor about the trip had changed. Beth had, in fact, gone from open and excited to walled off and almost combative, and things had only grown worse in the weeks since. And now that she knew Gene understood the state of play she decided it was time to act.
But just then Gene turned to Beth and patted her on the knee. “You know, I’m so tired I think I’ll be a real drag on you two for a day or so. Why don’t the two of you take the big room so I can catch up on some shut-eye?”
Beth watched her daughter brighten up instantly, yet she wasn’t exactly sure what had flipped her switch…the import of his words…or was it the familiar pat on the knee – but then Betty had looked at Sherman, sure she was reading him well enough but not at all sure why he’d caved so easily. She was sure he’d never get involved with a girl Beth’s age, but then again they’d just spent almost four months ‘together’ – albeit in a classroom setting. What was going on now?
“These cities look like Bauhaus run amok,” he said to no one in particular, “but as soon as you get out in the country everywhere you look you see another mountain chalet, even on flat farmland. I wasn’t expecting that.”
They passed through smaller mountain towns, stopping just once at Sierre before the express departed on the last stretch to Visp. Once there, Gene followed Betty and Beth across to the narrow gauge Visp-Zermatt Line, and they boarded the small First Class carriage and settled in for the final 80 minute ride – and almost as soon as Sherman sat he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When he opened his eyes he realized the train had stopped, and Beth was shaking his shoulder.
“Come on, Sleepy-head. Time to get up…we’re here!”
He sat up, wondering how – or why – his mouth felt like a horse had slept in there, but he stood and as suddenly recoiled as a piercing, knife-like pain arced from his stump up his spine.
“You alright?” Beth asked, automatically getting under his right arm and holding him up, maternal concern clear in her eyes, and in her voice.
And this complex set of reactions was not lost on Betty Cohen who, nevertheless, pretended to be oblivious to the exchange as she walked out of the carriage and then into the thin mountain air. She waited for them out there, watching as her daughter helped Sherman get settled with his cane once he was on firm pavement, then she noticed he was sweating and in real pain and she too went to him.
“Do you need anything?” she whispered in his ear.
“May be an early night for me,” he groaned. “I gotta get this contraption off my leg ASAP. How long a walk do we have?”
“You stay right here,” Betty said to Sherman, then she turned to Beth: “Come with me, and I mean right now,” she snarled, more than a little cross now.
She found the horse-drawn carriage from the hotel and instructed the driver to get their luggage loaded then to help get Herr Professor Sherman into the carriage. When they arrived at the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, Betty checked them in and made sure that Beth was put in the single, second floor room and that she and Gene Sherman shared the large top floor suite, then she had the hotel staff get his wheelchair and bring it up to their suite. After their luggage was delivered she helped Sherman out of his clothes and into the jacuzzi-tub, and she took her time rubbing his shoulders, then his left thigh. She examined his stump as she dried and helped him into bed, then she stormed off to her daughter’s room, by now seething with barely contained fury.
Beth was unpacking in her room, her lower lip protruding in full pout mode when her mother knocked on the door. By the time Betty left her daughter, and that was almost a half hour later, Beth was in tears and one more time Betty regretted the day she’d met Markus Cohen. She asked the concierge where a certain private ski school was located and took off in that direction, because she had work to do if this vacation was going to go according to plan.
Because Betty Cohen planned literally everything – and with the precision of General George Patton’s final North African campaigns – and she’d be damned if she was going to let her daughter interfere. This vacation WAS going to come off as planned, but as was always the case, it was going to be up to her to make it come together!
She arranged for time early tomorrow morning so this specialized ski school could get equipment fitted to Gene’s special needs, and with that done she walked over to a ski shop close to the hotel to pick out her’s and Beth’s ski’s for the morning. She looked at her watch and noted their dinner reservation was an hour off so she walked back to the hotel and went back to Beth’s room.
“Are you ready for dinner?” Betty asked.
“I’m not hungry,” came her daughter’s sullen reply. And she was already under the duvet, another bad sign…
“It’s not like you to pull this kind of nonsense, Beth. Do you want to tell me what’s going on between you and Dr. Sherman?”
