Faced with the twin shocks of loss and pain, the human heart builds a protective shell around itself like a kernel of seed corn, which lies wizened and hard in a granary until the combination of sun, warmth, and moisture recalls some deeply buried code to begin the cycle of life once more. In the few weeks after the accident, that is how my heart felt, like a little kernel of deadened grain in a breast emptied of feeling. Spring was a long way off, however. The autumn had given way to a hard winter of discontent. A chill had descended on my life which mirrored the change in seasons. After Thanksgiving I met Stokely and Tess in Richmond. I had learned to adapt quickly to having a cast and crutches. I sat at the front of the plane. I got to ride the little golf cart around the airport which beeped warnings to those in front. I got lots of sympathy from everyone, kindly flight attendants and helpful fellow travellers. Stokely and Tess were waiting for my plane and immediately the three of us headed towards Valhalla. It had been three years since I had last been there. Physically the place echoed the conflicts within the family that Tess had told me about. The Aunts were no longer there to oversee Mr. Gosnell or Jake, to point out minor flaws which needed attention. Their intimidating presence was gone, and with it the unspoken but everpresent influence on the care of the place. The paint was peeling on the boathouse, and for the first time in as long as I could remember there were no new planks of wood on the dock, replacing the ones which rotted away quickly under the constant buffeting of salt and wind. Though Stokely had called ahead to have Mr. Gosnell get the Whaler out of the barn, he had not done it. His wife said he was ill, but I suspected slackness. It was somehow more appropriate that we did it ourselves anyway. We were there for a solemn purpose. I was carrying Lydia's ashes. I had imagined that they would be in an urn or a grecian amphora. As it was, they were in a plastic bag in a box, neatly labelled with her name: Lydia Pickering. The bag had a plastic ziplock, much the same as one would get at the supermarket. We did not plan on staying the night, as the Winter House was not ready for receiving visitors. We arrived at midday. The sun was shining, but the sky had the telltale cirrus clouds which augured a change. We worked quickly getting the Whaler into the water and the outboard in working order. Aside from the box, all we carried was a Bible which belonged to the Aunts. I planned only on reading a single passage--Lydia's favourite from Corinthians about the sounding brass or the tinkling cymbal. Stokely and Tess were quiet. Stokely's mood had changed greatly from his visit in the hospital. He went about his tasks in a workmanlike way, determined that everything should be done correctly. He said very little, but what might have seemed a lack of emotion was actually respect. As he started to ease the Whaler out of the boathouse, I noticed tears well up in his eyes. I had few tears left to cry. I tried to lighten the situation by telling them the story that Lydia's old black nanny had told her, the same story she had relayed to me the night in the car when she had asked me to put her ashes in the Mobjack. Her nanny Mabel had been with her family for forty years following them around the world, and was born on a plantation in lowland South Carolina belonging to the Williams family. Mabel's uncle was charged with throwing the ashes of the matriarch into the river when she died, and just before he scattered them off the bridge, he said: "Mizz Wilyums, you is going to get wet now!" They both laughed when I told them this, but we all knew that this was laughter masking pain. What we did when we got out by the hawk's nests is a blur. I remember reading the passage, and then opening the plastic bag to trickle the remains of my wife over the stern to her final resting place in the waters of the bay. Then we sang Amazing Grace, and shivers ran up my spine, bringing back the time Lydia and I had gone to the Edinburgh Tattoo in Scotland and had heard it played by the massed bands of Scottish bagpipers, a thousand strong. The three of us sang as loud as we could, the only way we knew how to keep our voices from cracking from the emotion of the moment. The sounds echoed off the pines on an empty shore. Then we sat three abreast in the stern of the boat, our arms around each other in silence. Finally, Stokely started the engine. "God bless you, Lydia," he said. I closed my eyes and whispered goodbye. When I looked up I saw Tess with her eyes also closed, mouthing her own private words. We then headed in, put the boat away, and without stopping at the Bungalow, they took me to Richmond and put me on a plane north to my home. My home. It used to be our home, and though she is no longer there it will always be our home. It was the American dream, an old clapboard house in the Connecticut woods with a rock chimney, four acres of woods, and a tennis court. We had done so much work on it together. Our joint projects now screamed her name at me--the brick patio with the dutch bond pattern, the barn converted into a workshop for my carpentry and her weaving machine, the field we had cleared of rocks and turned into a lawn level enough for croquet games. The trees, stripped of their leaves in the late autumn, stood sentinel to the emptiness of the place. The first night back I sat alone in the den, an addition we had made to the house. It had wood floors, bookshelves built around a standup piano, and french doors leading to the garden. The walls were lined with pictures of our life together and on every surface was some small momento of her sure handed touch around the house. I poured two glasses of wine out of habit. I caught myself halfway through the second glass, but then I figured what the hell. I sat quietly--zombie-like--in the spot we referred to as our decompression chamber. This was around the oak table in an alcove where we would sip our wine in the evening, rising slowly back up to the surface from the murky depths of the workday. I had no appetite, and I sat there at the table for hours, rising only to go to the bathroom and to bring back another bottle of wine. I let the memories wash over me, getting the bad ones out of the way first: the tempestuous first year of marriage when she was a resident in the city hospital, the long siege which dragged on for years between her and my mother which ended with an unspoken armistice when my father died. There was also the miscarriage and the horrible day when we found out we could have no children. The disappointment of dashed hopes on that day paled into insignificance aside the feelings I now felt. The good memories far outweighed the bad though. The mind plays funny tricks on you. Certain experiences and characteristics are so vivid that you think you are actually there when you think them. Her laugh, for instance. I remembered the time the two of us went to the bank to ask for a mortgage. We knew we would get it, as we both had healthy and stable incomes and cash to invest. We weren't nervous or anything. It was just that something struck us as funny about the self-important lending officer sitting across from us. It could have been the toupee, the pencil thin Don Ameche moustache, or his brown suit. Somehow we got the giggles like altar boys in church and we could do nothing against the cascades of suppressed laughter, the aching sides, and the tears which no clenched jaw or averted glance could stop. We eventually had to excuse ourselves, and ended up going to another bank. The memory of that moment was so clear it was as though we had just walked out of the room. There were many more like it. That first night home was the toughest. I did not want to go to bed alone and stayed up until about three in the morning, when I stumbled up the stairs awkwardly trying to offset the wine-induced lack of balance with the crutches. The next morning I awoke late, and decided that come the next week I would make the effort to return to a normal life. I had promised my partner Sam I would come to work on Monday. I now held my work up as a beacon to guide me back to the land of the living, and for the first time since I started out as an ambitious youngster fresh out of business school, I threw myself fully into it. Unlike Lydia, who had followed a narrow and true path throughout her career, I had fallen into finance, so to speak. The financial world was at the same time both suited to and contradictory to my nature. It fit my competitive streak, but I think fundamentally I was indifferent to the spoils of winning in modern America, where the person with the most toys is the victor. I remember reading in a magazine on a plane about something a Japanese woman said. She said that life was not about addition, but about multiplication, and if you multiplied the hundred expensive things you owned times the zero inside you, you still ended up with zero. This struck a chord in me at the time. I now worked in a consulting firm specializing in corporate finance. I had followed a well trodden path early in my career through business school and various investment banks. I was swept along by the wave of mergers and acquisitions which crested during the eighties, and though I had spent a long apprenticeship crunching numbers and working out strategies, I learned a lot more about human nature. My skills lay in relations with the customers, in analyzing the human element in conjunction with the hard-nosed business side of dollars and cents. Sam was my mentor, and when he hit forty five I was ten years younger and had had just about enough of the commuting, long hours and the cutthroat competition. He suggested we set up our own firm to exploit our contacts and expertise. At our previous firm together we had come up with a strategy of defending a takeover which became known as the Russian Doll strategy in the press. It consisted of altering the corporate bylaws to split the company up into pieces within pieces in the event that levels of hostile ownership reached certain trigger points. The idea was that whoever bought the company would then find himself constantly opening smaller pieces which followed no logical pattern and were costly and troublesome to unpackage. The hunter would think he had bought a nice doll, but as he delved deeper, like the Russian dolls, he would find progressively smaller parts which had frowns painted on them. We had used this defense successfully several times, and when we left Wall Street we had enjoyed a modicum of success with our small boutique. So now I was a consultant. A friend of mine once defined a consultant as someone who knew a thousand ways to make love but unfortunately did not know any women. When Sam and I had worked together in the large bank, we shared this view, but like anything else, views mellow with age. Our company concentrated on providing advice to smaller companies who wanted Wall Street advice at Main Street prices. It was a profitable niche, not one which would buy yachts or islands in the Caribbean, but one which had allowed us a very comfortable life. Sam was a solid citizen. He was now fifty, and was no stranger to the slings and arrows of fortune. His wife had died of cancer, and he now spent time on his hobbies, on younger women, and on work. He seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of energy, a slow burn which showed no signs of stopping. In the next few months I leaned heavily on him for advice and support. As my cast came off he and I would occasionally take the afternoon off and go to the gym, where under his tutelage I would exercise the knee, gingerly working through the pain and gradually building up the atrophied muscles. Strangely I found the pain beneficial. It cleared my mind and gave me a point to concentrate on, something I could try to obliterate slowly. The dull pain of loss was impossible to obliterate. It had no focal point and would make sporadic appearances at odd moments that were completely unpredictable, touched off by things which would suddenly recall something Lydia and I had liked or done or eaten. Then the dull ache would return, reminding me again that I was alone. The months went by and the days marched in lockstep indistinguishable one from the next. Luckily we had a large deal to work on which took up a lot of time. We were called to help value the assets of a medium sized company who had been approached by a hostile suitor. Capitalism is a strange business. It is based on the ephemeral concept of value. The basic rule is that something is worth whatever someone else is willing to pay for it. It is as simple and as complicated as that. Entire industries have been spawned--armies of accountants, lawyers, investment bankers, academics, consultants--all of whom advance their particular arguments about what things are worth and why. In the strange world of the stock market where collective mania coexists with cold-blooded logic, situations routinely arise where the whole is worth less than the sum of its parts or where relatively pedestrian enterprises become ridiculously overvalued. We were one firm of many who spent our working lives trying to find an elusive true value. Our business was to balance value against independence and control. One day in April, six months after the accident, Sam called me into his office and told me he had received a call from a friend of his who had recently been named Chief Financial Officer of UBI. I had read of his appointment in the press. It was unusual in that he had not come from within the ranks of the company. UBI was a company in turmoil. Ten years earlier, it had been impregnable, the biggest computer company in the States and the world. It had been the model for excellence, envied and detested by its rivals and the standard by which all companies were measured. It was like the Roman legions when they were crushing everything in sight. It had its own ethos. Stokely once told me about going to an interview at Duke for UBI and being asked why he had worn a blue shirt. Not about his accomplishments or his plans or his philosophy of life. About the colour of his shirt. At UBI the uniform was white button down. That is what the business world wore, and that is what UBI gave them. UBI was ubiquitous. That was their unstated motto. People were comfortable buying their products. The standard line was that no purchasing manager had ever been fired for choosing UBI products. It was the safe choice. This was their strength and their greatest weakness. Goliaths have always been vulnerable from time immemorial. In the eighties the computer industry was turned on its head. Small became beautiful, and as power and speed shrank the size of the machines, so did it shrink the market share, profits, and stock price of UBI. The share price plummeted by two thirds, and suddenly the unthinkable became possible. UBI became vulnerable to a takeover. These were well-known facts. That they would be seeking to talk to investment bankers was not surprising. What was surprising was that they would want to talk to us, a firm with only 16 employees. Sam wasn't surprised. Their new CFO was a friend of his, and though something might eventually come of it, he was treating this initial visit as a brainstorming session with no obligation on either side. "Stranger things have happened," said Sam. "After all, all you have to do is add a few zeroes to what we've done for other people. The principle is still the same." I nodded, not completely convinced. Sam had set up a meeting for the following week. Part of me was intimidated by the sheer magnitude of the company, part was excited by the opportunity, and somewhere deep inside, a part of me laughed at the irony of giving advice to the company that Stokely's great grandfather had helped start.
Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Friday, 19 June 2009
Stokely could sell ice to Eskimos, talk himself out of impossible jams, turn people's words into ropes which bound their ankles without them realising it. Nothing was too outrageous for him. He thrived on the obscure and the outlandish. He had somehow commandeered a shopping cart and had brought it into the hospital with him. It proceeded him into the room, chased by the irate ward nurse. In it was a four foot stuffed gorilla with a bouquet of flowers in its hands sitting on top of some presents. Tess looked on in horror. Surely this was not appropriate for someone grieving the loss of his wife. I had to smile. This was Stokely at his most unorthodox, but I knew there was some method behind his madness. He stuck his tanned face inside the door. He had a sheepish grin. "I know what you're thinking. No respect for friends, present or absent." He came across the room. No cast was going to deter him. Somehow he managed a hug across the bed. "Hi, bud," he said. "You don't look so hot. How are you coping?" "I'm better, thanks," trying to sound convincing. "I figured I needed to do something to get you back on the road to recovery. I know it's been hard and its not going to get any easier, but you shouldn't have to do it alone. So...I brought you a friend here. His name is Terry, after Terry Chili." I laughed. Terry Chili was a particularly gangly basketball player our freshman year who managed somehow to miss the entire backboard on a free throw before an embarrassed home crowd. It was a name only Stokely and I could appreciate. He took the flowers out of the gorilla's hands and gave them to me. "These are for Lydia." He smiled a pained smile. "Thanks." I knew what he meant. He stood there awkwardly for a moment, and then turned to lift the gorilla out of the cart. He looked for a place to put it, and then in the same instant realised he had said nothing to his sister, who still looked on as if a leper had entered the room. "Hi, sweets," he said as he handed her the stuffed animal. "Could you?" "Stokely..." She didn't have to say any more. Thirty five years worth of words were stored up in her silence. He looked a little embarrassed, and then turned again to the cart. "I brought you a few things." He reached down and brought up three presents. The first two were small. He pointed to the smallest. "Open that first," he offered. I looked at Tess, whose eyes were still wide open. I opened the box. In it was a pear shaped polished black rock--an amulet. The bottom was carved to look like a pair of buttocks, or at least that is what it looked like to me. "What the hell is this, Stoke?" "A friend of mine gave it to me after my divorce, when I was starting up the company and I had lost just about everything and things were looking really bleak. He said this was some Mayan artifact, and said it represented rock bottom. I think you see why. He said that things could only go up for me...and they have. So...I figured you could use it right about now." "I'm afraid to go on," I said. He handed me the next present. It was stocking stuffed with sand with a bulbous nose which looked like Mr. Potato Head. This was definitely unorthodox. The crown was a different colour than the rest, and on closer inspection I saw it was grass seed. "Water it," Stokely said. "By the time you get out of here, you may learn something." He reached over and stroked my skull. It had always been a joke between the two of us which one was going to lose his hair first, and at this juncture I was way ahead. His touch was as affectionate as Stokely could be. He quickly moved to his last present. "Here." It was in a box, but weighed next to nothing. I opened it up. It was a very thin sheet of plastic or glass (I couldn't tell which) which looked like the face of a computer, only the the keyboard and screen were just shadowy images on the glass. "What? You can't do that, Stoke." He waved his hand, and touched the screen. The entire sheet came alive. "It's the newest technology. A nano-computer. Works just like a regular one, but runs off the energy in your fingers."
I figured with all the time you're going to have you might as well put it to good use. I've also loaded it with a lot of diversions. To..to take your mind off ...things." People have different ways of coping with loss, with sadness, with difficult situations. Had Stokely come in dressed in black and a maudlin look, it wouldn't have been him. Instead, he made life seem almost normal again. "Uh, thanks. I appreciate it, Stoke. You didn't need to do any of this." "Don't mention it, bud." He sat on the side of the bed. He looked at Tess again, who was sitting down in the chair with Terry on her lap. "When did you come, Tesser?" "At nine this morning." They were still circling each other warily. Stokely caught sight of Tess's book on the bedstand. "Your newest?" She nodded. I knew that somewhere deep inside he was more than proud of his sister's success, but sibling envy was always somewhere near the surface. At least now Stokely seemed to doing better in his own life. After two and a half untroubled hours with Tess, when the room seemed sunny and free of any of the heaviness which had accompanied me alone, there suddenly seemed to be something in the air. We all noticed it, but Tess decided to do something, speaking up first. "Look, I know you two want to be by yourselves. I've got some things to do in town, so how about if I come back in a couple of hours. Is a late lunch okay Stokely? About two?" Stokely looked reprimanded. "Sure. Okay...Are you sure?" "Yeah. No problem." Tess stood up, handed the gorilla to Stokely, and this time ignoring the cast, gave me a long hug and a kiss on the cheek. Her skin smelled of Ivory soap, a scent which took me back to being given a bath at my grandmother's house as a child. The smell was clean and fresh. "Thanks, Tess." She blinked both eyes. "See you both later," she said turning to leave the room, and was gone. Stoke and I were left alone. Man to man. He spoke first. "Tough?" I nodded. "You seem to be holding up well." "Smoke and mirrors, Stoke. Inside I'm a rotting mess. I can't help wondering why it wasn't me instead. It just doesn't seem fair." "Well...I haven't seen anything on this planet which says life is fair. At least you had a happy marriage. Ten years?" "Eleven," I corrected him. "That's ten more than I had," he said ruefully. "You were lucky to have a woman like Lydia." I didn't want to fall into either reminiscing or recriminations. I tried to change the subject. "Hey Stoke. Thanks again for the presents." He looked embarrassed. "I hope you didn't mind all this stuff," he waved at the gorilla in the chair. "I just wanted to cheer you up." "You have," I said. "Are you sure about that computer?" "Oh yeah," he dismissed it casually. "It used to be that innovations took a generation, now something amazing is coming out every few months. It'll be obsolete soon. My company has lots of them and one less won't make any difference." "What does your company do, Stoke? I read about it in a magazine, but I only got a general idea." "We are working on parallel programming on a molecular level." This was a statement guaranteed to kill conversation, but I wanted to know. "Can you translate, please?" I looked at him. Stokely always seemed to be just around the corner ahead of me intellectually. The look on his face stopped short of condescension. "You know, you computer geeks always amaze me, “I sputtered. “I mean, I use computers every day, word processing and spreadsheets mostly, but I have no real idea how they work--what makes them tick." "It's like anything else," Stokely said. "It starts with a simple idea and everything follows from there." He looked at me strangely. "Do you seriously mean you have no idea how they work? Even at a most basic level?"" I shook my head. "You never were a technical genius were you, Evan?" he said, in the way only Stokely could, with an older brother look of gentle reproach. "It's ridiculous. You're smart. You just have a mental block against anything that smacks of science." I shrugged my shoulders and waggled an imaginary cigar Groucho Marx-style: "I'm an ah-tist," I offered. "Doesn't it bug you when you don't know how things work?" he asked. "Yeah...but's it's not a priority....as long as they work." He scoffed. "So as long as the engine kicks over when you turn the key, you don't really care about what's under the hood?" "Well..." I thought for a moment, and then replied. "A little knowledge doesn't go very far these days, does it, Stoke? Even if I knew a little bit about computers I wouldn't be able to fix one if it were broken, would I?" "Of course not, but I'm not talking about the hardware here. I'm talking about the logic behind it. Not the heart and lungs of the machine, and not the soggy mass in here." He tapped his skull. "Without the logic, it would just be a bunch of parts, and without logic it would just be mechanical. Don't you want to know?" With someone like Stokely, it didn't really matter whether you wanted to know or not. If he wanted you to know, he would teach you. The world is full of people who are along for the ride on the planet, and a very few who absolutely must be in the driver's seat. In a way people like him were lucky, and yet they were also burdened by their enthusiasm, by the frustration that others didn't share their concentrated energy. His brow was furrowed. "You know," he said, "I've spent so much of my life with my brain inside one of those machines that I have forgotten what the world must have been like without them. They're not so complicated, you know. They're nothing to be afraid of...once you know the trick." "Okay," I relented. "What's the trick?" "That everything gets turned into a number. That reality becomes a number, and everything becomes a process that follows calculations. These boxes are nothing but switches, millions of them. And once you know how these switches turn numbers into thoughts, then you know the trick." My interest was