Authors: Ian Smith
To Tristé . . . Forever . . . Unconditionally
rofessor Wilson Augustus Bledsoe's car glided along the dark narrow roads of Hanover, New Hampshire, then crossed Ledyard Bridge into the vast wilderness of Vermont. The rain had started slowly at first, but now heavy drops danced staccato across the windshield of his old Mercedes. He felt relieved to be heading home, away from the noisy party still in full swing back at the president's mansion. The celebration was in his honor, yet he had been the first to leave. It wasn't that he was ungrateful. Bledsoe simply felt uncomfortable in large crowds, especially ones convened in his behalf, as they were these days with increasing frequency. What most of the guests didn't know was that but for his wife's insistence, he wouldn't even have gone. He had much more pressing matters to see to in his lab.
Bledsoe was no ordinary professor. He had just been awarded the twenty-third Devonshire, the most lucrative prize in science and second only to the Nobel in prestige. Winning it was no small feat, even for a full professor at Dartmouth College, which boasted more academic luminaries than universities four times its size. That's why Wallace Mortimer III, the college's revered president, and his wife, Serena, had spared no expense in celebrating their most acclaimed—and certainly their most acclaimed African American—faculty member.
It was clear to all who had gathered this evening that they were celebrating not just the Devonshire but a career that had been filled with a remarkably long list of achievements. Having won a Nobel five years earlier, Bledsoe had trumped his own legend, now becoming the first American to claim the world's two largest science awards. As his colleagues congratulated him on the Devonshire tonight, they teased him about the lavish treatment he'd receive when he and Kay took their complimentary trip to England and were feted at an elaborate ceremony hosted by the Queen. Everyone wanted to know what he was going to do with the $2 million prize money. “Whatever Kay decides,” was the most that he was willing to share.
Bledsoe picked up his cell phone and called home. “I'm on my way, Curly,” he said. He only called Kay that in private. It was a nickname he'd given her back when they were students together at the University of Chicago. On their first date, flustered and eager, he had mixed up the time and shown up an hour early. Kay, who had just gotten out of the shower, had opened the door expecting to find one of her girlfriends, and instead had found an equally surprised Wilson. She was horrified. Her customarily straightened hair was a mass of unruly curls. He laughed and she almost cried, but an intimacy and candor had been established between them that had only grown through their marriage.
“How was it?” Kay asked.
“Wally and Serena were excessive as always. I'm embarrassed to think how much they spent.”
“Who was there?”
“Faces I haven't seen in years. Laurence Wilcox even came up from Harvard.”
“Laurence? He hates you.”
“Wally and Serena pulled out all the stops.”
The Mortimers had evidently been determined to make this a bash to remember, assembling many of the foremost scientists in the academic community, humbling Bledsoe when he stood on the balcony of the mansion during the toast and looked at the crowd gathered below. The first person he had recognized was Yuri Mandryka, perhaps the greatest anatomist the Soviet Union had ever produced, stooped over his cane and raising his glass of bubbly. Laurence Wilcox, chairman of Harvard's biology department, had made the trek up from Boston and was standing with Olson Bulger, the precocious MIT mathematician who already had a calculus theorem named after him before he notched thirty. Wilcox hadn't spoken to Bledsoe since he'd turned down Wilcox's generous invitation to join the Harvard faculty. Wilcox was a giant in the field of evolutionary biology and admired around the world for his numerous publications and prolific laboratory. He chaired the most important meetings and sat on the boards of the most respected scientific institutions. No one had ever said no to an offer from Laurence Wilcox except for Wilson Bledsoe, who simply wrote, “Thanks for your offer, but Kay and I are happy tucked away in these quiet mountains. I'm afraid I'm captive to the indescribable peace just outside my back door.”
“Can you believe Garrett flew in all the way from Stanford?” Bledsoe said. “You'd figure he'd have a lot more important things to do than attend a damn party on the other side of the country.” Garrett Templeton was the acclaimed chemist from Stanford, who, despite winning a Nobel of his own, was most famous for twice being offered the presidency of Yale and twice turning it down. Like Bledsoe, he had already found the perfect place, a small plot of land on a cliff overlooking the Pacific.
