s t o r y j o h n m o n c u r e w e t t e r a u
Spring comes late in Maine. Snow changes to rain; branch tips redden; you can see your breath. Not a whole lot different than winter until the daffodils, crab apples, and forsythia bloom. The sun skips off the water, impossibly bright, impossibly blue. You can almost hear the cracking of seeds, buried and forgotten.
Charlie Garrett was as hardnosed as most. He kept going, did what he had to. “Ninety percent of success is showing up,” Woody Allen said. Charlie repeated that in dire times – before medical checkups or visits to his brother, Orson.
Orson knew a lot about success and never hesitated to pass it on. “What you need, Charlie, is a Cessna. You aren’t supposed to spin them, but you can. That’ll clear your head, Charlie, straight down, counting as a barn comes around – one time, two times, three times – correct and pull out nice and easy.” Orson dipped his knees, lowering his flattened palm. Or a catboat: “A solid little Marshall, Charlie. Putter around, take some cutie coasting. You’re in sailor heaven, man, all those islands.”
“I know some cuties,” Miranda had said.
“Last cutie took my silver garlic press. Well, she didn’t take it; she borrowed it and never returned it.”
“Call her up and get it back,” Orson said.
“That’s what she wants you to do.” Miranda was the best thing about Orson.
“I got another one.”
“Where the hell did you find a silver garlic press?” Orson was impressed.
“It’s aluminum, I think, or a composite material.”
It was always like that; motion was Orson’s answer to everything. Charlie stretched and checked his watch. The ten o’clock ferry from Peaks Island was edging to the dock. Soon a few dozen passengers would walk off the ramp, carrying shopping bags, slipping day packs over one or both shoulders, holding dogs on leashes. Margery, short and polite, would be toward the end of the line, one hand on the railing, blinking as she looked up at the city buildings and around for him.
They were similar physically and recognized each other as related, not lovers, not brother and sister, but distant cousins perhaps or members of a tribe – the patient, the witness bearers. “There you are,” she said. Charlie stood and they patted one another’s shoulders.
“You look very well, not a day over forty,” Charlie said, standing back. “Here, let me take that.” She handed him a stout canvas bag. “Jesus! What’s in here?”
“Rocks and books. You’re looking pleased with life. How’s the world of architecture?”
“All right. Still looking for the perfect client.” He rubbed his stomach with his free hand and pointed across the street to Standard Baking Company. “Croissants,” he said. “A croissant a day keeps the doctor away. Are you hungry?”
“No. Let’s get on with it.”
Charlie led the way to his car, an elderly red Volvo. “Rocinante,” Margery remembered.
“As good as ever.” Charlie lowered the bag into the back seat.
“Could we swing by the library? I need to return these books.”
“Sure. What have you been reading?”
“Tolstoy. The Russians. Dostoyevsky, Chekhov.”
“That’ll get you through a long night.”
“There’s no one like Tolstoy,” Margery said. “So serene. Cosmic and down to earth at the same time.”
“I wrote a novel once,” Charlie said.
“It wasn’t very good.” Charlie stopped by the library book drop. “At least you finished.”
He watched her slide three souls and twenty years work through the brass slot. “There’s a story I love about Chekhov,” she said, getting back into the car. “He paid a visit to Tolstoy. Late in the evening, on his way home after a certain amount of wine, he cried out to his horse and to the heavens: ‘He says I’m worse than Shakespeare. Worse than Shakespeare!’”
“Wonderful,” Charlie said. “Chekhov – didn’t he die after a last swallow of champagne?”
“It was sad,” Margery said. She turned and stared out the side window.
They drove out of town in silence. The cemetery where Margery’s father and son were buried was an hour and a half up the coast and midway down a long peninsula. The drive had become an annual event. Margery had no car. Charlie drove her one year and then had just continued. This was, what, the fourth or fifth trip? He couldn’t remember.
“Margery, did you see that picture of President Bush on the carrier deck, wearing the pilot get up?”
“Wasn’t that ridiculous? The little son of a bitch went AWOL when he was in the National Guard. I read that it delayed the troops their homecoming by a day and cost a million dollars.”
“Light comedy,” Margery said. “The Emperor Commodus fancied himself a gladiator. Romans had to watch him fight in the Colosseum many times. He never lost. His opponents were issued lead swords.”
“Nothing’s changed,” Charlie said. “Commodus?”
“Second century, A. D. We’re not a police state, yet. Things get really crazy under one-man rule. Have you not read Gibbon?”
“THE DECLINE AND FALL – never got around to it.”
“Good for perspective,” Margery said.
“That green!” Charlie waved at the trees along I-95. “We only get it for a week when the leaves are coming out.”
“Yes.” Margery settled into her seat. Perspective was a good thing, Charlie thought. Even keel and all that. But there was something to be said for losing it. If he could have his choice of cuties, he’d just as soon have one of those dark eyed Mediterranean fireballs – breasts, slashing smile – someone who spoke with her whole body.