“What’s going on? Are you kidding, Mom? Nothing’s going on! Can’t you see that?”
“And that’s the problem, isn’t it? You want something from him, right? Something more?”
Beth nodded, then she sat up on the side of her bed, clearly scrapping for a fight. “You’re goddamn right I do. I’m nineteen years old, Mom, and I’ve never had a father…not a real father…and I want one who isn’t going to treat me like a punching bag, ya know? Someone who’ll actually love me for who I am…you know, the fat kid who always gets the highest grades in the class…because that’s me, Mom! The fat girl with the zits on her forehead. The fat kid who eats too much. The fat kid who’ll never do anything good enough. That’s me, Mom. That’s the way my father treated me, and you know what, Mom? I’m glad he’s gone! I’m glad I don’t have to watch him verbally beat you up whenever he doesn’t get his way, and I’m glad I don’t have to go to sleep at night hoping he won’t come to my room and humiliate me before he runs off somewhere, probably to his fucking mistress’s place… So yeah, Mom, I want something more!”
Betty Cohen stood there in shock, her arms crossed protectively over her chest, then she pursed her lips and shrugged. “Okay. Get dressed now. We’ll meet you in the dining room in a half hour.”
“Right. Sure thing, Mom. Whatever you want, ya know, ‘cause I sure don’t want to disappoint you, ya know?”
She went to the elevator in a dizzy huff and hit the call button, not really wanting to wake Gene up but needing him tonight, of all nights, to be there for Beth. She rode up in silence, barely looking at a spry French couple who seemed to be studiously ignoring her, then she walked down to their suite and slipped into their room…
…only to find Gene up and ready for dinner, dressed in black – and with his leg on!
And she ran into her arms and burst into tears. “I just had a run-in with Beth…”
“I can only imagine…” Sherman sighed as he ran his fingers through her hair.
“It seems she wants a father, Gene. She said things she must have been holding in for years.”
“Has she talked to you about Markus?”
“Yup. Every Wednesday night for the last two months.”
“Every…what do you mean?”
We go out to dinner on Wednesdays, usually to the Chart House, and she vents.”
“Yeah, about her dad, about her anger, about you?”
“Me? What on earth do you two talk about concerning me?”
“Anger, for the most part. How alone she felt, how – in her words – you didn’t stand up for her.”
“That’s not exactly true, Gene.”
“And believe me, Betty, I get that. A lot goes on behind closed doors that kids don’t see, that they aren’t supposed to see or hear, but Betty, she needed someone to listen to her and she chose me. I wasn’t then and I’m not going to turn away from her now.”
She kissed him just then, hard, on the lips. “Oh, God, how I love you,” she whispered.
“Ditto, Kid. Now, think they serve up decent grub in this place, or is there a McDonald’s around here we can hit?”
“You were a good skier once, no?” his instructor remarked.
“I could usually get down the mountain in one piece,” Sherman sighed, adjusting to the unusual pressure of the ski on his prosthetic leg.
“I still think we are rushing things just now, Herr Professor. Outriggers and one ski would be…”
“Would make me look like a gimp, Hans. And I’m not into the whole gimp thing, ya know?”
His instructor shook his head but knew stronger skiers often had the most trouble adjusting to getting out onto the snow again. They pushed and pushed until they finally broke down and settled on lowered expectations, but after two hours on the mountain with this navy pilot he wasn’t so sure this was going to happen. Stubborn and hard-headed weren’t adequate words to describe this man, and he was much stronger than he first appeared.
But after two runs without a fall on the very short, very easy run under the Sunnegga chairlift, his instructor decided to take Sherman up to the midway station on the Blauherd lift, and try the longer though still easy run down to the Finoeln chair; if he could handle that run a few times today the crusty old pilot might be ready to tackle the Gornergrat in another day or so.
“Are you ready to try a longer run, Herr Professor?”
“Please, call me Gene. The whole professor thing was never my bag, if you know what I mean.”
“I do, yes. I taught engineering, then quit to come home and make specialized skis for special needs skiers.”
