by Linda A. Lavid
“There are drivers and there are passengers,” my father says, “and there are the wannabes.” He takes his eyes from the road and glances at me. “Those are the people you got to watch out for.” He hasn’t bothered to shave. A patchy gray stubble pokes out along his sagging jaw line. Or is he growing a beard?
“A passenger wanting to be a driver, a driver wanting to be a passenger. Doesn’t work.”
“Hmm,” I manage, and turn my attention to the passing scenery.
When it doesn’t snow in late fall western New York is depressing, as if the dim, colorless landscape were lit by a bare hanging light bulb. A stark forest of leafless trees encroaches upon the highway. The ground cover is littered with decaying leaves and fallen branches.
“Just as well your mother didn’t want to come. Drives me crazy, so tensed up, telling me to slow down, watch out for this, watch out for that. I tell her, ‘you drive’, but no, she just wants to make me miserable.”
I keep quiet. Defending someone can be used for ammunition later, something like – You know Meg, Christie agreed that you complain too much, especially when I’m driving. Instead I say, “None of this is remotely familiar.”
“It’s the highway. Built twenty years ago. It’ll cut the travel time by half.”
“So you’ve gone back?”
“A couple of times.”
“How’d the place look?”
“Gone through some changes.”
“Good or bad?”
He shrugs. “Hard to say.” He pushes a lever and the window hums down. A rush of frigid air breaks into the comfy heat, rattling my eardrums. He takes a deep breath. “Smell that.”
Diffusing into the car is a dank odor reminiscent of wet dirt and worms. I button the collar of my coat.
“Cold?” he asks.
“No, no, I want you to be comfortable and enjoy the ride.”
The window then slides up, cocooning us in quiet.
We are heading to the cabin. The one my father owned for three years. He had bought it when my brothers were teenagers and I was around twelve, starting my period, trying to figure out how to curl my hair, wear eye shadow. Back then the drive was an hour and a half over asphalt, then gravel, then dirt. The place had been purchased to reel us in, to keep us from growing up, moving on, but by the time we were teenagers it was too late. We all wanted to stay in the city. We had lives, lives that were put on hold in the ‘boonies’, the ‘dueling banjo backlands’ my brothers would say. Every moment there had been endless. I wonder now if we had electricity.
My father laughs. “Electricity? Of course. And running water and a propane tank. All the comforts.”
“But time went on forever,” I say, “as if we were in a blackout.”
“Problem was you guys didn’t like not having a television.”
“That must have been the problem – no television.”
“But there was plenty to do. We had a radio, books. Your mother brought games, cards.”
A memory comes to mind – how after a couple of hours the playing cards stuck together and couldn’t be shuffled. “Oh, yeah. Black jack.” And we fall silent.
I was supposed to be taking my mother Christmas shopping, going to the mall, having lunch, but Thanksgiving dinner took a nasty turn when my brothers, Rob and Dan, related anecdotal stories about the cabin, stories that made my mother laugh and my father head for the bourbon. By the time the pumpkin pie was sliced, my father had gone from blubbering to caustic to blubbering again. “Ingrates” became “assholes” before he started to weep. It was then, as my brothers corralled their wives and kids and slunk into the night, that I promised to join him on this trip, a hopefully brief detour down memory lane.
Mentally I begin a Christmas list. My nephews are getting to be a funny age, too old for toys, too young for clothes. I couldn’t go wrong with video games, but I don’t have a clue.
“So, Dad, what would you like for Christmas?”
He snorts and checks the rearview mirror. “Don’t get me anything, honey. Just want you to be happy.”
Oh, brother. My parents never talk about my marital status – single and approaching forty, but there’s always a lingering subtext in their commentary that hums below the surface. I could mention Jack and finally put to rest any assumptions of theirs that I might be too picky or too shy or a lesbian. But the relationship, at this juncture, is tentative – he has a wife.
“Dad, I am happy. Does that mean I can cross you off my list?”
No response. Clearly a sign I’d be heading to the men’s department to buy something brown. “What’s your shirt size again?”
The car barrels along the forsaken stretch of highway. “Ask your mother.”
Amid the desolation, there arise the occasional new builds, full of angles and skylights, tucked neatly into wooded areas flanked by shiny SUVs and satellite dishes. Who’d live there? I assume a large percentage are energy-squandering isolationists with more than their share of disposable income to burn. Suddenly the cabin, or my memory of it, is honorably efficient, modest, even beatific.
“When you went back, did you get to see the inside?”