piqued, and anyway I had nowhere else to go. I was stuck in a hospital bed, an unwilling student of an unlikely professor. "Okay, Stoke. I'm listening. Shoot." Stokely loved to explain. "Okay," he began. "You know binary code. 1s and 0s. In computer language, the ones represent electricity and the zeroes no electricity. Little pulses of electricity are sent down the lines and go through logic gates. The electricity which goes in causes the logic gates to do calculations and output more 1s and 0s which represent something." "What do you mean by logic gates?" I asked, already confused. "Logic gates..." he paused. "Okay...let's say we wanted to add five and four together. In binary, five is 1 0 1 and four is 1 0 0. How does the machine understand and do this simple calculation?" This was a rhetorical question, as he answered himself by asking another question. "Have you ever heard of Boolean logic?" I shook my head. "Boole was an English mathemetician who thought up a logical system for binary math. All computers use it. There are basically three logical conditions: AND, OR or NOT. A logic gate is a switch which reacts to something being input into it and outputs an answer. AND gates and OR gates both have two inputs and one output and NOT gates have one input and one output." He could tell by my eyes that though I was following I was lagging behind. "Here," he said, "I'll explain by adding five and four together." He took a piece of paper and drew on it. Pointing to the ones and zeros, he explained that each digit was called a bit. 1 0 0 4 1 0 1 5 _______ _ 1 0 0 1 9 "The first thing we have to do is add each column, just like in normal math. There are only four rules in binary math, 1 + 0 or 0 + 1 are equal to 1, 0 + 0 is equal to 0, and 1 + 1 is equal to 0, carry 1. Old Boole's logic system allows a machine to do this using gates." He checked my eyes again. I nodded. So far. So good. "So let's take the first column. 0 + 1. First I'll explain the logic gates. I'll start with an AND gate. An AND gate takes these two bits. If both of them are 1s, it outputs a 1. Otherwise it outputs a 0." "Now an OR gate. If either of them is a 1, it outputs a 1, otherwise a 0." "Then a NOT gate. There is only one input, and the not gate outputs the opposite of whatever goes in. 1 becomes 0, and 0 becomes 1." "All of these gates are just little switches which do these jobs with whatever gets inputted through them." "So to add the first column. 0 and 1. First both of these go through an AND gate and an OR gate." He drew on his paper, tracing the flows of the two input bits through a series of gates. Following them with my fingers, I imagined myself as a mute machine, feeling little pulses of electricity tickling my innards to make me involuntarily spew out an answer. After doing it a few times, it made sense. I tried it using 1+1 and 0+0, and began in a very small way to understand the simplest of computer circuits. His finished drawing looked like this.Stokely continued explaining. "Using a combination of two AND gates, one OR gate, and on NOT gate, the computer can add. That little combination of gates is called a half-adder. A cascade of these little mothers allows the computer to add more than two digits. If computers could only add five and four, they would be four-bit calculators, since they can add four digits. He paused for a moment. "You remember my great-grandfather's census tabulating machine? Old Helmut's machine followed this same logic, only mechanically. It was ahead of its time, but it was pretty cumbersome, and of course couldn't store any of the answers it came up with except on cards. During World War II people started using electricity to flip the switches, and built calculating machines the size of large rooms with vacuum tubes. Then the transistor was invented, and the little pipes grew smaller and smaller and less and less electricity was needed to flip the switches. Today's chips are a continuation of the same process. They think now that one electron will be enough to flip a switch." He pointed at the computer. "In that plastic, which is really plastic, by the way, there's a chip with 25 million switches on it doing millions of calculations per second, turning everything into a number which represents something. You can't even see it because it is too small. He pointed over to a corner of the glass, where I could barely discern a shadow." He had a satisfied look on his face. "And that's the trick." I looked at his drawing of a half-adder, finding it difficult to take the leap from it to the little box in front of me which did everything but tapdance. "So where does it all end, Stoke?" I said. "End?" he looked on uncomprehendingly. He had just begun. "Yeah. What's the punchline?" "The punchline, my friend, is that we are at a point where the speed and the power of these millions of adders furiously outputting little bits is completely changing our world." He looked around. "Look at this hospital room." He picked up the clipboard at the end of the bed. It was a computer printout of all the drugs I had taken, my last temperature reading, my blood pressure, and the current account balance. "One stop shopping," he said. "These little adders do calculations in every sphere of human activity. We all know it's a digital world. TV, telephone, music, medicine, finance...everything that has to do with language, logic, image, sound, and soon even touch can be converted into bits, transported, and then reconverted into an exact replica." "Think of a piano. It only has eighty-eight keys. If you run your fingers up it quickly you would mix and match the sounds, creating half tones and quarter tones, the whole spectrum of sound. Converting it digitally you can take a million samples, a piano with a million keys, each of them separate bits of information which represent a certain tone." "This is what they talk about when they talk about the information highway, these politicians. Flows of data along fiber optic cable or microwave or infrared, all of which can be recreated into forms we can understand, appreciate, or use." His eyes were blazing. The world he was talking about was all around me. The proof was in the TV set, the phone, the infrared remote control which allowed me to call the nurse, adjust the bed, or turn up the heat...all without moving one inch. "Where we're heading is to try to recreate the greatest logic network there is--the human body, with over three billion connecting switches. The problem is that there is no rhyme or reason in how it works. The connections are chaotic to say the least." "How so?" I asked. "I thought it worked fairly logically." "Well, the mechanical part does work logically. The behind the scenes stuff. The engine room. What is not so logical is how people think. Let me give you an example. Say I'm at a party, talking to a woman, having a nice conversation about whatever. All of a sudden I reach over and smack the woman across the face for no apparent reason. Now..what goes through this person's mind?" "The same thing that's going through my mind...that you're a complete lunatic." He looked surprised, derailed for a moment. Then he continued. "Maybe. But first her engine room is registering pain and shock. Her blood rushes immediately to the spot to have a look around. Then suddenly her mind starts to analyse. Who knows what direction this might take? It depends on her character. She may say to herself: This man has had too much to drink. He is on drugs. It is something I said. All males are aggressive. We should never have reduced funding for lunatic asylums. I'll donate next time to the battered wives' hospice. Here's a chance to use the self defense skills I've learned in karate. This wine bottle would make a good weapon. Maybe I should scream. What a strange sense of humour this guy has. I love assertive men. I'm outta here. The possibilities are endless." "Now. How do you program a machine to decide what course to follow? It's way too complex. And the machine would be too big. That’s what I do for a living." “What?” I said. “What do you mean what?” “What you do for a living. I still don’t understand.” We had come full circle and the conversation was leading nowhere. Turning a machine which could cold-bloodedly make calculations using bits and adders into the unpredictable chaos of human emotions was and still would remain a mystery. Stokely's attempt at deciphering this mystery was interrupted luckily by Tess, who had returned to pick him up for lunch. "What have you two been discussing?" she asked as she came through the door and saw the computer on the bed. "Stokely has been giving me the benefit of two hundred years of human achievement crammed into a two hour lecture." She scolded him. "Stokely..." she said. Again she left her thoughts unfinished, but the message got through. "Evan needs to rest, more than anything else." She grabbed him by the arm and began dragging him out of the room. "We'll be back for tea," she said. Stokely shrugged his shoulders. "Sorry, bud. I hope I didn't get too carried away." I shook my head. "I'll see you later," I said as they left the room. As they left I thought of their family. Families after all are living organisms like the individual humans which compose them. In Stokely's family he was the mind and she was the heart. He was behind the controls of the engine room, the engineer who kept it running. She was what gave it a reason to endure, the spark of emotion which was the key link in the human chain which ran through their family's unique and twisting history. The difference in their two visits was striking. Tess had reached outwards with her actions and feelings. Her sole purpose was to comfort me. Stokely had remained wrapped within himself, his crazy gifts and extended lecture an attempt to go against his self-contained nature in the only way he knew how. By such contrasts is life made interesting. Caught up in the wake of Stokely's explanation, I had never asked him if he would come to Valhalla with Tess and me. I resolved I would do it later when they returned.
I slept badly last night. I kept dreaming strange dreams. The last one sticks in my mind. It was about a house--a dream house that Lydia and I often talked about having, up in the mountains. It was a large wooden house with lots of windows, maple floors and cream walls, making it always light and airy. I was leading someone up to see it, describing how happy and lucky we were to have it. Somehow we had children, lots of them, and we had left them with a babysitter. It was dusk and most of the lights in the house were blazing as we approached it from down the hill. The house was silhouetted against the darkening sky like a Magritte painting and the air smelled clean like pines. As I turned the key and entered the house, I looked over to my left and saw the babysitter on the couch at the far end of the room. She was wearing terry cloth slippers and her feet were up on the sofa. She was watching television and didn't say anything but only flicked her cigarette on the floor, smiled a sickly smile, and blew smoke in my direction. I was as angry as I have ever been in my life. I yelled at her, embarrassing whoever I was with. The girl said nothing, but stood up, flicked some more ash, and blew more smoke. The acrid stench defiled my house. I went berserk and went over to grab her and shake her. When I reached to take hold of her shoulders, my hands felt nothing. She was not there, and I awoke in a cold sweat, my hands flailing above me in the hospital bed. I am no psychoanalyst, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the sickly smug smile is the smile of death, the death which has come into my home without invitation and shattered it forever. I smell the unmistakable odour of cigarette smoke in the corridor of the hospital and I lean on the nurse's call button. She comes immediately. "Is someone smoking?" I ask brusquely. She blushes. "A workman. I've already told him to put it out." I start to say something but then stop. "Oh...never mind. Thanks." She asks if I would like my breakfast. It is seven o'clock and Tess is due to come at nine. I thank her again and say yes. I can make it into the bathroom on my own, just barely. What I see in the mirror gives me no cause for hope. The point where my eyes and nose meet is a dark bluish purple, and that whole area is swollen as if I am wearing a mask. The bridge of my nose is cut where I struck something, perhaps the steering wheel. I look a mess. I can only hop. My right leg is in a cast. It has been a week since the accident, and the doctor has taken the leg out of traction to allow me some mobility. I make a half hearted attempt to clean myself up. At nine I am ready to receive visitors. I hear voices at the door, and I steel myself to see Tess. I hear her ask: "In here?" The door swings open. Eyes don't lie. I must really look awful. She confirms this with her first statement. "Evan." She reaches out to hug me, but realises with the cast that this is impractical. She steps back, and her honesty overcomes her bedside manner. "I could lie and say you look alright, but you look terrible." This comes from a tough woman, but she also has a heart of gold. "I'm sorry," she adds quickly. "Are you okay? Inside, I mean." She couldn't have started any better. The combination of brutal honesty and compassion is my first step on the road to recovery, and it has broken whatever ice could have been between us. "I'm hurting, Tess." There is no point in lying. She sits on the side of the bed, and again cuts straight to the center. She grabs hold of my hand and grasps it tightly. Her hand is warm and her grip is strong. It is a working man's hand, feminine only because of her long nails. "You really loved her, didn't you Evan?" I nod. We sit in silence for a few moments. "I'm glad you came," I offer. "You're family, Evan. Not that you'd want to be, I don't think." Tess has always been the glue which held her family together, but I can tell that the cracks are starting to show. Her books say as much. Talking of her clan is a welcome diversion from my problems. I tell her so. She hesitates, but I show that I am serious. "Go on, start from the top. It'll do me good to think of someone other than myself. I've been alone almost a week now." The irony of this statement hangs in the air for a second. We both know it, but we are at a loss what to say. I push on. "How is Aunt Lillian?" I ask. Lydia and I had not been to Valhalla in three years, shortly after Aunt Mary's death. I knew Aunt Lillian had had a stroke about two years ago, but had heard nothing since. "You know Lillian is in a coma," Tess began. I shook my head. She continued. "After Mary died, we all wondered how she would handle it. After all, they had been together almost seventy years. She's a tough old bird as you know. Anyway, out of nowhere a suitor suddenly appeared." "A suitor?" I cut in. "Yeah, Can you believe it? Some fellow they had met at a fundraiser. Of course the family was suspicious of his intentions, and I think we were right. He was nothing more than a gold digger. She of course thought otherwise and fell in love with the guy." "How old was he?" I interjected. "I don't know. About seventy maybe. Anyway, a lot younger than she is. This courtship went on for about six months. I visited Aunt Lillian twice at 1819, and believe it or not, she looked really good." It was hard for me to imagine this little woman with the WC Field's nose and the stern countenance being the object of any man's affection. Still, if it made her happy. Tess continued. "Then suddenly Lillian had a stroke, quite a bad one. She went into a coma and required nursing help round the clock. Eliot--that was this guy's name--Eliot hung around for a few months and then slinked off. I think he figured out that he had no chance of marrying her and he cut his losses before the lawsuits started to fly." She paused. "And she's been in a coma ever since?" I asked. "No, that's the funny thing. And I do mean funny. One night she suddenly woke up and began screaming. The nurse came running in and Lillian told her: 'I'm so worried.'" "This was out of the blue. The nurse, who had never heard her speak and was shocked at this sudden development, asked her: 'What are you worried about, Miss Lillian?' and Lillian said: 'I think I'm pregnant, and I don't know who the father is.'" I laughed and my ribs hurt. Tess, who had told this story with a straight face, smiled too. I suddenly appreciated again the true value of friends, who do not change whatever the situation--good, bad or indifferent. This was the first time I had laughed since the accident. I looked at Tess. She looked her age, but this was a compliment. Like a sergeant earning his stripes, she had earned her wrinkles. I read where the best way to avoid wrinkles is not to smile or show any emotion whatsoever. I am in the other camp. I reckon each wrinkle represents a joke told, a tear cried, a human experience which should not be packed away like fine china. "So, she's okay now? Aside from the immaculate conception, I mean." "Actually, no. She dropped back into a coma a few days later and has been unconscious ever since. The doctors say there is little hope of her ever coming out of it." Tess shook her head disgustedly. "I'll tell you one thing about the medical profession in this country, apart from situations like this." She indicated to the room we were in. "They have spent more money in the last two years on nurses and fancy machines and specialists than the two Aunts spent together to live since the War! And she can't appreciate one bit of it." "Is she on life support?" She nodded her head disgustedly. "There is no hope of her ever recovering." "What does the rest of the family think of this?" I could imagine the late night discussions amongst the various factions to decide what to do. "It's ripping us apart. Uncle Johann, my mother's brother...he wants to cut her off, and he is already talking about how to split up the estate. They want to break up Valhalla into subdivisions and sell off lots. And 1819...well you know yourself that it could be made into six or seven decent size apartments." "What does Stokely think?" "He blows hot and cold. You know, ever since he moved to California he has gradually been detaching himself from the family. After the divorce, which wasn't such a bad thing by the way..." "You never liked Nadine, did you?" "Stokely always seemed to be attracted by these...airheads. Remember Clare?" I nodded. "Anyway." I didn't feel like criticizing Stokely's love life, especially when he wasn't there to defend himself. "So now he's into his company. It takes up most of his time. He didn't even come East for Christmas last year. This will be the first Thanksgiving at 1819 in two years, and I bet he would have cancelled ...if it hadn't been for you." The law of entropy. I suddenly thought of the law of thermodynamics that all matter tends towards disorder. The nuclear family gradually dissipates over time, and various bits and pieces go spinning off, leaving destruction in their wake. Keeping a family together in the face of this immutable law of nature requires constant effort. "What would you like to be done? What can you do?" I asked. The two questions were not necessarily linked. "As usual, it is a question of the filthy lucre. With inheritance taxes, and the fact that the taxi meter keeps on running on medical expenses, I don't really see any alternative, much as I would hate to lose Valhalla. 1819 I am not so worried about. That house is way too big for any one family. But Valhalla..." Her voice trailed off. I would also lose if Valhalla left their family. "Tess. I wanted to ask you. Will you come up with me when I get out of here? To Valhalla, I mean. I want to scatter Lydia's ashes in the Mobjack. Together with you and Stokely." She blinked. I could tell she was touched. "Of course. You know, I remember you saying out on the Hampton that you wanted to be buried there. I just didn't think..." "That Lydia was included? She made me promise I would. That was where we met, remember?" "October of my junior year. The weekend the Old Woods burned down. I saw that picture we had taken the other day when I was cleaning out a drawer. Do you ever do that?" "Do what?" I asked. "Clean out old drawers. You'd be amazed at what you find." The import of what she was saying suddenly struck her. "I'm sorry. That was insensitive of me." "It doesn't matter. I know that is going to be the toughest thing over the next few months. Cleaning out old drawers." I looked out the window. "It does me good to talk about it. I've got to come to terms with her being gone. I have no choice." "How about your life?" I was trying to change the subject, more for her benefit than mine. "Oh, I'm getting along," she said. Suddenly she put her hand to her head. "Oh, I almost forgot. I brought something for you." She reached into her purse, a big woven Indian bag that looked twenty years out of date. She pulled out a book. "My latest book. I thought it might pass the time." She handed it to me. I looked at the title. Keeper of the Flame. "What's it about?" I asked. "It's about...immortality in a mortal world. How's that for being cryptic?" She smiled. "I shouldn't have asked. How can you expect somebody to explain a year's work in a few sentences?" I opened the inside cover. She had written something. Some say that books are written for oneself. I know different. Books are written for friends, past and present. My love and my memories are for the two of you. Tess I was in too fragile a state to let her know how much this touched me. I think she understood. A simple thanks was all I could muster. We spent the rest of the morning talking about this and that--her books, my alternative career plans to finance, life in modern America, money, her non-existent love-life. We let each sentence lead us to new topics, and I found that this aimless meandering did me a world of good. When I was alone all my thoughts inevitably led back up the same road to Lydia, a road which was now a dead-end. At 11:30 we heard a commotion outside the door. Someone was being scolded for contravening hospital regulations. "Sir! Sir! You can't bring that in here! Sir!" The nurse was getting quite cross, and it was obvious she was being ignored. This could only be one person. Tess and I caught each other's eye, and with knowing looks we both blurted out in unison: "Stokely!"