“You’re from Zermatt?”
“Have you climbed that?” Sherman said, pointing up the valley to the hulking Matterhorn.”
“Seventy five times. I am a guide when the weather turns warm.”
“Any people like me ever make the summit?”
“A few, yes, but Gene, this is not recommended. It is a very difficult achievement for even dedicated climbers.”
“My dad and I climbed a lot when I was a kid. Yosemite, mainly, but we did Shasta, Hood, and Rainier one summer.”
“So you have experience on ice?”
“If you are serious about this, Gene, I will get you to the top, but you will need to be in the best shape of your life. You understand this?”
“Define this, please?”
“You must be able to run at least ten kilometers at sea level, and be able to complete fifty chin-ups. You know these?”
“I do a hundred, three times a week.”
Hans looked at Sherman anew. “Your leg still gives you trouble?”
Sherman nodded. “Yeah, sometimes a lot, but Betty thinks I need a better prosthetic, and she’s found a lab in New York that makes legs for people who do marathons.”
“Then start work at a climbing wall when you get home, and work on your rope skills too. If this is something you really want to do, please let me know by the end of March. The best times fill up rapidly after that.”
“When is that? July?”
“Usually the last two weeks, yes, but the crowds can be daunting if the weather is good. Guides are not required, so tourists come up and try…”
“How many die?”
“Usually ten or so. Sometimes a few more, but much depends on the weather.”
“When I was a kid I looked at pictures of this mountain and wondered…”
“It starts that way for most. With me, the mountain was outside my window and my father was a guide, so…”
“You’re a lucky man, Hans.”
“You know, after hearing all the things you have accomplished I would say that you are the lucky one, but isn’t it always that way?”
Sherman nodded. “Yeah, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”
“Exactly. Just so. It is a human thing to never feel contentedness, even when contentment is all around.”
Sherman looked up at the mountain and sighed. “Ain’t that the truth, Hans. Ain’t that the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
Though breakfast and dinner were included with their rooms, after a full day skiing their second day Betty announced they were headed out to a hut near the bottom of the Sunnegga area that served a very special fondue in the evening, and at five-thirty a horse drawn carriage came for them.
How’s your leg?” Beth asked after she watched Sherman almost hop up into the carriage.
“Good. You know, I think I’ve been taking it a little too easy on the thing. What a wake up call, ya know? Time to really start pushing. Time to get in shape again, ya know?”
“Hans tells me you’re doing well enough to come up the Gornergrat tomorrow,” Betty remarked. “Would you mind if we joined you?”
“Would I mind?” Sherman cried, “would I mind! Hell, darlin’…I’m countin’ on it!” He took a deep breath and turned to Beth, smiling now. “Damn, but this place sure must agree with you. You’re as pretty as a peach,” he said, taking her hand and giving it a little squeeze.
She smiled too, even if she was a little unsure of his unusually upbeat performance. “I hear you’re doing pretty good up there. What did you do today?”
“Well, Hans wasn’t sure, but I talked him into going up the Rothorn and we skied up there all day, then we came down all the way to the village. Man, I was whupped. Never felt so tired, but then the endorphins hit. What a rush!”
“You skied all the down the Rothorn?” Beth said, incredulous. “To the base?”
“I did, and I feel great!”
“We were going to try,” Betty added, “to ski all the way down past Riffelalp but there’s just not enough snow yet. Maybe this next storm will drop enough.”
“What do you think about doing Cervinia?” Beth asked. “I hear it’s a pretty long run?”
“I’d love to do that one at least once,” Betty added.
“I’ll ask Hans, see what he thinks.”
“See if he can come along with us?” Betty said. “He sounds really dialed in.”
“He is. You know, he takes people up the Matterhorn in the summer,” he said, watching their reaction.
“You mean, people climb that thing,” Beth said, turning around and looking up at the mountain. “Why?”
“Good question,” Sherman sighed. “When I think of a reason I’ll let you know.”
Betty watched this exchange with interest, because she could see it in Gene’s eyes. He wanted to do it. He wanted to make the climb.