“No, just parked by the road.”
“Sorry you sold it?”
“Had no choice.”
Whether that was a yes or a no, I couldn’t be sure. My recollection was that the ownership of the cabin came to an abrupt halt after both my brothers, one a senior in high school, the other a junior, skipped school, loaded themselves, eight friends (three of whom were sexually compromising young women) along with a keg of beer into a van and drove to the cabin, where, for twelve hours, a party ensued that would have gone unnoticed except for a bonfire that spread to some adjacent trees threatening to decimate the area’s only redeeming feature – the woods. Subsequent to the event, my father was served with papers, taken to court and fined five thousand dollars, an exorbitant amount at the time. Shortly thereafter the place went on the market and both brothers got jobs in a nursing home kitchen where they had to wear hairnets. I was thrilled.
“Why not look for a place now?”
He fiddles with the rearview mirror. “Wouldn’t be the same.”
I have no words of consolation, support. Perhaps chasing the past then reeling it forward is trickier than one would suspect.
For the third time that afternoon I check the signal on my cell. Jack promised to call. He’s probably on route as well, heading back to Chicago from his in-laws in Cincinnati. Holidays for him and his wife are still spent together for the sake of the generations both above and below. There’s no reason to do otherwise. My commitment to anything long term is likewise uncertain. At least for now.
An exit from the highway looms. My father puts on the signal. “We’re almost there.”
We veer to the right. He’s staring ahead, the corners of his mouth are relaxed in a faint smile.
Soon we’re maneuvering down a two-lane country road that curves, rises and falls. Scrubby homes with mismatched windows and peeling paint hug the road. Rusty Interstate signs and mailboxes that stand on crooked posts roll by. The newfound wealth and mini-estates seen from the thruway have not stretched this far. Signs of life appear. A cat stares out from beneath a car without plates; a Shepard-mix mutt, chained to a tree, freezes. The forsaken animal bares his teeth and lunges at us. His eyes bulge as the taut chain yanks hard. The dog yelps in pain, then cowers. God, get me out of here.
Before long the car slows. Less than twenty yards ahead is a sign with an arrow. I decipher the faint lettering – Sherwood Lane – and my father makes a right. We are facing a steep incline. The Cavalier engine revs up, sounding heavy, lumbering. Gravel spits out from beneath the tires. I grab the hand rest. The angle is unsettling, unnatural in a car, prone as if in a dentist’s chair. How could I have forgotten this? Still, one thing is familiar – my ears pop like before.
The dismal road tightens even more, barely wider than a single drive.
“Are you sure there are still houses up here?”
His judges the sides. A wayward branch scrapes the car. “No, everything’s the same, just the foliage. It’s denser.”
Barely perceptible a fork appears, one branching higher, the other to the right at a more reasonable incline. He navigates a slow bumpy turn. I’m sitting upright but the progress has slowed. My heart is beating hard and I want this to be over. What if we can’t turn around? Or fall off and end up down some ravine? But miraculously there appears to be a clearing. I lean closer to the windshield.
“It’s coming,” my father whispers reverently.
An open area yawns before us. The road widens and there’s order to the otherwise untamed woods. Grass is planted on both sides of the gravel road. Farther to the right, lined-up railroad ties prevent a roll down a disappearing embankment. On the left, grass climbs a sloping mound. My glance travels up the hill. There it stands.
The cabin’s hidden since a sizable deck has been added that jets out. Propped and leveled by huge posts and crossbeams of pre-treated lumber, the porch extends well beyond the sloping hill. An attempt to finish the underside of the pinnings has begun. Sheets of latticework are tacked on in some spots.
He turns off the ignition. “This is it. What do you think?”
I want to say “for this we traveled when I could be shopping”. But I don’t. “That deck.. It’s new, right?”
“Yeah, wasn’t here last time.” He surveys the area. “Gotta be a great view from up there.”
“Maybe I’ll just get out for a minute and stretch my legs.”
I don’t like the sound of this. “You’re not going up there are you? Dad, it’s not our property.”
“Don’t be silly. Can’t do any harm to look inside the windows.”
I’m horrified. Sure it’s an empty building but there’s something creepy about my own father peering with cupped hands through a glass pane. “Dad, they probably have motion detectors or alarms.”
“Christie, I’m not going to break in. Come with me.”
Not wanting to either stay behind or head up the hill, I begin to present an argument when a disembodied voice calls out, “Looking for someone?”
The human voice is unnerving. At first I’m not sure where it’s coming from, then I see.
Standing on the slope, half-hidden in the shadow at the far side of the cabin, is a stocky gray-haired man in a flannel shirt.
I lean toward my father. “We should leave. Tell him we’re lost.”
“Don’t be silly,” Dad says. He pops open the door, gets out and calls up. “We used to live here. I’m with my daughter to see the place.”
“Want to take a better look?” The guy waves. “Come on up.”
“Sure it’s no bother?”
The two men’s voices echo, sounding louder than they should.
“Hell, no. Good to have company.”
The place must be doomed. Not only off the beaten path, but a portal, where once entered, leaves every soul desperate for stimulation.
Dad turns. “C’mon Christie. Let’s see the place.”
My imagination slams into overdrive. Who is this guy? A hunter? And where’s his car?
“Dad, I don’t think– ”
“Suit yourself then,” he says and turns on his heels.
My father doesn’t climb the grassy slope but walks farther away toward a timberline where a graveled driveway turns upward. I now recall a circuitous route that travels up and around the cabin, then merges into the road we just came off. I re-evaluate the man. On second glance he appears less sinister. He’s wearing wire-rimmed glasses and Dockers.
My father climbs the road and the man walks down to meet him. They shake hands then both look appraisingly at the cabin. Oh what the hell, and I get out of the car.
“Bought the place three years ago,” the man says as we enter through the side.
The kitchen area is no longer. Gone are the metal cabinets and the worn linoleum floor. I’m standing in a mudroom. The area is paneled in knotty pine and the floor is ceramic. A starched and ironed gingham café curtain covers the lone window that, from the upper half, shows the woods behind. Cubbies, like the kind outside Kindergarten classes, line one wall. Some coats and sweaters are hanging inside. Footgear – rubber duckies, winter boots, slippers – are neatly paired and resting on a mat along the floor.
My father reaches down to untie his shoes.
“Don’t bother,” the man says. “Wife’s not here.”
My father smiles knowingly and we cross another threshold.
The first uncensored words from my father are, “Holy shit.”
I’m likewise awed. We are standing in the back of a large room with a finished vaulted ceiling dotted by recessed lighting. The room is remarkably bright, glowing actually. Soft beige walls and an open floor plan fill the expanse. A modern, downsized kitchen with stainless-steel built-ins fits snugly into a U-shaped corner. Nail-head leather furniture, a couch and two chairs with ottomans are placed strategically around a gas fireplace. Another seating area surrounds an entertainment area with a flat TV screen. Beautiful Navaho-design throw rugs define areas. But all this is secondary to the view.
At the far side, where the deck has been added, there is a double bank of sliding glass doors. I’m drawn forward.
Standing on the precipice but still inside, I look towards a westerly direction. The sun, lowered in the sky, is breaking through some clouds. We are on very high ground. A sea of trees spreads out before me. But it’s the sky that’s the most breathtaking, majestic. Striations of purples, grays and greens consume the vista. Never have I noticed such color. “What a view,” I say aloud.
There’s no response. I turn back. The man is pulling down a hidden ladder at the far end.
“Here’s a loft area, threw in a couple of windows. Sleeps four comfortably. Great for the grandkids.”
My father nods but seems distracted. “You’ve done a lot of work.”
“I’ll say, the place was too confined. Needed to open it up.”
My father steps toward a door, the only room separate from the great room. “Was this the back bedroom?”
The man reaches for the knob and opens the door. “Not any more. Made it into a full bath. Separate shower. Tub’s got some jets.”
My father glances inside. “A lot of tile work. Must have cost a pretty penny.”
“Son-in-law did it. He’s a plumber. Has a subcontractor. Not too expensive. When did you own the place?”
“Long time ago, twenty-five years or so. Just a getaway, you know.”
The word getaway makes me smile. I want to say, “get-as-far-away”, but I don’t. I then think about myself and Jack. “Do you ever rent it out?”
The man shakes his head. “Nah. It’s only empty for a short time in the spring.”
Ironically, I’m disappointed.
“Christie, “ my father says, “We should get going. Your mother’s probably making dinner.”
The man says, “Bring your wife sometime. Door’s always open. Name’s Lou.”
“I’m Doug,” Dad says. “Thanks for the offer but my wife...Well, she doesn’t care for the country.”
Back in the car, I say, “What a place.”
My father shrugs.
“And that view. How could I have forgotten something like that.”
My father revs up the car. “They tore down all the trees in front. Place is nothing more than glorified suburb.”
“All fancy smantcy.”
There’s no point in arguing. I pull the seatbelt across and click it on. The strap presses on my cell. Before we head back, I make sure it’s still working then place it on my lap. By the time we reach the thruway my eyes are feeling dry and heavy.
At four-thirty we pull up to the house. Not only has the winter darkness seeped into the afternoon hours, but the home blends too easily with the surrounding shadows. Neither the kitchen nor living room lights are on. The home looks as if the residents are out, perhaps gone on a vacation.
Dad swerves onto the driveway. “Your mother must still be shopping with Aunt Pat.”
“Maybe they went to dinner.”
But once inside a light is shining from beneath my parent’s bedroom door.
A weak voice answers. “I’m in here.”
Dad throws his keys on the table and heads to the bathroom.
I knock lightly.
“Come in,” my mother says.
Still dressed, she’s lying on top of the made bed with an afghan draped over her.
“Taking a nap?”
"No," she says.
But she’s lying. A stack crumpled of tissues sits on the bed stand. Her eyes are bloodshot.
“How was the trip?” she asks.
“Mom, what’s wrong, are you sick?”
“I have a headache.”
“But your eyes are swollen. Have you been crying?”
She puts her finger to her mouth, then nods toward the open doorway. “Where’s your father?” she whispers.
“In the bathroom. What’s wrong?”
She leans forward. “Close the door.”
None of this is unusual behavior. Whenever I’m around my parents take the opportunity to talk about the other. I shouldn’t appease her, but I do.
After shutting the door, I return to bed and sit on the edge. “What’s wrong?”
“What was it like?” she asks.
“What was what like?”
“Oh. You wouldn’t have believed it. The place is gorgeous. Totally redone on the inside.”
She rears back, looking horrified. “You went inside?”
“The owner was there. Gave us a tour.”
“And how was your father?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“How did he react?”
“Didn’t seem impressed.”
Suddenly she has a spurt of energy and sits up. “Really?”
“Yeah. Here’s this absolutely great place and he was totally nonplussed.” I shake my head. “God, seemed like he missed the old place.”
My mother’s face freezes. Suddenly her eyes well up and she’s reaching for another tissue.
“What is wrong?”
“Nothing...I’m just emotional.”
“Doesn’t seem like nothing–”
There’s a knock at the door.
My mother grabs my wrist. “I can’t see him like this. ”
At the door I peek out and say, “Mom’s not feeling well.”
He bobs his head, trying to look inside.
“I think she could use some soup. Would you mind?”
“Right, I’ll run down to Chin’s and get some wonton.”
Back on the bed, I say. “Okay, what’s going on?”
She slams her fist on the mattress. “That damn cabin.”
“Mom, what’s with you and the cabin?”
She gives me a hard look. “You don’t know? Your brothers never told you?”
“Told me what?”
Her voice is remarkably forceful. “About your father’s love nest.”
Her face crumbles. “Oh, Christie. He used to go there with Mrs. Lambert, the woman who lived next door.”
Lambert. Lambert. Yes, she had two young children who I used to baby-sit for. A redhead. But she was married. “Mom, you sure?”
“Your brothers found them. They had skipped school and saw them together with their own eyes. Through the window in the back bedroom.”
The floor suddenly seems to slant. The story can’t be believed. But then...
“The fire wasn’t accidental, Christie. Your brothers were so upset with your father, they tried to burn the place down.”
I jump from the bed. “What!”
“Christie, please don’t be upset. I just – ”
“Everyone knows about this except me?”
She reaches out. “Honey, you’re not the only one. Your father doesn’t either.”
“Mom, that doesn’t make sense..”
“Oh, Christie, he doesn’t know that I know or that the boys know.”
“You two never talked about it?”
She looks small and scared. “God no. I couldn’t, not ever.”
I return to the bed and put my arms around her. “Mom, I’m sorry.” She’s trembling. The bones in her back are close to the surface. If I squeeze too hard, they might break.
“Everything’s fine.” I say. “Besides, that was years ago.”
Sniffling, she pulls away. “It was his idea to get me soup.”
I’m confused. “Yes.”
“Well, then he must still care. At least a little bit. ”
Suddenly my cell rings. I pull it from my pocket and glance at the read out – Jack. The incessant, intrusive ring is called dancing raindrops.
“Honey, aren’t you going to get that?”
With each ring the pull to answer it weakens. I turn off the power. “It’s not important.”
© 2005 Linda A. Lavid