Return to Table of Contents My name is Evan Pickering. Even if I had total amnesia--even if the shock of the crash which destroyed my wife , smashed my knee, and shattered the complacency of the life I was leading--even if all this had wiped out my collective memory bank, I would still know my name. It is written on the light blue plastic wristband the emergency room put on me after the accident. It stares at me as I lie here like a tortoise on its back, mocking the history of the life which is mine. I am cursed to be lucky. Lucky because I am still alive and will walk again, maybe even be able to play the sports which are dear to me. Cursed because the person who has been and always will be the most important person in my life--my wife Lydia--is gone. She is not gone out of my mind. The time I spent with her, the mixture of the "ups and the downs and the great in-betweens", as a friend of mine once described married life, is etched permanently on my soul and on the broken ridges of my heart. I want to share with you some of the most private words I ever heard. They were read by my brother at my father's funeral. It was at that moment that I learned about the power of language. What he said now acts as something to grip onto to prevent me from falling into the abyss of the sadness which looms before me. He read this while looking at his wife and his son and in a voice that was clear and strong and betrayed none of the deep pain he felt. I am the son of my father and the father of my son. In this way life goes on. I know now that there is a meaning to life. I know now that God has a purpose. The world is flesh and idea. The flesh withers, but the idea lives on, and the fuel which keeps the fire of idea burning is love. It is a simple thought, but simple things last. This is the meaning of life, and this is God's message for this world. These words I now press to my chest to help against the pain I feel. My emotions have decoupled themselves from the control of my mind. I know that this is a direct result of the emotional and physical shock I have gone through. Thus in my thoughts I relive experiences in no particular order or with no particular link. Pleasure and pain have become confused so that nice memories are painful, and painful ones easy to bear. I think of small things: her perfume which was so difficult to buy because it wasn't made anymore; her voice--that deep perfect pitch which cut through a crowd; the line of her figure which blended function and form; the feel of her body against mine. These things all cause a physical pain in me, a longing that emanates from the center of my chest and wells in my throat and makes me want to cry without stop. What I really miss though is her mind. She was and still is my best friend. She had a strength about her which made her counsel valuable about almost any subject. She was the truest person I have ever known. The trait which made her so valuable to her patients, the fact that she could give totally of herself to these children on the verge of death from an invisible and painful disease, was what separated her from others. She had no pretense, and what you saw was exactly what she was. She wasn't a saint. She could be stubborn, and depressed, and angry, and unyielding. She lived with the pain that we would never be able to have children, and her work became her child. She took the loss of her kids, as she called her patients, very badly, and violated the cardinal rule of physicians not to become too emotionally attached to their fragile lives. Yet each death seemed to fuel her resolve to find a solution to the puzzle of cancer. I remember the time I was angry with her for canceling our holiday at the last minute because she had promised to bake a pie for a boy. We were going to miss our non-refundable flight while she made it from scratch. "Why not just buy something from a bakery?" I asked. "He'll never know." "You don't understand," she said. "It's what goes into it that counts." I knew she wasn't talking about the ingredients, and I knew that the next week when the boy died he felt special, and he felt loved by the doctor who was with him at the end. All these things make me feel unworthy to have survived, and I blame myself for not having reacted quickly enough when the other car jumped the median. I was making a joke to her, and not paying attention. I had never before had an accident, and didn't consider it a possibility. This was the hubris of being a male. I know now of the foolishness of pride and the random justice that God metes out to those who take things for granted. This is a lesson that serves nothing, as I cannot go back except in my mind to change anything. It is too late for that. I am confused about the way forward. At this moment, the first thing I must do is to repair my body. The doctor has shown me the magnetic resonance image of my shattered kneecap, and explained how time and physiotherapy can bring me back. The bruises on my ribs and the cuts on my head will heal more quickly. It hurts me to breathe, and I wonder how the human body can come back from such destruction. My mind and my heart will take longer to heal. I have the support of my friends and family. My mother called immediately, and will be here soon. So has my brother. He is a strong Christian, and though I have never been very religious, his sympathy was heartfelt and his words about healing were like balm for my exhausted soul. Stokely and Tess have also called. Stokely now lives in California in Los Altos. His life has been rocky in the last few years. He has never been very good with women, and divorced his wife last year. Following in his great grandfather's footsteps, he is working with computers, something to do with quantum mechanics. I read about him in a magazine on a plane a few months ago. He said he will try to fly here to the hospital in Asheville. He said he was coming back this way anyway, as Thanksgiving is next week and he is going back to 1819 to meet the family. Tess lives near here in the mountains of North Carolina. She is a writer, and she has never married. I have read all of her books. They all seem to have a similar theme--the breakdown of families, and they leave a bittersweet taste in the mouth. The first one, called The Tea Plantation, was about a British family in Ceylon during colonial times. I could see trace elements of her own family in the story. There was a Stokely-like character who eventually ended up destroying the family's plantation by overplanting and offending the local employees. It was very successful, not only in the States but in England, where she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her success has allowed her to be independent. I haven't seen her in three years and I was surprised to hear so quickly from her. She was the first person Stokely called when he heard, and calling me was the first thing she did. She is coming tomorrow. I have also heard from Dewey, who is a lawyer in Charleston, married with three kids. He has also done very well. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Leyden, Holland after Duke. He then went to law school at UVa and clerked for a Supreme Court Judge. Now he is partner. It always seems in life that the quiet iconoclasts seem to do very well and show up suddenly at the summit. As Stokely said, in life there are two kinds of people who rise to the top: cream and pond scum. Dewey is a force for the good guys. He was a steady calming influence on the phone. He has always been quiet and difficult to read, but he has always been there for me, whatever the circumstances. Last night I was also surprised to hear from Jonah. We hadn't spoken since the wedding, when we had a long talk the night of the bachelor party about the strange twists of fate which had driven Lydia to me. They had long since broken up, and I was in business school in Philadephia when I heard someone asking directions. Her voice was so distinctive. I remember standing at the bulletin board and my heart skipping a beat. When I turned around and saw her standing there, it was as though a weight had been lifted from my body. She was doing a residency at the university hospital, and I felt like I had won the lottery. When he called I recognized his voice immediately. "E-man," he said. It was a rarely used nickname that he had for me, and it could only be him. "Jonah?" More than any of the others, Jonah had gone his separate ways after Duke. He was back in Kansas, in Omaha. Like Dewey, he was also married, a hometown girl who had gone to the University of Kansas whom he had met at the national basketball tournament when Duke played her alma mater. He was working as a stockbroker for institutional clients, and had landed the account of Hampshire Barkway, the billionaire. He also played golf with Tom Watson from time to time. I always knew that his easy going drive would attract success to him like flies to fruit. "Are you okay?" Jonah asked me tentatively. I appreciated him asking about me first. "I'm hanging in there," I replied. There was a silence at the end of the phone. I knew he was wondering how to ask. "Did...she suffer?" "No, they said that she was ki.....killed instantly." The words caught in my throat and my chest tightened. Jonah was not one to show his emotions, but this cut too close to the quick for both of us. His voice shook, and I could tell he was crying. "E-man, I'm so very very sorry." More than talking to the others, talking to Jonah drove home the cruel finality of Lydia's death. He knew her, perhaps less well than I did, but they had still shared a part of their lives together. It is not physically possible to hug someone over the phone, but in the only way two grown men can comfort each other, we said nothing and shared our own private grief. We didn't talk too long, and though he promised to come East soon, I knew it would be a long time before we would see each other again. After the comfort of talking to my friends I feel alone again. I can only doze. Hospitals are good places to do everything but rest, as there is a constant stream of people coming to check your heartbeat, ask about your bowel movements, give you inedible food; anything but leave you alone to recuperate. I find myself talking aloud. To Lydia. I cannot accept that the unique characteristics of the soul which make up a human being can disappear from the face of the earth just like that. Perhaps they get blasted apart like some of Stokley's Leibniz balls, but they are still out there, and the soul, I have to believe, lasts forever. That is what Lydia thought. Once we were talking after a film, sitting alone in that same car in an alley, crying like two sentimental old fools. That was one of our favorite pastimes. Not crying, but going to films. We had been to a Belgian film, about a year or so after my father died. Even though I had cried and cried the morning after his funeral and for days afterward, there was still grief built up inside me, and somehow this film had unlocked it all. For Lydia it was the death of her mother. We always joked that our two parents should get together, but they were as different as chalk and cheese. "Which one of us will die first?" she suddenly asked. "Why do you ask?" I responded. I was convinced anyhow that it was going to be me. "I don't know. It just seems that whenever I think of going through every day without you, I sort of hope it's me." "Don't ever say anything like that," I chided her. "That's pissing into the wind." That was a saying my father always used to say. I was trying to kid, a defense mechanism for that moment when you realise that the worst might happen and something bad suddenly grabs hold of your bowels and sends an electric jolt up your gut. "Well, we have no control over it anyway," she said. She was always fatalistic about death, having seen so many people die. It was a strange but realistic attitude for a doctor. To laymen, they were supposed to have power over life and death. She knew differently. "Can you promise me one thing?" she suddenly asked. "What's that?" "Even though I believe that the body and soul are completely separate, I still want our ashes to be together in the same place when we're dead." "In the Mobjack?" "Out by the hawk's nests at Valhalla." Even though we had not started going out until five years after that weekend, she too realised that the trail we had walked together began at Valhalla and that it would end there. "I'll take you back, Lydia," I suddenly say out loud to nobody in this hospital room, even though my mind is back in time in the front seat of that car. I realise how foolish I must sound if anyone is watching me. I don't care. I am past the point of caring. This will be the first thing I ask Stokely and Tess when they come to visit me tomorrow. I will ask if they will come with me to Valhalla, where together we can scatter the ashes of the woman who was my wife and their friend to the waves in the Mobjack Bay. Return to Table of Contents
Return to Table of Contents