But then again, for that matter so did she. In fact, she’d wanted to all her life. That’s why she’d decided to come to Zermatt in the first place, and that’s why she’d hooked Gene up with an instructor who was also a guide. And it really didn’t matter to her if Beth came or not. She turned and looked up at the mountain and smiled. It seemed to speak to her just then, to call out her name, and yet she never wondered why…
The next morning they took the Gornergratbahn up to the old weather station and observatory and they skied the gentle slopes up there in the sun all through the morning, then once again the group – Beth, Betty, and Gene, as well as both of their instructors – skied all the way back down to the village, an exhausting slog that sent everyone straight to bed after a brief attempt at dinner…with the proviso that everyone rise early so they could start the very long day needed to make it down to Cervinia and back.
They woke at six and had a lite breakfast of fruit and poached eggs, and met their instructors at the entrance to the Trockner Steg lift, and they began the almost hour-long journey up to the Theodulpass, and Hans liked to boast this was the only ski run in the world with a passport control checkpoint at the summit – though it was often unmanned. After the group arrived at the pass everyone stretched and cried out as an icy torrent of wind-driven air bit into all their soft, tired muscles, but then Hans led them all in a series of exercises to loosen up the knots and kinks. Yet the sun had just barely cleared the mountains to the east when the took off, and so they were soon skiing in deep, cold shade. The terrain around the pass was wide open, too, with no trees in sight, and depth perception was limited in the dim light, so when Beth fell she tumbled to a flailing stop covered from head to toe with powdered-sugary snow, and she sat there in a ragged heap, suddenly and completely disoriented, and almost in tears.
But when Gene slid to a stop just under her position and helped her stand, she grabbed onto him and held him close – and tight, and he seemed to feel more than hear she was crying…
“Hey, kiddo, you alright?” he asked…gently.
“No, not really. I’m cold and I can’t tell which hurts more, my thighs or my feet.”
“My head,” he sighed, “feels like an elephant is sitting on it.”
She laughed and held on to him tighter still, and right then and there, deep down she had to admit she loved him so much that that hurt most of all, because she could never have him, and never even tell him…
She let go and stood up straight and he helped brush the snow off her back and legs, then they skied down to the others.
“Bad fall?” Betty asked.
“No, not really,” Beth said, and probably more cheerfully than she felt. “I think I just got disoriented and lost my balance.”
“Try to look further down the mountain,” her instructor said helpfully, “and look where you want to start your next turn.”
Beth nodded and blew out a deep breath. “Ready when you guys are,” she said.
They took the long way down the valley, the entire run devoid of trees but the sun finally cresting the ridge behind them and dramatically warming them up, and they made a few more runs before they skied down to Cervinia for lunch.
And there was no fondue over here on the Italian side, no raclette or other Swiss mainstays. The menus in this village were heavy, four course pasta and veal feasts that took hours to complete, and they simply didn’t have enough time for all that. Hans took them to a small basement bistro that served hearty mountain fare to instructors and guides, and when she saw a huge stone fireplace roaring away in a corner, Beth went right to it and sat on the stone hearth, unbuckling her ski boots while her back soaked up the heat.
Her mother came over and sat next to her, wrapping an arm around her daughter’s shoulders and pulling her close. “You did really well this morning,” Betty said encouragingly.
“Mom, I’m really beat. Could we take a day off tomorrow, maybe just hang around the village and check things out?”
“That’s why we came for two weeks,” Betty said. “I think we could all use a day off!”
“Oh thank God,” Beth sighed. “I really didn’t want to let you guys down.”
“That would be impossible,” Gene said as he sat in a chair he’d just pulled over. “I can’t believe how good you’re doing up on that steep stuff, Kiddo! For an intermediate skier, you’re doing great!”
“Me?”Beth cried. “I’ve got two legs, Professor Sherman…and I look at you and know I can’t let you down. I’ve got to keep up, ya know?”