They arrived at the cemetery in good time. Margery declined his offer to carry the special rocks, wanting to bring them herself. They were intended to protect the base of a rugosa she’d planted the previous year. As usual, Charlie accompanied her and then returned to the car. She would take as long as she needed to arrange the rocks and to say or hear or feel whatever she could.
Charlie had no children; it was hard to imagine what she felt. Her son had skidded on a slick road and been wiped out by a logging truck, a stupid accident, pure bad luck. Her father had died later the same year. Margery had been on hold since, he supposed, although he hadn’t known her when she was younger. The lines in her face seemed to have been set early. We were all full of hope once, he thought.
He leaned against the car and watched a man approach. The man was carrying a shovel. He had a white handlebar moustache and a vaguely confederate look. “Hey,” Charlie said.
“Yup,” the man said. He stopped and leaned on his shovel.
“Nice day,” Charlie said, after a moment.
“Yessir. Black flies ain’t woke up yet.”
“Don’t disturb them.”
“No. Jesus, no. I guess we got a couple of days yet.” He tested the ground with the shovel and looked into the cemetery. “Margery Sewell,” he said.
“You know Margery?”
“Since she was about so high.” He gestured toward his knees. “Used to go smelting with her father, Jack.”
“I’m Charlie, friend of Margery’s.”
“Tucker,” the man said. “Tucker Smollett.”
“That’s an old name.”
“Smolletts go way back around here. Smolletts and Sewells, both.” They stared into the graveyard. “You from around here, then?” He knew that Charlie was from away; he was being polite.
“Live in Portland, born in New York. Family came over in the famine.”
“Well, then.” The world divides into people who have been hungry and those who haven’t. Charlie felt himself grandfathered into the right camp. It was strange how some people you got along with and some you didn’t. “I’ll tell you one thing,” Tucker said, “there weren’t nobody smarter than Margery Sewell ever come out of here. She got prizes, awards – some kind of thing from the governor, even. Whoever he was. Can’t recall.”
Charlie nodded. “She’s a professor – classics – Latin and Greek.”
“It don’t surprise me,” Tucker said.
They talked, from time to time glancing into the graveyard. Tucker was waiting for Margery, Charlie realized. When she appeared, she was walking slowly. Her head was up but her attention was dragging, as though she were pulling part of herself left behind. She was nearly to them before she focused. “Hello, Tucker.”
“Good to see you,” she said. “It’s been a while.”
“Yep. Since the service, I guess.” Tucker straightened. He seemed younger.
“Tucker lived up the road from us,” she said to Charlie. “He made me the most marvelous rocking horse. I think that was the nicest present I ever got. When William – “ She swallowed. “When – I’m sorry.” She turned away. “William loved it too,” she said in a low voice.
There wasn’t anything to say. Margery gathered herself and turned back to them.
Tucker cleared his throat. “I was – thinking you might come over for a bite to eat, for old times sake.” Charlie expected Margery to decline, but something in the old man’s tone had caught her attention.
“Well, that’s nice of you. You have time, don’t you, Charlie?”
“Plenty of time.” A few years earlier, she had shown him where she lived, not far from the cemetery. “Ride or walk?”
“Ride,” Tucker said. “I’ll just put this shovel in the shed.”
Tucker’s house was a weathered collection of gray boxes that were settling away from each other. A reddish dog got down from a couch on the porch and came to meet them. There was white around her muzzle. “Company, Sally. Margery Sewall and her friend, Charlie.” The dog received Tucker’s hand on her head and greeted them, sniffing each in turn. “Sally don’t see as well as she used to – do you girl?” Her tail wagged and she led them to the house.
“You’ve got bees.” Charlie pointed at four hives that stood on 2x4’s at the end of a narrow garden.
“Yep. Good year, last year.”
“The lilacs are even bigger than I remember,” Margery said.
“They keep right on going.” Tucker took them through the house and kitchen to a screened back porch. Charlie and Margery sat at a large table while he brought bread, cheese, pickles, salami, mayonnaise, mustard, a bowl of lettuce, and a smaller bowl of radishes. He set plates and three glasses. “I’ve got beer, water, and – a little milk.”
“Beer,” Charlie said.
“Three sodas coming up,” Tucker said.
He and Margery reminisced. “Jack had a taste for the good stuff,” Tucker said. “Five o’clock, regular. Never minded sharing, did Jack.” Charlie ate steadily and accepted another can of beer.
“Not bad, Tucker,” he said. He had noticed a small wooden horse on a shelf when he first entered the porch. During lunch, as Tucker and Margery talked, his eyes kept returning to it. He got up and walked over to the shelf. “What’s this?”
“Something I made.”
“Do you mind if I look at it?”