The woman returned after a few minutes, carrying an oblong metal box. The box had a panel on top which slid lengthways to remove it. On top was a small ring. She had set it in the middle of the table and then had remained there for a moment, until Stokely's glare drove her off. "Please press the button next to the door when you are finished," she said, baring her teeth once more in her death grin. We looked at the box. None of us made a move to open it. Finally, Stokely pointed in deference to me. "Go on, Evan. This is your baby," he said. I slid the top off the box slowly, more for effect than anything else. The three of us bent over the box, peering in to see what was in it. Stokely struck first. "Cool!" he said, and reached down to pick out the first thing he saw. It was a gold pocket watch, the kind with a fob. "Patek Phillippe!" "That should be worth a shekel or two," I said. His attention was diverted. I reached into the box and pulled out two sheafs of papers, each bound with red ribbon, and set them on the table. Tess and I began to sift through them, while Stokely continued to find other valuables. There was a necklace, a ring, and at the bottom of the box, some share certificates in The Chesapeake Railroad. "Booty!" Stokely's eyes were lit up. The first document was title to Valhalla, dated January 24, 1897. I gave it to Tess, saying "Here's your birthright." She began to flip through it. The second document was thicker. I guessed about ten pages. It was handwritten in cursive. Across the top it said SHAREHOLDER'S AGREEMENT. It was dated in the English style, with the day coming before the month. This agreement is dated this, the 26th day of May, Nineteen hundred and sixteen. "My birthday," I said to noone in particular. The text of the document was written in flowery legalese. WHEREAS, in order to engage in business together this agreement is made on the date herein set forth between THOMAS ALLEN MACKENZIE and HELMUT KARL HOEFLINGER, (hereinafter known as the Shareholders) , regarding their ownership in the Stock of UNIVERSAL BUSINESS IMPLEMENTS, (hereinafter called the Company), a corporation incorporated under the laws of the State of New York. This agreement supersedes any other agreements previously entered into by the Shareholders. The agreement went on in that vein and became increasingly incomprehensible with each page. The key sentence was that under the terms of the agreement, Helmut would own 25% of the shares of the company, and MacKenzie would own 75%. There were also provisions for the repurchase of shares in the event of the death of either party, for the distribution of dividends, for the dissolution of the company, and for a host of other possible events. We were looking at a historic document. The birth of one of the biggest corporations on the planet. This was a piece of paper which would be of interest to historians everywhere. It was something that was valuable in every sense of the word. "Stokely. Check this out! It's the Shareholder's Agreement which started UBI." Stokely put the watch and the jewels aside and took the paper I was offering him. He looked at it. "Oh yeah, this is one of the earlier shareholding agreements between old man Helmut and MacKenzie. Helmut eventually sold all of his shares to MacKenzie shortly before he died. They originally had 50% each but then Helmut gradually sold off his portion. It's a pity really, can you imagine how much that would be worth today if he hadn't sold the rest? We're talking billions here." "So you knew about this already?" I was disappointed. "Oh yeah. The Aunts have copies of most of the UBI documents hung on their wall in 1819 Q Street. The first agreement, the share certificates...all that sort of stuff. They have kind of a shrine to old Helmut. A whole roomful up on the fourth floor. Didn't you ever go up there that summer?" Stokely and I had spent a dream summer after our sophomore year babysitting the Aunts' mansion in Georgetown. They had gone for a eight week cruise in the Caribbean out of New York, and our deal was that they would let us housesit free of charge as long as we would drive up to the docks and pick them up on their return. We had had the time of our lives. Imagine being able to bring home a girl you've just met at a party to one of the toniest sections of Georgetown, and stop for effect just outside a four story mansion, fumbling for the keys on purpose. This conversation happened more than once that summer. "Which floor is your apartment?" "Apartment? No, this is our house." By the time the truth came out, that you were nothing more than a glorified houseboy, the damage had been done, so to speak. As Stokely would put it, you would be a leg up on a leg over. That summer gave me an exaggerated view of my persuasive powers. The flip side to the splendour we lived in was that we had to be exceedingly careful about everything we did in the house. We acted as though the floor was paved with eggshells. Stokely was paranoid about breaking things or putting things out of place. I thought he was exaggerating, until the Aunts came back and we sat down for our first meal. Just as at Valhalla, their kitchen was immense and very well stocked with every conceivable implement. Aside from their garden, their passion in life was collecting recipes, receeps as they called them, and planning elaborate meals. They were real packrats, and saved everything, including milk cartons and plastic yoghurt containers. At that first meal, a yoghurt container was our downfall. Aunt Lillian, the older of the two, put down her silver Queen Anne spoon at the end of the soup course and looked down the end of her nose at Stokely. "Stokely, you wouldn't have happened to have taken one of those plastic containers from the kitchen would you?" Stokely hemmed and hawed and finally owned up. Indeed we had taken one to a tennis tournament we had played in, and had promptly forgotten about it. We were talking about a yoghurt container here, not the crown jewels. The Aunts, if they had wanted, could have bought a plastics factory. That incident gave me a healthy respect for their powers of memory and control. I don't want to give the wrong impression about them, however. They were not Hetty Greens, the old miser who held on to everything to spite the world. On the contrary, they were in their own way quite generous and thoughtful. Certainly they were always wonderful to me. They had over the years developed patterns of behavior to safeguard their position and were quite particular about following those patterns. They were also a lot harder on members of their clan than on outsiders. I fell into some intermediate category, and though I was chided for the yoghurt container escapade as well, in my case the venom was just not there. Nonetheless, these two tiny women could be quite intimidating, and I had kept a respectful distance that summer from those parts of the house which were clearly theirs . "No, I never went up there," I said, surveying the things we had found. "What do you think of this, Tess?" I asked indicating to the goods spread before us. "Amazing," she said. "Your detective work has turned up quite a treasure trove, Evan." She looked at me and though she was shaking her head, her eyes showed a new glimmer of respect, of genuine surprise at the confluence of events which had led us to that little room. "What are we going to do with this stuff?" she asked. This was directed mainly at Stokely. I know that Stokely's first inclination would be to somehow keep everything for himself, but with Tess there he wouldn't give way to that part of his nature. She was like the regulator on the carburator of his moral engine. "We'll give this to the Aunts. We're going up to 1819 at Thanksgiving, and we'll get these documents framed and make a little presentation. They'll be thrilled." The Haynes' year was filled with traditional events, revolving around family get togethers at Valhalla or 1819. Stokely's parents, their two uncles and aunts, and host of cousins would all converge at Easter at Valhalla and every Thanksgiving at 1819. Christmases were reserved for each individual family, but Thanksgiving was always in Washington. This suggestion clearly met with Tess's approval. "That'll be perfect," she said with genuine enthusiasm. "They'll be so surprised." "How will we get this stuff out of here?" she asked. We looked at the goods in front of us. Though they weren't bulky, they were certainly valuable, and we didn't want to carry them piecemeal. "I think Brunhilda can help us," announced Stokely, and reached over to press the button which summoned the martinet to meet us. He then replaced everything in the box. She came almost immediately, as if she had been poised outside the door listening in to what we were saying. Stokely was imperious. "I wonder if you could please get us a bag of some sort to carry some of these articles." He waved his hand at the box, where only the papers were visible. "Yes, of course," said the woman, and left the room to return a few minutes later with a velvet sack with RST on the outside. The whole process had taken a little less than an hour. We trooped back up the marble stairs, victorious soldiers heading home from a campaign. The others were happily playing cards in the café where we had left them. Stokely held the bag high as if we had just robbed the bank. He took out the watch and the jewels and spread them on the table to the gasps of the others. As we were college students at the time, none of us had any material possessions to speak of. I remember the flush of victory as I was clapped on the back for my detective prowess, and the references to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. What I remember most from that moment though was the quiet look I received from across the table from Lydia who said nothing but said everything with her smiling eyes. This time the weekend was well and truly over. I remember another moment, coming back to Duke up the long drive through the pines towards the huge chapel which dominated the university skyline, listening to Led Zeppelin on the radio. Though I still had another seven months to go in my college career, I knew that an imperceptible corner had been turned. I knew that something had happened to change my life, though I had no idea how or when or where. Think of an oyster. It is called a bivalve because its muscles work back and forth to sift water to and fro through its body. Most of the time the water just passes through, leaving nourishment and little else. Then, for no particular reason, a grain of sand becomes lodged in the flesh, and gradually over time around this grain a protective shell begins to grow, imperceptibly at first but gradually larger until one day a pearl is formed. Again, I can now look back on that weekend spent on the Mobjack Bay long ago, and I can see that two tiny grains of sand were lodged in the oyster of my destiny, one that allowed me to see the white beauty of love, and one which turned into a black pearl and showed me the other side of human nature, the dark side which is a part of us and which can either destroy us or merely test our resolve. Seeds were sown that weekend, and only the passage of time and the terrible beauty and pain of love will tell which side will out in the end.
Return to Table of Contents As we stood there on the beach under the last of a starlit sky, looking at the flames receding away from us, I realised that there are many ways to go through this confusing charade called life. By his act, Stokely had shocked the complacency clean out of us. Isn't that what leadership is all about? The others perhaps thought differently, but the sheer decisiveness of his action had cowed them into saying nothing. We were also seduced by the twisted beauty of the flames which smacked their lips in the distance. We stood there in silence for a long time, a tiny group huddled together in the freshening wind. The moon, which from behind us looked benignly down on this scene of awful destruction, suddenly had its throat cut by a sliver of cloud. The wind changed and began to blow from offshore. Stokely suddenly spoke up. His voice was steady and calm. "We'd better get back through in case the wind changes round this way. Say your last goodbye to the Old Woods." He was coolness personified, calculating and confident. Nobody argued with him. We climbed back into the Green Monster and headed back towards the woods. We went more slowly this time. Halfway through on the right there were two columns guarding a driveway running longitudinally through the woods. We stopped for a moment and peered down it. Closer to us was the blackness of the charred remains of grass and bushes lining the road. Further away the road disappeared into the fire. In the moonlight, the perspective made it look like a blackened needle with a red hot tip. This was the hideous beauty of destruction. By the time we rolled past the line of firetrucks, the action had moved down further away from the road. Nobody was there to notice us as we snuck by, conspicuous in our green finned monster. That was it for the weekend. Nothing could top the excitement, the sheer mad reckless lunacy of the fun we had just had. We had survived and nobody wanted to dwell on the danger. We filed back into the Bungalow and shuffled off to bed, our bedtime delayed by the need for extra blankets as the weather had turned sharply colder. The next morning we awoke to leaden skies. The season had finally made up its mind to dive headlong into winter. Soon, the autumn holidays would start tumbling like dominoes--Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas-- and another year would end. As students, we had also subtly moved into the end game, nearing the last semester of college when we would really start playing for keeps. There was a gloom and a slight edginess around the breakfast table that morning as we planned the cleanup and the phased withdrawal from Valhalla. A marine corps sergeant had nothing over Stokely and Tess, who would go to any length to avoid the withering criticism of their parents, or God forbid, the Aunts. Beds had to be stripped, bathrooms cleaned, spare food thrown out. Down at the dock the boats had to be put on their trailers and dragged into the barn, and the outboard had to be drained of gas for the winter. I was put in charge of the bedroom detail along with Lydia, who volunteered to join me. The irony of this only struck me much later. I was chosen because I had been to camp and knew how to make hospital corners and tight beds that would stop a quarter in its tracks. No detail could be missed, if we wanted to be welcomed again at Valhalla. I read where the difference between success and failure in any endeavor is the last one tenth of one percent of effort. On this tiny knife edge of extra effort the balance of conflicts is often turned. It may be an imperceptible detail which others have missed. My father always called it going the extra mile, but it could just as well be the extra one inch. It only took the two of us an hour to get all six bedrooms into tip top shape. Working together with Lydia, this was not a chore but a pleasure. I had definitely turned the car of my emotions down her street, but there was still a long way to go. We were happy with the quality of our job, but I decided to go have one last inspection myself before being reviewed by the two Haynes commandants. I have often wondered what would have happened if I had never decided to go this one last inch, if I had not decided to check each drawer and each closet to make sure nobody had left anything behind. Without doing this I would never have found the key in the top left hand drawer of the bureau in my room, and I would not be where I am today. In such insignificant details does fate intervene in human affairs. The key with the card attached to it was exactly where I left it, the same place I always left the contents