Gene nodded as another tumbler fell into place. “Listen, Beth, I raced in high school so you need to realize that once upon a time I was actually a pretty good skier, and though it’s been a while it’s all coming back to me. Sure, I’ve got to relearn things because of the leg thing, but sports have always come easily to me. Anyway, in my book, Kiddo, you’re doing fantastic.”
Beth nodded but she looked up into his eyes just then. “You think you could do me a favor?” she asked.
“Sure,” he nodded. “Name it.”
“Stop calling me ‘Kiddo,’ okay?”
He looked into her eyes, saw the hurt inside and he nodded. “Done,” he said. “Now…Hans tells me they make a mean lasagna here. Wanna go for it?”
By the time lunch settled and they’d made it all the way back up to the Theodulpass, the group had just enough time to ski back down to the village before darkness settled over the valley, but as they reached the lower slopes – which turned out to be little more than trails cattle had worn through the trees over the ages – they ran into icy patches and even a few rocks, so before they reached the hotel they’d each fallen at least once. Hans and Gene more than once.
When they reached the hotel, Gene told Hans they were going to take the day off tomorrow…
“Oh, thank goodness!” Hans said. “My knees could use a complete day in the hot-tub! What about the day after? Do you want to continue with the lessons?”
“Yes, I do. At least for another three or four days, but I was wondering. Could you meet me in the climbing center sometime tomorrow? I want to study up on the mountain, get some reading material…?”
“Absolutely! Why don’t we meet there just before noon, and we can get some lunch after and talk.”
They shook hands and Gene joined Beth and Betty in the ski room, telling the technician they were taking the day off tomorrow so they’d not need their skis in the morning, then they took the elevator up to their rooms, agreeing to meet for dinner in an hour or so. After they made it to their room, Beth threw off her parka and muttered “You know, Gene, I think I’m too tired to screw tonight. What about you?”
But Gene Sherman was already curled up on the bed, gently snoring away, his ski boots still on.
Betty went over and helped him sit up and undress, but by then he was ready for dinner. “Geez, I’m sorry, Betty. I must’ve just passed out or something…”
“You’re exhausted, Gene. And so am I. The last mile, in those trees, I thought I was going to just quit. My legs were burning, they were shaking, and I was sure if I fell I wouldn’t be able to get up…”
“I need to check my stump. I think it may be bleeding.”
She helped him out of his bibs and he undid the harness that held the prosthesis to his “residual leg,” and when she pulled the sock off his stump she shook her head. “You’re blistered, alright,” she said. “Let me get some gauze, and I’m calling for the wheelchair.”
He shook his head. “Goddamnit,” he snarled. “How bad does it look?”
“It’s been worse,” she sighed. “Maybe we should take a couple of days off?”
He looked at her and nodded. “You know, I don’t think Beth will put up much of a fight about that.”
“She seemed pretty upset up there – for a little bit, anyway. What did she say to you?”
“She really didn’t say much, Betty. It was more like a physical thing, the way she was hanging on to me. I felt need, real need on her part, like she needed me to hold her just then… I don’t know…does that make any sense?”
She nodded. “It does, because I need you to hold me, too. Sometimes it hits me real hard, Gene. And yes, it’s a physical reaction. Sometimes I feel that if I can’t grab hold of you and hold you tight there’s some kind of invisible hand out there that’s going to yank you away from me, and keep you away…”
He looked at Betty, not really knowing what to say or how to meet this immediate need, but instinctively he held out his arms and she came to him. “Nothing’s going to take me away from you, Betty. I love you, and there’s no force in the universe that’s going to change that.”
She buried her face in his neck and held on tight, yet in that instant he was hit by echoes of Beth’s clinging needs and the thought hit him…were these two women really so very different? He loved Betty and by now that was an unquestioned fact, yet at the same time he had feelings, even strong feelings for Beth. Were these the feelings a father usually had for his daughter? He didn’t know, yet he could barely grasp the implications of so many conflicted, and conflicting emotions. What made the whole thing particularly confusing was the sensation of touch, because when he held either there was almost no way to distinguish Beth from Betty. Their skin was identical, even the so-called galvanic response of their skin on his own. Their eyes were identical, so too their mouths. Betty was a little taller, Beth was indeed a little fuller-bodied, yet the differences were trivial, and he imagined that in ten years Beth would be indistinguishable from her mother. So, he wondered – while he clung to Betty – would he ever really be able to think of Beth as some kind of daughter?
