Authors: Paul Fleischman
“I'd forgotten about this little graveyard hidden away out here,” said Leo.
I studied the inscriptions on a cluster of stones. “Most of their last names seem to be Pyle. And most of them didn't live very long.”
Time flees. A strong argument against sleeping in late.” Leo stepped over the low stone wall. “Something a sluggard like me, with no wife or kids to wake him up, can use.”
“You must not have slept too late to have driven all the way here from Boston by nine.” I followed him over the wall and we continued our stroll through the woods behind the house.
“I got used to getting up early last semester. Had to teach an eight o'clock class.” He converted a branch to a walking stick. “Italian literature of the Renaissance. A subject that put many students back to sleep.”
We passed several gnarled apple trees, some bent-backed and dead, some with a few leaves, all looking misplaced among the pines.
“But tell me, Oliviaâhow are you finding rural life?” A chipmunk darted past us. “Fresh eggs. Clean air. No bookstores for miles. Mosquito bites. Giant leeches in the lakes. . . .”
A woodpecker's drumming rang through the forest.
“It's all right,” I replied. “Kind of boring, though.” I searched for something more to say, then noticed Leo had halted and was pointing with his walking stick.
“Haven't seen that since I was a boy.”
We both angled left and found ourselves approaching a large, stone-lined pit.
“What is it?” I asked.
The hole was about four feet deep and rectangular. “An old cellar, I suspect.” He squatted at its edge. “Those rocks over there were probably part of the chimneyâall that's left of the house.”
I crouched. “When do you suppose it was lived in?” I realized I was speaking softly, as if we were intruding on its occupants.
“If those folks in the graveyard are the ones who built it, it might have been standing two hundred years back.”
chill skittered up the length of my spine. I stared ahead blankly. My ears heard no sound. Then I jumped down into the pit, my feet disappearing beneath a foot of dead leaves, and discovered my mind repeating a line that my teacher had paused upon when we'd read
last year: “Ripeness is all.” Walking around the basement, entranced, running my fingers over its stone sides, I knew that some bud inside me had burst. I no longer wanted simply to collect rocks; I wanted to know the lives of the people who shaped them into tools and lined their cellars with them. Buried lives, hidden like stones underground, waiting to be unearthed.
“They probably got their water from the creek over there.” Leo gestured with his stick.
The house and its dwellers were becoming more real. The children had walked to the creek to fetch water, and no doubt had grown tired trudging up the hill. Their last name was Pyle. I thought back to the tombstones and tried to recall the first names I'd seen: Sarah, Nathaniel, Obadiah. Suddenly, I remembered something.
“Those apple treesâcould that have been their orchard?”
“Good!” shouted Leo. “Why didn't I think of that?”
I broke into a smile, then reminded myself that my month of sampling my father and the fabled East would be up in two days. By the time I'd climbed out of the cellar, explored the grounds, and found a rusty key, I wasn't sure I wanted to accept my option to rush right back to Berkeley.
“Sounds like your father's still splitting wood.”
We emerged from the pines and could see him in the distance.
“Have you ever had any heart trouble?” I asked.
“Not a bit.” A light breeze combed the long grass and played with Leo's wispy red hair. “The result, I believe, of a daily dose of Bluebird ale.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Good God!” he burst out in mock amazement. “Since I brought a six-pack, allow me to offer you your first tasteâor would I be guilty of contributing to the good health of a minor?”
“What's the drinking age in New Hampshire?”
“My age exactly.”
We greeted my father, still frantically swinging his ax like a wood-splitting John Henry. He'd brought out his radio and tuned in the Red Sox, which din we escaped by walking around to the front of the house and sitting on the porch, each with a Bluebird ale from the fridge.
“Smells like pea soup in the kitchen,” said Leo.
stretched his long legs and slowly propelled himself back and forth in his rocking chair.
“You know my father. He seems to think that pea soup is one of the four basic food groups.” Having tasted beer only once before, I sipped cautiously from my bottle. Then I squinted, discreetly I hoped, and swallowed. “Something the body needs every day.” I took a bigger sip, doubting I'd ever feel that way about Bluebird ale.
“Probably tied to his being a writer.”
I scooted my chair toward Leo. “Why is that?”
“A lot of the greats in the arts lived on diets heavy in legumes,” he declared.
I took another pull from my bottle, hoping that that might clarify matters.
“Tolstoy was a big pea-soup man. And then there was Schubert, dead at age thirty-one of an overdose of lentils. They say that near the end he'd trade away a song, a quartet, even an entire symphony for a pocketful.”
My stomach was empty. I could feel the ale going to my head. In spite of which, I strongly suspected that this son of historians was making up facts, as my father enjoyed doing.
“Most scholars,” he went on, “think that there must be some special trace element in the beans.”
“Vitamin Pea-Twelve?” I laughed at my own joke.
Leo belched and excused himself. “Some have even suggested a link between flatulence and the creative process.”
I spit out my mouthful of ale, watering a potted geranium in the process.
“I've always been attracted to women who can hold their liquor, Olivia.”
Upon hearing this, I spit out the swig I'd taken to replace the one I'd lost.
“However, despite your low marks on this point, I find you a most attractive niece.”
All at once, I felt I might start crying. I stared at my uncle, flooded with gratitude. Why hadn't my father ever spoken those words?
“You ought to come down to Boston for a spell. I could drive you around, show you the sights. Take you to hear some good classical music.”
“I'd love to. That really sounds wonderful.” I took another sip from my bottle. “Though I have to admit that that kind of music makes me squirmy as a six-year-old.” My father liked playing classical records, usually pieces with lots of singing, the sort that filled the entire houseâand that made me want to head for the door. “All I remember from the one time I went to a concert like that is people coughing.”
Leo rocked contentedly. “You'll find we have an extremely high quality of coughing down
Boston. Especially during the winter flu season.”
I blew on my bottle, producing a breathy note, and assumed the connection between this act and the subject of music was clear. Leo blew two long steamship blasts in reply and I knew that our friendship was sealed.
“You've also got a great-uncle in Boston.”
I gaped in astonishment. “I do?”
“Alexander Tomlinson Tate. He's in a nursing home, but his mind's still sharp as a needle. And his memory's stuffed full of tales of the merchant marine, campaigning for Roosevelt, fighting in the Spanish Civil War . . .”
My father. My uncle Leo. My great-uncle Alexander. And surely others. I suddenly had a sense of having come into a surprise inheritance of fascinating, unsuspected relatives, of being included in a wider family. A family I was pleased to find myself part of.
I finished my ale, my mind agreeably hazy. “The Big Dipper,” I stated.
Leo looked baffled, and I realized that this time the connection wasn't clear.
“I feel like I've gone from a solitary star to part of a constellation.” I elaborated.
Leo smiled at me.
I stared back at him, as puzzled as he'd been. “Italian,” he explained. “For âwelcome.'”
Columbus traveled by water, searching for land; I'm doing the opposite. I recall from grade school that he spotted a floating branch and felt sure he was getting close. I pass a bait shop and feel the same. Then I round a bend, pedal up a rise, and behold the body of water I've been waiting for: Lake Kiskadee, the farthest point on my father's loop. I'm sweaty and tired. And despite the fact I've been taking more rest and water stops lately, I'm eager to celebrate reaching the lake with a swim and a leisurely break from riding. Then I remind myself that, like Columbus, I still have to make it back home.
I zip down a hill and pass through the little town of Fearnley, close to the shore. Keeping an eye out for a place to swim, I impulsively turn off the highway and onto a road running near the water. It's the middle of the week and many of the summer places I ride by are empty. I pass one dubbed “Dun Rovin.” Then “Cabin in the Pines.” Then I notice a stretch without any houses. I halt, walk my bike through the trees, and come upon a tiny cove. The view from the right is cut off by boulders. Up the shore to the left there's a cabinâwindows shuttered and showing no signs of life. I climb down onto one of the ramplike slabs of granite rising out of the water. I unlace my shoes, then decide to take everything off, walk in to my waist, and dive.
It's late June but the water feels like February. I start doing the crawl, head away from the shore, and a few minutes later am comfortable, except for my scrapes, which sting a bit. I stop and tread water. The lake is vastâit would take me a week to swim across it. I spy a pair of sails in the distance, hear a few specks of sound from a beach, but can easily imagine I'm the only one here. It's quiet. The water laps against my neck. I enjoy the feeling of it surrounding my naked skin, and realize that I'd never swum without clothes before. There's something so different about it, and I sense that some part of me wanted to make this different from an everyday dip, to transform it into ritual. I think of baptism and of Mao's yearly swim across the Yangtze River. Then I wonder if my father swam here as well. I view the flickering images of my limbs. Am I, without knowing it, reenacting part of his annual rite?
My feet, dangling in the frigid water closer to the bottom, complain of the cold. Slowly, I make my way back to shore, clamber, dripping, onto my rock, and stretch out face-down in a patch of sun. I'm relaxed, cooled, utterly content. Then I hear the faint sound of a radio.
My eyes flick open. The sound becomes louder. Hurriedly, I get into my clothes, stand
and catch sight of a boy, about ten years old, walking toward me through the trees. In one hand he's holding a fishing pole and a tackle box, in the other a radio. He notices me and veers to his left. I lie down again, watching him climb out onto a ledge overhanging the lake. He opens his box and baits his hook. He stands, and casts as far as he can. Then he sits down, gazing out at the water. I wonder what he's listening to on the radio, lift my head, and discover he's tuned to a baseball game. I make out the words “Boston Red Sox.” And all of a sudden my mind begins entertaining the notion that this boy is in truth none other than my father. That people don't really die, but rather are assigned new lives different from their old ones, such that their families never recognize them. They become sugar-beet farmers in Idaho, or waitresses in Sydney, Australia. Or ten-year-old boys fishing on the shores of Lake Kiskadee, New Hampshire.
His hair is blond, as what little remained on my father's head was. His legs are long. I watch him kicking them back and forth and find myself wanting to talk with him. Amazed that I'm actually doing what I'm doing, I get to my feet, put my watch in the Raleigh's basket, and walk over his way.
I step onto a boulder lower than his and stare up at him. “Do you know the time?”
He looks at me and shakes his head. He's too young for watches, I realize. I know I should leave, but I'm not ready to yet. I want to hear the sound of his voice.
“Catching any fish?”
He shakes his head again. I need a different type of question.
“What kind of fish do they catch in this lake?''
“Bass,” he answers matter-of-factly. “Bullhead. Sunfish. Chubsuckers . . .”
His voice is high and sweetâhe could have stepped straight out of the Vienna Boys' Choir. I wonder if my father's was the same and study his face, searching for resemblances, trying to believe in my delusion.
“Who's winning the game?”
His tone doesn't disclose his loyalties. I'm about to ask if he's a Red Sox fanâthan it dawns on me that if he isn't I'll have to surrender my fantasy.
“Good luck,” I say instead. I linger a moment and smile, but he isn't lookingâhe's intent on his line, waiting for a bite.
I return to my bike, walk it to the road, and empty my canteen into my mouth. Watching for someplace I can refill it, I ride back to the highway and continue along the lake. The dent in my wheel is still scraping the brakes. My legs are reluctant to pedal. My back's tired. I wonder how my father
then remember that he was a cyclist in college. Knowing he'd jeer at my griping, I determine to complete the ride without complaint, and am instantly rewarded for this vow by the appearance of Jack's Lakeside Lounge.
I park by the door, take out my canteen, squeeze the water out of my braid, and step into the darkness within. I halt and wait for my eyes to adjust. They rise toward the dimly lit chandelier hanging above the bar, then pick out the glow from the tip of a cigarette hovering in midair beneath it.