of my pockets when I cleared them out of habit each night before I went to bed. It was something my mother had drilled into me, and since I never took out as much as I put in, the left hand drawer of my bureau then and ever since has always been a bedroom junkyard filled with the detritus of my daily life. The key caught my eye, and just as I had scooped it up from where Stokely had thrown it in the attic, I pocketed it once more. We were ready for inspection, as were most of the troops who reassembled in the Kitchen of the Bungalow. It was 11:30, and we were ahead of schedule. We all passed muster with flying colours. A celebratory lunch would be outside of Richmond. With the tinge of the premature nostalgia that I would feel that entire last year of college, we loaded up the car, locked the Bungalow, and started back towards Duke. Tess drove, with Stokely and myself riding shotgun in the front seat. On purpose it seemed, Clare had chosen to sit in between Jonah and Dewey. She was making a not very subtle play for the impassive Mr. Ravanel. Her relationship with Stokely was definitely the major casualty of the weekend. Stokely began flipping through the box of cassettes, searching for the inevitable Springsteen tape. I had confiscated it earlier in the weekend, as he had pulled the Green Monster up next to the porch and was playing it incessantly. "Looking for this?" I held it up, having palmed it from its hiding place under the seat. He grabbed it and put it in. The tape had run ahead to Jungleland. We passed through Matthews and whizzed by the road which led down to the Old Woods. The smell of smoke was still in the air. It definitely felt like the morning after. I decided the moment was right to ask Stokely about the key. "Stoke," I said. "You remember that key I found in the attic?" He looked at me puzzled. "Yeah...no...what about it?" I pulled it out and handed it to him. "What do you suppose this card is?" "That's easy," he replied. "That's Helmut's legacy. The punch card. His Census Tabulating Machine was the first machine ever to use binary math. The punchcard tripped levers when it was fed in and the machine did calculations. You know, like a modern computer. The holes are ones and the blank spots zeroes. You know binary code, Evan. Those are just numbers." "Maybe they mean something," I said, and took the card and key back. Grunting, he went back to listening to Springsteen and closed his eyes. I rummaged through the glove compartment and pulled out the stub of a pencil. I drew horizontal lines across each row of holes and then vertical lines, making a waffle pattern on the card. I left enough room to write a 1 under each hole, and then filled in 0s in each empty quadrant. There were four sections of numbers, all five digit. The top section was three numbers, followed by a blank row, then two more numbers. Another blank row, six numbers, blank row, and finally four more numbers. Using Stokely's foolproof finger method, I translated the binary numbers and wrote their decimal equivalents in the margin. The end result looked like this: 1 0 0 1 0 18 1 0 0 1 1 19 1 0 1 0 0 20 0 0 1 0 1 5 0 0 1 1 0 6 0 0 1 0 0 4 0 0 1 0 1 5 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 1 1 0 0 12 1 0 0 1 1 19 1 0 1 0 0 20 0 0 0 1 1 3 0 0 1 1 1 7 0 1 0 0 1 9 0 0 0 1 0 2 Stokely was right. They were just a series of numbers, and I'd be damned if I knew what they meant. I looked at them, trying to discern a pattern. It reminded me of the scholastic aptitude tests, only this time there were no multiple choice answers to bail me out. After ten minutes of mental gymnastics which got me nowhere, I gave up, and put the key back into my pocket. I lay my head back against the seat and in a true Dewey pose with my adenoids for all the world to see, I fell asleep. I was awakened by Jonah snapping his fingers and saying something. Lydia broke in. "I still don't get it," she said. "I'll do it again," said Jonah. "Ready, Dewey?" "Fire away," said Dewey. Click, click, click. Jonah clicked his fingers three times. "Let me see here. Do you have the facts?" Five clicks. "Can you tell me who it is?" Two clicks. "Mussolini," Dewey shot back. "That's amazing!" said Lydia. "How do you do it?" "Try and figure it out." Jonah was not going to yield the secret so easily. "Choose somebody else." She whispered something in his ear. Jonah thought for a moment. He fired another verbal shot across the bow of Clare, asleep between the two of them. Four clicks. "Let me get this straight." Two clicks. "Better keep the facts straight in your head. Leave all else aside." Five clicks. Two clicks. Two clicks. "You now know who it is." Two clicks. "See if you can tell me the answer." Dewey frowned. "Frank Sinatra," he said finally. "That's incredible," Lydia exhaled. "You've lost me." I smiled. We had spent hours sitting around the university union, honing our talents on the snap code. It was our college generation's version of Pig Latin, and if we did it fast enough it was virtually impossible to crack, especially if we got fancy. The code was quite simple really. Clicks represented vowels. A was one, E two, I three and so on. The rest of the code consisted of the first consonant of the first word of each sentence. Anything you said after that was smoke designed to confuse. Jonah's first clue for Mussolini was Il Duce. Three clicks. I. "Let me see here. L. "Do you have the facts? D. etc. Sinatra was Ole Blue Eyes. We also had variations. Six clicks at the start meant you spelled the clues backwards. Picking your nose before you began meant that the consonants were the first letter of the second word in each sentence. Jonah gave in and began explaining the code to Lydia, practicing with Mickey Mouse. "Maybe you have an idea." Three clicks.... They droned on. She was a quick study. Another snapper joined the club and was initiated with a vow of silence. Peripheral thinking is best done when the brain is half-awake. Then connections are often made when the subconscious takes over. I was still dozing when I suddenly was awakened by a flash of the blindingly obvious, my brain spurred into action by the snap code. There were no numbers higher than 26 on the card. Of course the numbers must represent letters. I pulled the card back out and wrote down the corresponding letter of the alphabet next to the numbers in the margin. R S T E F D E A L S T C G I B So much for my theory. This sequence made no more sense than the numbers. I put the key back into my pocket. We stopped for lunch out near the airport. We decided against Bill's Barbeque because it would take us north of the city, and people were anxious to get back to Durham to ease back into the routine of eat, sleep and study which was college life. We took second best, the Country Barbeque on the outskirts. It was an unwritten rule that when travelling in the Carolinas and Virginia, national chains like McDonald's were to be avoided in favor of the local cuisine. The weekend's postmortem had begun, and people began ribbing Stokely about the cow, the Whaler, and the fire. Already the weekend had passed from the category of recent experience to that of myth, and exaggerated versions of each story were already hastily being prepared. The lunch was kind of a nice punctuation mark to a wonderful weekend. An exclamation point, or so we thought. We got back into the Green Monster to head back to I-95 South and then home. Stokely insisted on driving. After the woods episode, this idea met with some resistance, but we gave in. As we rolled by the city, we started singing. Dewey had a mouth organ, and he began to play Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Everyone was in good spirits. Then out of the corner of my eye, when I was not even concentrating, two things caught my attention as we approached the skyline of Richmond. I now maintain that like the planets aligning at the exact moment of your birth to influence the rest of your life, two things aligned themselves within my field of vision to change my destiny. The first was an Exit sign which said DEAL STREET 500 yards. Right above this sign in the distance was the tallest building in Richmond, and clearly visible at the top of this building was the logo of the bank which owned it: Richmond Savings and Trust...RST. "Stokely! Get off here!" I suddenly said. "Whaa?" "Quick! Turn off here! We've got to stop." "What for?" The exit was almost upon us. "Now!" I practically screamed. He swung the Green Monster off the interstate and down the exit ramp. He pulled it over to the side of the road and stopped. "What's the bug up your ass?" I think all the others in the car were shocked by my insistence. It was out of character for me ever to yell. "The key." I announced. "It's a safety deposit key. I'm sure of it." I pulled the key from my pocket. "I thought it was all numbers or all letters, and I couldn't make any sense of it, but now I think it's half numbers and half letters." I was met by blank stares. Most of them were unaware I even had a key. I looked down at the numbers, and over the E F and the C G I B I wrote 56 and 3792. "RST. Richmond Savings and Trust. 56 Deal Street. 3792....It's the number of a safety deposit box belonging to Helmut or somebody. That's why it was hidden in the box so nobody could find it." Stokely never could stand not being the first one to figure something out. "Let me see that thing." He grabbed the card, and looked across the road at the street sign, which said Deal Street and underneath it 200-250. There was also a little arrow pointing to the left towards the tall building. The numbers were descending in that direction. "Who's for checking it out?" It was the same question asked of the group at the Old Woods, but this time it was me who said it. The enthusiasm was underwhelming. "Well?" I pressed on. "It'll only take a few minutes. What's an extra couple of minutes here instead of the library?" Put that way, there was a reluctant nodding of heads. For once, it was me who was leading instead of Stokely. "Come on, Stoke. Hang a louie. 56 Deal Street is that way." 56 Deal Street was a boarded up building two blocks north of the new skyscraper. Barely visible on the top floor were the words Richmond Savings and Trust Depository. We were in the right church, but the wrong pew. "Let's go ask at the main bank. We can't all go in. Why don't Stokely, Tess and I go in and the rest of you go have dessert at that coffee shop?" The others were willing to indulge me. We parked the car and the three of us, two members of Helmut's clan and an interloper, walked into the main headquarters of Richmond's largest bank. We went up to the information desk. "Could you please tell me where your safety deposit boxes are located?" I asked the guard. "In the basement, sir," he replied politely. He indicated to some marble stairs. We trooped down the stairs, which were U-shaped and very grand. For a modern building, they had splashed out on a wide marble bannister, which Stokely could not resist sliding down. In many ways, he had never quite made it out of the seventh grade. We went up to another desk. Since I had the key, I took the lead in speaking. An officious looking woman sat behind the desk, looking down a pair of half moon glasses. "May I help you?" she said unconvincingly. "We think we have found our great grandfather's safe deposit key and we would like to know if we could take a look at the box." I figured the truth would be the best course. Of course, I was wrong. A bit of what Stokely called verity massaging would have been infinitely preferable, especially with the prissy woman in front of us. Before she could reply with what almost certainly would have been a negative response, Stokely stepped forward. A professional took over. "Hello. My name is Stokely Haynes. I am the nephew of Lillian and Mary Hoeflinger of Matthews Virginia. They have instructed us to come and clear some papers which belonged to my great-grandfather--their father. This is my sister, Tess Haynes, and this is Evan." The blank after my name stayed in the air like a bad smell and effectively eliminated me from the rest of the conversation. Stokely pressed on. "They have obviously not been down here in quite some while, because they told me that the safe deposit boxes were at 56 Deal Street." Overwhelmed by the jetwash of his strong character, the woman relented. "Yes...well they were moved here about....about ten years ago now. They're just about to tear down the old depository to make another building to house our operations and maybe move us back there. I guess it's proof of the circle theory." She smiled the grimace of the genuinely insincere. Stokely was rarely in the mood for idle chit chat. "Here is the key and the number of the account. My great grandfather's name was Helmut Hoeflinger, and I am the son of his granddaughter Laura Hoeflinger who married Jeb Haynes. I am afraid we are in a bit of a hurry. We are on our way back to Duke, you see." In a brief paragraph Stokely had managed to slip in all the references necessary. Helmut, well known but perhaps a bit too old for this woman; Jeb Haynes, a southern patrician name if ever there was one; and Duke. The woman was convinced. "I'll see what I can do." She took the key and the entered the name and number in the computer. After a few minutes and some tapping at the keys, she nodded. "As I thought. All those accounts were converted over when we moved into this building. But there has never been a request to see this box...at least not as long as we've been keeping records." Stokely looked over at me. His eyes nodded without the rest of his face moving. "Do you have some identification?" asked the woman. She was determined to keep the upper hand. "Certainly," we all said simultaneously, and deposited a variety of driver's licences and Duke IDs. She looked at Stokely's and Tess's and passed on to mine. When she saw my name was different than theirs, she crinkled up her nose but said nothing. My little ill-fated diversion at the beginning had made no lasting damage, but only just. "Follow me, please," she declared finally. We went down into the vault with her, and she ushered us into a tiny room. "Please wait here," she said, and disappeared down the hallway to where the safety deposit boxes lined the walls. "This is exciting," said Tess finally. "Maybe we'll discover something about ourselves." Never have truer words been spoken, but not in the way that any of us could have possibly imagined.