The phone rang and Betty picked it up.
It was Beth, down in the lobby: “Mom? Are you guys coming down?”
“I’m putting some gauze on Gene’s leg, and as soon as his wheelchair gets here we’ll be down.”
“You want to eat here or go out for fondue?”
“I take it fondue sounds good to you?”
“Uh-huh, if you guys don’t mind?”
“Okay. Ask someone at the front desk which restaurant we should try, will you? Someone’s at the door now, so we should be down in a minute.”
“Help me with my leg, would you? I don’t want to use the chair tonight…”
“It looks pretty angry, Gene. You sure?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I’ll just pop some naproxen, see if that gets me through the night.”
“Everyone else I know would be mainlining opiates by this point. Gene, I don’t think you ought to push so hard…”
“I’ve been wimping out the last ten years, getting soft. Time to change that.”
“Is that what this whole Matterhorn thing is all about?”
He looked at her and shook his head. “You sure you’re not a shrink?”
She smiled. “Sorry, but I really enjoyed my psychiatry rotation. I gave it a thought…”
With his leg now securely attached, he grabbed his cane and stood, gradually shifting weight onto his raw left stump. “Yeow! Now that smarts!”
“Want the chair?”
“Hell no!” he growled as he walked to the door. “So, we doing fondue tonight?”
“I think that’s what Beth wants.”
“Good, good. Nothing better than a bunch of bread and a trough full of oily cheese. Yum!”
He met Hans at the Climbing Center late the next morning and they went over the basics: conditioning, equipment, and of course, the direct costs of securing his services as a guide and all the ancillary costs like lodging on the mountain and expendables like rope and such.
“It won’t be inexpensive, Professor, but most people who undertake such a climb are rarely concerned about the cost.”
“What do most of your clients say is their main reason?”
“The challenge of climbing one of the most difficult mountains in the world, and certainly one of the top five in Europe. It is not the Eiger North face, you understand, yet nevertheless the Matterhorn presents unique challenges, of which the most difficult is the mental challenge associated with making the entire ascent on a razor sharp ridge line. As such, the summit is one of the most terrifying places on earth.”
“From what I’ve read so far that route isn’t all that technically demanding…”
Hans laughed. “That is true enough…for the ascent. Yet what most people fail to adequately consider is that you come down the mountain by exactly the same route, but here is the thing, the real problem. When you are climbing up you are looking up, and you are slowly pulling yourself up one step at a time. Yet when you are coming down you are looking down, but recall you are coming down a knife edge and gravity is now working against a slow descent. Gene, the simple truth is that the descent is much more difficult, and most people find this part of the affair much more challenging psychologically.”
“Yeah, I can see that. There isn’t exactly an elevator to take you back down to the bottom, is there?”
“Yes, our mountain is very unlike the Eiger in that regard. There are many easy routes down after you gain the Eiger’s summit, including by train. Not so with Matterhorn. In fact, it is an odd truth that here almost all accidents happen on the descent. The saying is, when you are on the summit, anyway, that if you feel yourself falling you must yell out “I am falling – to the right!” so that your guide may have time to jump to the left and keep you from taking the Matterhorn elevator, which is a thousand meter nonstop free-fall down to the rocks in the valley. And Gene, here there are almost always accidents, and every summer, too. And so we usually see many serious injuries, and also many fatalities. You must consider this when you make your plans.”
“Cheerful thought, Hans. Thanks.”
The guide shrugged. “This is a part of the allure, Gene. There are no great challenges without equally great risks.”
“Are you familiar with the concept of Death Wish?”
“I am indeed, Gene. The greater question you might consider here and now is how familiar are you with the concept? Now, I see two women waiting for you out on the street. Shall we take them to lunch?”
© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this was a work of fiction, pure and simple. All rights reserved.
Oh, maybe this is a little more appropriate: