Maddie and I were getting ready to grill a couple of trout in her backyard. The evening sun lit the tops of the rounded foothills of the Berkshires, there were only a few small clouds in the sky, the mosquitoes hadn’t come out yet. Perfect, really. Still, we were being careful with each other. Earlier that day I’d got a surprise call from my old friend Rob, who was in New York, and I told him I might come down to see him while he was in the city. Maddie knew Rob had offered me a job with his new outdoor company in Utah and with my track record, what was to keep me from bolting from the pretty little town of Runyon, Connecticut, where I’d lived for just over a year? I suppose it was a reasonable suspicion on her part and I won’t deny that the prospect excited me, for a while. But no, I told her truthfully, I had no interest in taking up Rob’s offer; it would just be nice to see an old friend from my days on the fire line.
Apparently I wasn’t entirely convincing. Maddie seemed a little too intent as she went about making a salad. “Nice evening,” I observed neutrally, and she barely nodded. I put the glistening fish onto the foil, their open insides filled with lemon, shallots and thyme, I sprinkled them with salt and pepper, then closed the foil over them. “These babies are looking good,” I said, doing my best imitation of a locally popular TV chef, and this time she smiled. I asked her if it was OK to put the fish on the grill. “Sure, go ahead, Charlie,” she said (Charlie was the chef’s name) and took her glass of wine back to her chair on the grass. I’d heard the loosening in her voice, for which I was grateful. Maybe it was the smell of the fish cooking that did the trick, the pale column of smoke rising up against the background of lush green around us. As the crinkled foil shone on the grill I was determined to show her that this time I could be trusted. It was an old problem for me.
But it wasn’t just me who carried baggage. Maddie could fall into sudden moods without any of my help. It was a phenomenon I called Hurricane George. Her late husband had been dead for almost four years but he could still make his presence felt, especially on some kind of anniversary. “I’ll never love anyone the way I loved George,” she told me straight up in the first days of our relationship. OK, I figured, she’s setting up boundaries, she doesn’t want to give me any false hopes, I get it. I’m human, though, and the extent of the dead guy’s hold on her could sometimes piss me off. Weren’t you supposed to go through the stages of grief and get over things? But who was I kidding? More than most people, I knew that, for all the neat theories about stages leading to “closure,” things are rarely that simple.
I’d picked up the story of their life together in bits and pieces. George was Chinese-American, a medical researcher from San Francisco. Handsome, very smart, “with the most seductive voice you’ll ever hear.” And, wouldn’t you know, a great dancer, to boot. Maddie, who’s a nurse, was in her late twenties when they met in Colorado, George was a few years older. On their first date they went white-water canoeing and their boat turned over. “George had this wonderful laugh,” she told me. “I think he won me with that laugh. Here I was, drenched and shivering, and so was he. We’d come within an inch of our lives—I was scared and angry, and then I looked at him laughing and suddenly what happened to us seemed hilariously funny.”
They had, according to Maddie, an idyllic few years in Colorado. “I’d never thought I could be that happy,” she said, looking off into the distance. “That kind of happiness, it just didn’t seem like me. But we were happy, oh, we were.” She didn’t go into detail, but I had no trouble imagining the young couple suddenly caught up in a lustful urge that overturns their plans for dinner and results in late-night take-out. That much I guessed from the curve at the corners of her mouth when she said George’s outward manner could fool some people into thinking he was all reserve and politeness.
The brain tumor that killed him brought an abrupt end to all their plans but her admiration for George only grew as he lived out his final days. He was no man of stone, clenching his teeth and shutting others out of the athletic rigors of his dying. As much as was possible, she said, he remained himself. “There was a kind of grace. That’s the only word I can use for it.” At times it even seemed as if he were trying not to make those who’d survive him overly uncomfortable, but the manner of his going only sharpened the ache of his loss.
“He was smart, funny, warm and considerate. He was a nice man who was also the most interesting person I’ve ever known.”
What can you do with a figure like that looming in the background? “I wish I’d have had a chance to meet him,” I told her, though what I really meant was that I wished I’d never heard of the guy.
George was the past, I wanted to say. We should concentrate on the future. Easier said than done, though. Here we were, preparing to have dinner in this pleasant green space where we looked out at the low mountains on the horizon, with the wonderful smell of cooking fish on the air—what more could you ask for? And I was thinking about a dead guy. But the fact was, though his sudden presence could be disturbing at times, I’d got used to George over the course of my time with Maddie. He was part of her history and I knew it was better to accept this ghost than to try to chase him away.
In truth, Maddie and I were both damaged goods. The shadow of her marriage never entirely left her and I wondered if it ever would. As for myself, with a string of jobs—driving a cab, delivering mail, fighting fires–that seemed to lead nowhere, I had what would look to some people like the resume of a loser. Still, each of us was determined to make this work.
“Hey, Mister,” Maddie said. “Can I get a refill?”
It was a welcome jolt back to the present. Smiling, she held out her glass and the sun traced the fine hair on her forearm. As I poured the wine I knew we were going to be OK.
Back at the grill, I heard the pop-pop-popping of Kyle Ryder’s helicopter moving toward his country house, a spectacular mansion hidden away among the trees that was built in the 1920s for a movie star who called it “Eagle’s Nest.” Modeled on an English manor (the actor’s specialty was playing dispossessed noblemen determined to win back the lands and titles that were rightfully theirs), it was set among a thousand acres of pines, hemlock and maple. The town of Runyon had experienced a flash boil of excitement and speculation a couple of years earlier when the news got out that the place, unoccupied for more than a decade, had been bought by Ryder, so frequently referred to as “the Manhattan real estate mogul” that it seemed like an official title, but once his plans to build a large retirement village in the center of town were disclosed, the residents of Runyon split into warring camps.
Kyle Ryder was someone Maddie and I despised. “If that guy gets his way,” I said, “he’ll have us dress in peasant outfits for the entertainment of his guests as he flies them to his castle.” We listened as the sound of the helicopter was lost somewhere among the forested slopes. “But then,” I added, “the Indians might get us first.” There’d been a buzz in town recently about a group of Native Americans who’d decided to petition the government for recognition as the Nashatock tribe, presumably in order to build a casino. Though people who knew about these things dismissed the claim as a long shot, at best, there’d been a shiver of fear in Runyon.
Maddie shook her head. “To some folks an Indian takeover would be like the fall of Rome.”
“Don’t laugh,” I said. “I can see it all too clearly: Fruchbom’s will be shut down and there’ll be no place to buy over-priced pastries. And what if the Louvain Chocolaterie had to leave town, along with the fancy clothing stores and art galleries? All the rich New Yorkers would have to find someplace else. I guess the silver lining is, I could always get a job in valet parking at one of the new casinos.”
Truly, both of us were worried as Hell about what was going to happen to the town we lived in. With the ever-rising real estate prices and the threats from developers like Ryder, we might soon find ourselves on the outside looking in, which was why we’d joined the group that was trying to block his venture. In the meantime, though, what could you do but laugh about it?
Maddie lifted her glass. “Here’s to Runyon as we know it, however brief its days may be.” If she was still upset about my possible visit to Rob, she was no longer showing it. I took a few quick steps and gave her a peck on the brow.
“Mmm,” she said. “What was that for?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “General principles, I guess.” Just now I felt like a very lucky man. What were the chances, after all my past romantic misadventures, that someone like Maddie was going to cross my path? The two of us knew enough about things not working out to appreciate something good when we had it.
The trout was delicious and we lingered at the picnic table, opened another bottle of sauvignon blanc, but when the mosquitoes showed up it seemed smarter to have coffee indoors. A rich aroma filled the little house she’d inherited from her grandmother as Maddie ground fresh beans and we waited patiently for the coffee to drip through, not rushing a thing. All the while I was aware of the delights to follow, and my rising excitement was enhanced by the dutiful observance of ritual: the slow sipping of coffee, followed by washing of the dishes. Finally, when the last dish was in the rack, Maddie wiped her hands dry. “Well,” she said with not quite convincing casualness, “that’s that.”
Then all at once we were in the bedroom, where the measured rhythms gave way completely, and we tore at each other, urgent and hungry. Skin slid against skin, our breath came fast. Time expanded, then contracted, stretched languidly, made sudden leaps and bent back on itself. When I looked at the glowing digits that said 11:05, I couldn’t believe it had been so many hours since I’d heard Ryder’s helicopter thudding on the horizon. I lay awake in Maddie’s bed, breathing in the familiar smell of her body as she slept beside me. “You and I, we’ve got something here,” I whispered to her in the dark, my weight pressed down on her softness, willing my urgent message to break through the barriers of flesh and history that separated us. “Do you know what I mean?” I kept saying, as if the simple sequence of words was a sorcerer’s powerful incantation. “We have to make this work.” What I was trying to tell her was that she’d saved my life, that I was sure we had a story to tell together.
I got out of bed and went to the kitchen, where I drew myself a glass of water from the sink. When I put the glass down, I listened to the house sounds. I was staying tonight, but when the weekend was over, I’d be returning to my place. To this point Maddie had been as skittish as I was about coming to a more permanent arrangement. And yet, both of us knew it couldn’t continue this way forever, that something was going to have to happen, one way or another.
My skin prickled with the sudden sense that time was accelerating, carrying me toward decisions that could be no longer put off. What was I going to do, work in the Book Nook the rest of my life? I’d be forty before I knew it. I had to admit that the battle against Ryder had excited me, that I now had a significant stake in what happened here. I was ready for something. It was getting tougher to put up with the miseries of being alone, waking up at night and catching a sudden glimpse of a weary stranger in the bathroom mirror.
“Maybe the two of us know too much about each other,” Maddie said once when things were pretty rocky between us. “There’s no way we can hide our weaknesses from each other. We’re wounded,” she said, “and the wounded are the ones that get picked off first.”
“Everybody’s wounded,” I said. “At least we’re lucky enough to know it.”
“Some luck,” she said.
“You don’t hear me complaining,” I said.
I’d already decided to finesse that meeting with Rob–I had more important decisions to deal with closer to home–but I regretted having to pass up the opportunity to shoot the shit with him about old times when we were in the forest service, before my knee gave out on me. In those four years I saw a lot of the country, I met some great people, there was the satisfaction of doing useful work. It could be tough duty, all right, sliding down from the chopper on the rappelling rope, my heart pounding as I guided my descent under the thud of the rotors until my boots finally hit the uneven ground on the edge of a moving Hell. When I let go of the rope I’d sometimes feel a momentary sense of abandonment as the chopper made its way back toward the safety of the base. Even as I readied myself for the work I’d been trained to do, a part of my mind couldn’t keep from imagining how quickly those flames could leap over the tree tops, making the trees crackle menacingly like creatures from a child’s nightmare, and I swallowed hard, breathing in the acrid smoke.
It was exactly the kind of thing I’d want to talk about with Alec but my best friend from Carolina days had been unavailable since the age of eighteen.
Every now and then, out of the blue, I’d hear the sound of his voice, remember a bit of one of our conversations. Like the time I told him the Zen story about the man who escapes a tiger by clinging to a vine hanging over the edge of a cliff, only to discover other tigers on the ground below and, even more alarmingly, two mice above him gnawing on the vine. Noticing a wild strawberry growing on the cliff, he reaches out and plucks it. The punch line, of course, is his recognition that he’d never before realized how sweet a strawberry could taste.
Alec’s response to that little nugget was, “If it was me in that situation I’d be shitting my pants. I wouldn’t taste a thing.”
Which, I had to admit, would probably have been true of myself as well. “Yeah, yeah,” I conceded, “but it’s an interesting situation, isn’t it? I mean metaphorically.”
Alec wasn’t interested in the metaphor, he was still visualizing the scene. “I’ll bet the sound of those mice’s teeth would be louder than Niagara Falls.”
“Well,” I insisted, “in a way all of life is hanging on to that vine, isn’t it?”
“Come to think of it,” he said, “I’d ditch the strawberry. It would just add to your weight.”
We’d been smoking a little weed during that conversation, and we talked about all sorts of stuff, like hitchhiking to Alaska and working in a cannery. Dreams, bullshit. We were the golden children of adoring parents who expected us to do good and important things. In the end, both of us wound up seriously disappointing our elders.
The funny thing was that Alec, with his smooth good looks and surface politeness, was the one everybody thought would eventually go into politics and do great things, on the left, of course, someone they’d love to interview on NPR. He was able to play the role of the good boy, and I was one of the few people aware of his wilder side, like getting the sudden idea to go out to the quarry late one night and jump off the cliffs. I was usually the one who was hanging back and it was Alec who insisted. “You’ll never know, will you, until you do it?”
Talk about hanging on to a vine above a bunch of growling tigers. At least the guy in the Zen story would have a little time to meditate as he chewed on his strawberry. But, dropping through the night toward something below that could rise up and kill you with as much finality as any tiger, you had little time to think, or even breathe. Alec was right, though: once you knifed through the surprisingly hard surface of the water and were pulled downward and dreams of drowning swirled noisily around you until at last the grip of gravity was released and you rose, first slowly, then more swiftly and at last burst through the water into the warm night air that you tried to inhale all at once, there was no denying that you were alive.
But thinking about Alec only led in one direction, the night we returned from one of those visits to the quarries. The experience of having leapt from those cliffs and lived to tell the tale had sent my blood surging, as, I could see, it had Alec’s. Both of us wanted to hold on to the rush we’d experienced dropping breathless through the cool night air toward the dark water below. What were we talking about? Women, sports, our futures? God knows, it could have been anything. We were listening to an oldies station and when the Eurthythmics’ “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This” came on Alec leaned over from the passenger’s seat and turned the volume up to the max. No doubt each of us had his separate memory of the video of that song with its succession of surreal images, which had blown our minds when each of us first saw it on MTV at the age of ten or so: Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart wearing masks, playing a cello in the rowboat, the two of them lying on a table, still as corpses, the inexplicable animals, but most of all there would have been the vision of the orange-haired crew-cut Annie dressed in a man’s suit and tie, hands gloved, a vampiric dominatrix. At least that’s what I was seeing. I remember that as the synthesized bass rhythm pulsated Alec started slashing karate chops to the beat and I joined in by banging the steering wheel as we sang along with Annie in the heavy Carolina night. Sweet dreams are made of this/Who am I to disagree?/Travel the world and the seven seas.
Later, remembering, I could see it all from a distance, the car gliding through the dark streets of Raleigh, a town notoriously quiet in the loudest of times. With the radio turned up loud, the two of us singing along, it would have been cacophonous inside that car yet in my memory the sounds were muted as the Toyota drifted in slo-mo toward the traffic light hanging over the street, a giant red moon conjured by the music, beckoning, giving permission as no green light ever did. What were the chances as we glided into that sodium-lit intersection of North Carolina’s sleepy capital at that late hour that someone else who was truly stoned would be hurtling at top speed into that same space, his twelve-year old Mercury transformed by his drug-induced frenzy into a lethal missile that slammed with a sudden shuddering impact into the passenger’s side of the car, crumpling the metal in an instant, turning the glass into summer frost, yanking the car into an abrupt change of direction that was only halted by a telephone pole on the other side of the street, so that it was a miracle I survived with only cuts and gashes, some bruises and a pair of broken bones while Alec never had a chance and the driver of the Mercury no doubt passed in an instant from a partial state of oblivion to an absolute one without knowing the difference.
It was a speck of time, but it left a permanent mark on me. It didn’t matter that Harold Ray Jeeter was as guilty as he could be of reckless driving under the influence, a lowlife whose license had already been taken away more than once, and thus a convenient villain, now conveniently dead. The fact was, if I’d have stopped for that red light as I had on every other occasion in my life, my best friend wouldn’t have died. Because I drove through that light, whatever their protestations to the contrary, Alec’s parents couldn’t help blaming me for robbing them of their child, and I couldn’t help blaming myself for their subsequent divorce soon after, as I blamed myself for my own parents’ divorce a little later.
Of course, no future fuck-up of mine could top that, though I did my best. I’d been given a blank check, I sometimes thought, to cover all the subsequent failures of my life.
When I heard the toilet flush I realized that Maddie was awake. “Hey,” she said. “Can’t sleep?” She was wearing her faded blue tee shirt, holding herself by the elbows.
“Oh, I’m OK,” I said. “What about you?”
“I had a dream,” she said, and laughed to herself, “a memory of something that really happened. When I was with George.”
All right: George. “What was it?” I asked her.
“There was nothing to the dream,” she said. “Just a moment. But it brought the whole thing back.”
“Brought what back?”
She sighed, as though only now coming fully awake. “We were driving across the country,” she said “and we were staying in a town in Ohio called Port Clinton. We stopped there just because I liked the name. Also because in the guidebook it was called ‘The Walleye Capital of the World,’ which we both thought was kind of campy. ‘Not exactly Paris,’ George said. ‘We don’t want to get our hopes up.’ The same guidebook called the Great Lakes ‘inland seas.’ Neither of us knew anything about the area and we were curious, since Port Clinton is on the shore of Lake Erie–we could even see the lake from our room. We loved the idea of an inland sea, which sounded like some kind of secret, so of course we thought of the whole town as our secret.”
As I listened I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of exclusion. “Sounds like fun,” I said.
Maddie’s grey eyes were wide. “The thing is,” she said, “there were these bugs, these fishflies. The man at the desk told us about them when we checked in. It was the season, he said. He pointed to some stiff brown shapes on the screen window. ‘ In the evening you’ll see them all over,’ he said. ‘ The fish go crazy when the bugs show up. To them it’s like manna from heaven,’ he said. And George, who was remembering that this was the walleye capital of the world, said, in his best fisherman’s voice, ‘Those walleyes will sure be jumping after them, I’ll bet.’
“Was George much of a fisherman?” I asked.
Maddie laughed. “He wouldn’t know a walleye from a wallflower.” Then she suddenly shifted gears. “Oh, there’s one other thing I forgot to tell you about, and it’s very important. Right across the lake there was this squat funnel shape with a plume coming out of the top.”
“A plume?’” I asked.
“Steam,” she said. “A white cloud. We asked the man at the desk what it was and he said it was the ‘nucular plant.’ He got very defensive once we mentioned it and he started assuring us that it provided a lot of jobs for people who lived there. You know, when I heard that, all at once the fun seemed to go out of our trip, our little secret adventure on the inland sea. George noticed I’d gone quiet and asked me about it back in our room and I told him that the nuclear plant bothered me. ‘Hey, there’s still a lot to like about this place,’ he said. And he was right. There were wide, tree-lined streets in the old part of town, Victorian buildings, all gables and screened porches, that seemed to be dreaming of another time, there were handsome white catamarans that took people out to islands in the lake. And still, in some part of me deep down inside, I kept thinking about that thing across the lake and its trailing plume.”
When she fell silent I said, “Bummer.” Then I added, “Still, I’m glad you told me this.”
Suddenly brightening, Maddie said, “But I haven’t got to the best part yet. That night we went out to dinner—walleye, of course, and when we were done and walked out into the parking lot we saw the most incredible thing: we were suddenly in the middle of a blizzard of bugs. I mean, it was snowing fishflies. It was getting dark and the air was full of them, especially around the lights, where they were so thick they made a cloud. George got really excited. So did I, but for George it was like some kind of religious experience. The night air smelled of fish and these bugs were flying all around us, flying into us, landing on our arms, in our hair. They had long, tapered bodies, translucent wings that caught the light and these sinuous forked tails. As you walked you could feel them brush against your face, you could hear their bodies crunching underfoot. There were thousands, maybe millions.”
“I wish I could have seen that,” I said.
Maddie went on as if she hadn’t heard me. “When you saw how thickly they covered the road, it was easy to imagine cars skidding all over the place, just like what the man at the motel said. Well, we stood in that parking lot and looked without saying a word. You could hear the beating of their wings, those fishflies, they just kept coming, in biblical numbers, I swear. The lake was close by, and the walleyes must have been jumping all over the place, driven crazy by all that manna from heaven.
“When I looked at George I noticed that there were fishflies on his shoulders like epaulettes. But he was smiling like a man who’d just seen God and was very pleased with what he saw. He started talking about what a spendthrift the life-force was, ‘or God,’ he said, ‘if you want to call it that.’ Think of it, he said, all those bugs coming alive in this place for a night, living for only a few hours. Maybe tens of thousands of them actually got eaten by fish, but look at all the extras strewn across the road, stiffening on window screens, way more than were needed just to feed the fish. So many. He was actually speechless for a while, and then he said it was as if the sheer number of those bugs was like a message, even a boast. ‘Look at this, just look at this,’ someone or something is telling us. ‘There’s a lot more where this comes from.’”
Maddie’s eyes filled and I had no doubt that at the moment she was back in Port Clinton, Ohio witnessing that profusion of living creatures. With George. “And that thing across the lake with the plume,” I asked after a while. “Did you feel better about that?”
She smiled through tears. “When all those bugs were flying around, I wasn’t thinking about it.”
I took her hand and closed my eyes, trying to enter the scene, but what I didn’t tell her was that when I saw that blizzard of insects I didn’t have anything like the kind of reaction George had, I didn’t think of the plenitude of life but of the vast amorphous clouds of living things whose only purpose, if any, during their brief existence, was to feed other creatures. So many, such an extravagance of death! It was a much less friendly picture of the universe and it made me hug Maddie hard. You can’t blow this chance, I told myself. I squeezed her desperately and she squeezed back. “We have to make this work,” I said, and I could feel her answering nod.