“Well, I'm not surprised at all that Garrett showed,” Kay said. “Maybe it'll finally hit home for you that the Devonshire is a big deal, sweetie. Everyone else seems to get that but you.”
“Just another reason to throw a party in that old mansion,” Bledsoe huffed.
“And I'm proud that you stayed as long as you did,” Kay laughed. She knew how much he would rather be toiling away in his laboratory than making small talk at a cocktail party.
“An hour was more than enough,” Bledsoe said. “Oh, but there was something very funny.”
“When I left, a student parking cars asked me to autograph one of my textbooks.”
“What did you write?”
“I didn't. I'm not some rock star, Curly. I'm a scientist.”
“Wilson, whether you like it or not, you're a star and an inspiration to many people.”
“Maybe so,” Bledsoe said, relenting. “But like my father said, ‘The minute you start believing your own headlines is the minute you stop earning them.'”
Kay chuckled. She'd heard that one many times. “Did you save your appetite?”
“You betchya. I only had one shrimp all night.”
“Well, dinner will be ready when you get here.”
“See ya soon, honey.”
“Love ya.” Kay made a loud kissing sound before the line went dead.
Bledsoe pictured the grilled salmon, mashed potatoes, and cucumbers she had waiting for him. It was his favorite meal, had been since he was a kid. His mother always made it for him on special occasions—bringing home a good report card or winning a chess competition. He pushed the old red Mercedes. He had a lot to get done. Right after dinner he planned on returning to the lab—his paper was finally ready to be submitted to
. He could have waited until the next morning, but he had worked on this paper for almost a year, the longest it had ever taken him to publish a manuscript. Even with hundreds of articles to his credit, he still enjoyed that shot of adrenaline when the paper finally left his desk.
Bledsoe thought about the pleasantries he and President Mortimer had exchanged minutes earlier as Mortimer walked him to the door.
“We're very proud of you, Wilson,” he had said in his clipped New England accent. “You've done well by Dartmouth and I'm personally grateful for that.”
“The college has done well by Kay and me,” Bledsoe said. “And the best is yet to come, I hope.”
“You've got the Nobel and the Devonshire,” Mortimer said. “It doesn't get better than that.”
“I'm not talking awards, Wally. I'm talking about research. I've still got some good years left in me.”
“You sound like you're on to something.”
“The scent is getting stronger.”
“Care to share with an old friend?”
“It'll be ready later tonight,” Bledsoe said. “I'm still hammering out the final details.” Like most researchers on the trail of something important, he didn't care to share his work before he was ready.
“You're looking a little tired, Wilson,” Mortimer said. He had put his arm around Bledsoe's shoulders. “I know how tough the grind can be. Don't do what I did and miss out on many of life's opportunities while you're young. Take a semester off and travel the world with Kay.”
“I've been giving that some serious thought,” Bledsoe said. “We've never been to Asia.”
“Enjoy yourselves. You have enough money. Go as long as you want. You'll always have a home here at Dartmouth.”
“Thanks, Wally. Kay and I have been grateful for the friendship we've shared with you and Serena all these years.”
“Where are you going now?”
“Home,” Bledsoe said. “Kay is holding dinner for me.”
“Send her my best,” Mortimer said.
Then Wallace Mortimer III, perfectly groomed in a stiff navy blazer and a forest green bow tie, did something he had never done in their twenty-year friendship. He reached out and hugged Wilson Bledsoe. Firmly.
The image of that hug lingered in Bledsoe's mind as he turned onto River Road and switched to high beams. The darkness in these mountain towns was overwhelming, especially on the small dirt roads. Drivers were left to find their way with the moon's reflection and a good dose of intuition.
The car careened down River Road, the longest in the Upper Valley, stretching along the embankment of the Connecticut River and snaking its way into the wooded mountainside. This road was always a challenge, one that students often drove for the sheer pleasure of its difficult terrain and unexpected turns. Bledsoe had narrowly missed several deer since moving out here and tonight's darkness, rain, and wet leaves made a perfect combination for disaster. So despite the temptation to test the engine of his beloved machine, he drove the blind curves carefully, keeping the car positioned as close to the middle of the road as possible, on the alert for any darting animals. Kay had already amassed a small collection of nicks and scratches on the grill of her station wagon, and he was not about to do the same with the Mercedes.