Charlie carried the horse back to the table. It was carved from wood, light colored, about five inches high, galloping across a base of wooden grasses and flowers. There was an air of health about it. It seemed to belong where it was. “Nice,” he said. “What kind of finish is that on there?”
“Nothing much. Linseed oil, thinned some.”
“It’s beautiful, Tucker.”
“I made it for your mother.” It was a statement of fact, but it carried something extra, like the horse. “You probably don’t remember Mesquite, Margery.”
“Mesquite – “ Her face began to open.
“Must have died when you were about four or five.”
“I’m remembering, now.”
“Mr. Randolph brought him back for your mom – Helen,” he said. “Got him at a show down south somewhere. He was a quarter horse, Mesquite. From Oklahoma originally, if I remember right. Damn fine horse.” Tucker tilted his glass for two swallows. “I used to take care of him once in a while – when the family was away, you know. Well, one day Helen was out riding and I was walking along. It was in June. The flowers was all out. Mesquite got to cantering and I run along to keep up. Never forget it. The flowers all different, blurring together and flowing along like I was running through a river all different colors. And Helen sitting up tall – she had hair just like yours, Margery, short and thick, straw colored, went with her blue eyes.” Tucker slowed down. “Well, I had to do something. I made the horse.”
“Why didn’t you give it to her?”
“It’s a long story, I guess. Took me a while to make it. Your mom took a fancy to Jack. What with one thing and another, I went in the Navy. When I got out, I guess you was three years old already.”
“How’s she doing? She still in Florida where they went?”
“St. Augustine. She’s down to one lung. She lives in one of those – assisted living places, they call them. She has her own space, but there’s help if need be. She gets around on a walker.” Margery paused.
“Tucker, why do we cling so to life?”
“Guess we ain’t done yet.”
Margery looked at him for a long moment, and they exchanged what could be exchanged in two small smiles. Tucker went inside the house and returned with a large cardboard box. “While I’m at it,” he said and began taking out carvings and putting them on the table – more horses, deer, squirrels, birds of all kinds, a woodchuck. Charlie held up a fox and looked at it from different angles. Its tail was full, straight out behind him, level with his back. His ears were sharply pointed, his head tilted slightly, all senses alert. Charlie was sure it was a he; the fox was elegant and challenging, superior.
“Damn near alive,” Charlie said. “You could make money with these.” Tucker shook his head negatively.
“Only do one a year. In the winter, not much going on.” He looked into the back yard. “Try to get it done on February 15th.”
“We used to talk about them a lot – animals and birds. Walk in the woods, talk.”
“Tucker, does she know about these?”
“But she should see them!”
“She’d like them, you think?”
“Of course she would. They’re beautiful.”
“I’m not much for writing,”
“I could mail them to her if you’d like.” He looked at the carvings, rubbed his chin, and inclined his head. A why not expression crossed his face. He pulled a twenty-dollar bill from a scarred black wallet. “Tucker, for heavens sake!” He insisted that she take it.
“Ask her, if she don’t mind – I might take a ride down, say hello. Probably get a train down there.” He looked at Charlie.
“Amtrak,” Charlie said. “Or you could fly.”
“I like trains.”
They finished lunch and put the box of carvings on the back seat of the car. “I’ll wrap tissue paper around them so they don’t get banged up. I’ll mail them tomorrow,” Margery said. “Tucker, thank you so much for lunch. It was so good to see you.”
“I thought I’d be seeing you again one of these days,” Tucker said.
“We’ll keep in touch,” Margery said.
“Take care of yourself,” Charlie said. “You want a ride back?”
They drove away slowly as Tucker and Sally watched. Tucker lifted one hand in farewell.
“You just never know, do you?” Charlie said.
“Tucker Smollett,” Margery said. “Good old Tucker.”
Halfway back to Portland, Charlie looked over at Margery and asked about her husband. “He cared for me,” she said. “He just cared more for someone else.”
“Damn shame,” Charlie said. Margery brushed the fingers of one hand through the back of her hair. Charlie thought she was going to say more, but she didn’t. At the ferry, he helped her with the box and said goodbye.
The next morning was again bright and sunny. Charlie returned to the bench near the ferry and sat, savoring his coffee, croissant, and the salty air. His brother Orson came to mind. Orson was a pain in the ass, but he had a point – sometimes you have to make a move.
Two men wearing similar clothes – pressed jeans, T-shirts, white running shoes, and sunglasses – walked up and took benches closer to the water. One was older, softer, beginning to put on weight. He sat with his elbows on his knees, looking across the harbor. The other, fitter one, stretched full length on his bench, arms out flat behind his head, and stared into the sky. Neither looked happy. They remained unmoving, as though they were waiting for a delivery.
That is not the way, Charlie thought. He stood, dropped the empty bag and cup into a trash can, and walked in the direction of the unknown furled inside him.