Just as Bledsoe turned into Dead Man's Curve, a sharp uphill bend that had claimed more than thirty lives, something caught his eye. It was difficult to make it out, with the rain beating against his windshield and the stubborn wipers leaving more water on the window than they cleared. But as he got closer, he finally saw a pair of blinking hazard lights a hundred or so yards down the road. They were high off the ground. Bledsoe thought they might belong to a truck. He inched closer, finally getting a better view of an ancient rust-colored pickup with a wobbly pair of wood side railings that rose a few feet above the cabin. The front hood was propped up, and what looked like a man's legs jutted out from underneath the back of the truck. A flat tire or a dead engine, he thought.
Bledsoe slowed to a crawl. A heavily bearded man wearing a pale green jacket stood by the side of the truck, frantically waving his arms. His coat hung open over his ample girth. It was difficult to make out details in the darkness, but Bledsoe could see what looked like a large black grease stain on the stranger's front right pants pocket. He tried to look at the man's face, but it was obscured by a crushed hunter's cap. He could see the heavy beard; that was all. Debating whether to stop, he continued inching forward. The entrance to his property was only a little over a mile away, and he was hungry and Kay was waiting. In just a couple of minutes, he could be home out of the rain and sitting down to a hot plate of salmon. Kay hadn't mentioned it, but he was sure that she planned on surprising him with one of her homemade double-chocolate cakes.
Bledsoe let his car roll by. He was thinking now of how glad he would be to pull up to his house, a massive structure of stone and brick. It was their dream house, not far from the river, buried deep in the woods, hidden on more than a hundred acres of rambling trees and rocky ravines. He felt bad about leaving the two men, but there was still the business of the manuscript in his computer back at the lab. He was determined to e-mail the second draft to the journal tonight, regardless of how long it took him to finish. Stopping would only make his long night longer.
But then he looked in his rearview mirror at the waving man and called home.
“I'm gonna be a little late, Curly,” he said, shifting his car into reverse. “A couple of guys are stranded with a broken-down truck here on River Road.”
“Don't be too long,” Kay sighed. “I don't want the food to get cold.”
“I won't,” Bledsoe said. He backed up the car until he almost reached the bearded man. “I'll be home soon, sweetie,” he said.
“Be careful out there,” Kay warned. “It's dark and the rain doesn't make it any better. Make sure you're far enough off to the side so other cars can still pass.”
Always the protector, Bledsoe thought to himself. Kay was a great wife and an even better friend. After twenty-five years, he still felt that way.
He suddenly felt the urge to tell her about Mortimer's embrace. “Something else strange happened tonight,” Bledsoe said.
“When I was leaving, Wally asked me where I was going. I told him you had dinner waiting for me.”
“That sounds normal to me.”
“Yeah, but then he hugged me.”
“No, he really hugged me. Tight. He's never done that before. I've never seen Wally hug anyone.”
“You men are all alike,” Kay said. “A little affection is cause for alarm. It's perfectly normal for the two of you to share a hug on a night as big as this.”
“If you say so,” Bledsoe said, still not convinced.
“Now hurry and see what those men want and get home.”
“I'll be there before you turn off the stove.”
Bledsoe pulled his car to a stop in front of the truck and cracked the window. “What's the problem?” he asked the stout man. Wilson could barely see the man's eyes under the hat's visor. The rain had matted his already mangy beard.
“I think the engine finally died on me,” he said. “She's been making noises for the last couple of weeks. Just didn't have time to take her in.”
“I don't know much about cars,” Bledsoe said, getting out and moving under the hood. He couldn't make out much in the dark, just rusted metal and black pipes. Even if he could see better under the hood, it wouldn't make a difference. Except for the windshield-wiper-fluid dispenser that he noticed immediately, it was all one big mystery to him.
Bledsoe heard another set of footsteps approach. It must have been the man who'd been under the truck. He approached from the other side of the truck. He stopped next to the fender, then flashed a light on the engine and battery. He didn't come any closer.