Return to Table of Contents A high pressure system is one of nature's marvels. When it first takes hold it has a cleansing effect, as a band of low pressure clouds scurry past fleeing from the advancing high and sweep away any humidity. The sky becomes bluer than blue. If it is winter, it is clear and crisp. In fall, the days stop their remorseless advance towards the cold and pause to pay their last respects to summer. In the early days of such a system, there is also a psychological effect, a high. Tell me any of you who have not felt the thrill of a perfect clear day, thinking for a split second that life will always be good, and hoping against hope that you really are immortal. Alas, as the pressure system begins to disintegrate, the molecules of water vapor start to send out their advance scouts which are clear warnings of a change. From a morning sky slightly hazier than before, tiny wisps, thin arcs of cirrus clouds at high altitude are the signal that the jig is up. The wind picks up a little, and if you are paying attention, you know that the good times are breaking camp and marching on. Then it is really time to enjoy yourself, to grasp onto the memory of perfection before life returns inevitably to roiling cumulus, sedimentary stratus, and the dead and immovable grey gloom of winter. The wind picked up Sunday morning though the sky was a hazy clear. With muscles a little sore from all the activity, we skipped the sports and spent the early morning preparing for the sail and the picnic at Haynes Point. The logistics were critical. We would take both the Whaler as a tender and the Hampton, an exciting if slightly unstable boat with too much sail for its size and keel. Fast, but skittish like a race horse. Our course would take us out into the Mobjack, where winds could have a long running start with nothing in their path to slow them down. We had to make sure that we had everything in case things went wrong. Two tanks of gasoline for the outboard, lifejackets, and two oars for the Whaler. We knew what to have as precautionary provisions from experience. On a previous expedition we had neglected to fill both tanks. We hadn't brought oars and had run out of gas, Valhalla's version of up the creek without a paddle. Luckily a crabber had towed us back in, but we wanted to avoid such embarrassment. We were lucky that the wind was blowing perpendicular to where we were heading. If it held we could sail both to and from the lighthouse on reaches, with little need to do anything but set the sail correctly and hold the tiller steady. Like refugees we gathered on the dock about 10:00 and loaded up the coolers. Since Stokely, Tess and Dewey were the best sailors, we split them up, planning a swapover halfway. I went in the Whaler along with Tess, Lydia and Dewey. The winds were light but steady and the Hampton made good time. We meandered along in the Whaler, close enough to have a leisurely conversation or to overhear one. As we made a pass by the Hampton in between sessions of wavejumping, I overheard Stokely explaining how Bernoulli's Principle allowed a boat to tack against the wind. Clare and Jonah looked bored. It was at that moment that I had my first ever conversation with Lydia. I still remember the words I said to her. I didn't really mean to disparage Jonah. In fact, I didn't even consider myself a rival for her affection, so nascent and half formed were my feelings for her at the time. Still, I began with a silly and ill-considered remark. We were both looking at him as we passed by the Hampton. "Jonah," I said. "Bringer of misfortune to ancient mariners." She looked at me strangely. "I mean, you know the story of Jonah and the Whale. He was going to Tarshish to flee the presence of the Lord, and God sank the ship he was on drowning everyone on board. Then he was swallowed by the whale..." I stopped, off to a bad start. "I can't remember the rest, except that he was spared and returned a hero." I tried to scramble back from the precipice. "That seems an odd thing to say about your roommate," she pointed out diplomatically. "Yeah, well, it's only a name. That's probably the first time Jonah's been on a sailboat. There aren't a lot of ports near Wichita." She smiled, acknowledging a fact and not an opinion. Without changing the subject, she turned the conversation back to me. "Do you do much sailing, Evan?" She punctuated her question with a laugh. That laugh and her eyes. Both drew people to her. Her laugh had a timbre to it, like her voice. Her eyes were always interested, a sign of intelligence. They digested what you said the moment you said it. I answered. "As a crew member...not a captain. Stokely and Tess taught me, didn't you Tess?" Preoccupied at the helm, Tess rolled her eyes. "He's not bad really," she salvaged a compliment. "We did a trip once in the Windwards on a charter, and once we sailed to Bimini, both times bareboat," I continued. "Bareboat?" she asked. "Without a professional captain. Stokely and Tess vied for that honour." I turned the question back to her, and cautiously began to probe--a reconnaissance mission. "How about you? Did you grow up near the water?" She replied with an ironic yes. Ironic because though her father had been in the Navy after medical school and they had lived various ports around the world, she hadn't done much sailing. Now she considered home as Athens, Georgia. Her father was a doctor, having left the Navy to become head of pediatrics at the University of Georgia. "Are you following in his footsteps in premed?" I asked. She nodded, quietly confident. Pre-med at Duke was no mean feat, akin to boot camp. She seemed to be weathering it quite nicely. Her goal was to do research on leukemia, especially in young children. Without asking for sympathy, she said her sister had died of it. This admission settled over us like spray from a wave. Suddenly her determination and her sense of humour were seen in a different light. I had no doubt she would succeed in her goal. We were approaching the halfway point where we would swap over. The wind had died down, almost to the point of being becalmed. "Remind you of something, Dewey?" He nodded. "The horse latitudes." "What are those?" asked Lydia. "That's an area in the Caribbean where high pressure systems get stuck and the seas are becalmed," I explained. "They're called the horse latitudes because when the early ships came over from Europe they carried horses in them. When the ships got stuck, they eventually had to throw the horses overboard, and the sea became littered with their floating corpses." "Lovely," shuddered Lydia. You can never control where conversations go. Like everything else in life, you can only give them an initial push and see what happens. I was never sure what Lydia thought of our first real contact. Certainly it showed different sides of me--callousness, fascination with gruesome stories, petty self-serving comments. Still, it must not have been a total disaster. We took advantage of the drop in the wind to swap places. Lydia stayed behind with Stokely, Jonah, and Clare. It was the closest we came all weekend to splitting off into couples. Dewey, Tess, and I made an odd threesome in the Hampton. We were all three loners in different ways. Normally on a sailboat conversation is at a minimum, especially in the Hampton where a quick gust would flatten you if it caught you unawares. There was no risk of that happening this time. The wind had reduced to a jealous whisper. We settled back for a long haul. At this rate, we wouldn't reach Haynes Point before two. The conversation rambled aimlessly. As the lighthouse finally came into sight, I asked Tess something I had always wondered about. "Haynes Point? Does the name have something to do with your family?" She nodded. "My father's family came from up the Choptank on the eastern shore of Maryland, but somewhere way-back-when one of them--an oysterman--gravitated south and had the lighthouse built. This must have been in the early 1800s, so the name hasn't been around all that long." She paused, staring at the red and white structure. "That lighthouse is important to our family for other reasons," she continued. "Why's that?" "It was where Helmut's body was brought from his yacht. He had a heart attack on his way to Valhalla aboard the Eric and Haynes Point was the nearest landfall. He died on the beach." Dewey and I filed away this piece of information. I had been to Haynes Point twice before, and wondered why Stokely had never related this story. The winds started to freshen up again luckily, and we resumed at a respectable clip. We reached the lighthouse at one-thirty. The old structure was no longer used, replaced by a derrick-like rig a quarter of a mile further from the shore. The paint was chipped and defaced with the graffitti of modern visitors--Sean loves Donna and the like. It stood on a small island, no more than a pile of rocks linked to the mainland by a sand bar at low tide. We moored the boats at a pier which was only barely serviceable. Stokely marshalled us over for another picture in front of the lighthouse before lunch. I was down at the pier unloading the coolers when I heard a shrill voice. "You never think of anyone but yourself. How can you be so selfish?" It was Clare's voice, and up by the entrance to the lighthouse we could see her haranguing him. He was wincing as though the words were actual darts pinning him against the wall. The two of them disappeared into the lighthouse, where their discordant voices rattled around like pebbles in a tin can. I came up and whispered to Lydia. "What is that all about?" "Nothing, really. At least nothing important," she replied in a hushed voice. "I don't know if you've noticed, but they haven't exactly been getting on ever since the Whaler. When we were on the boat, I asked Clare a question about her studies. She started to tell me she's a journalism major when Stokely broke in and began talking about a writing course they had been in together." She shrugged her shoulders. "It was really nothing. Stokely was just trying to say how they met. There must be something else." I understood. Stokely did not really want control, but he wanted involvement in everything going on around him, even conversations where he was on the periphery. It was a fact of his character which I had just learned to accept. The two of them emerged from the lighthouse. The tension had eased. Stokely looked contrite, and for him, very subdued. He remained quiet through the rest of the afternoon as we picnicked on the beach and sailed back in one long reach without changing crews. The wind had freshened once more. You can't keep a good man down though. We had a late dinner, and when the moon came up his enthusiasm returned for our trip to the Old Woods. The minor tempest seemed to have been forgotten, and we all piled into the Green Monster in high spirits. On the way over Dewey, Stokely, and I--the grizzled veterans of late night sorties--corroborated each other's exaggerated stories of lights and sounds we might have seen or heard. Tess lent some credibility when she chimed in with her own experience. As we turned down the dirt road and approached the bend where the woods would come into view, Lydia asked: "Now what should we look for exactly?" It could not have been choreographed any better. Just as Stokely replied, "A strange light barely discernible just above the woods," we rounded the curve. We all looked towards the woods to see a bright haze over the entire length of the dark strip of pine trees ahead of us. The Old Woods were on fire. The night sky was lit up with pirouetting flames, explosions of superheated resin, and the revolving lights of the fire trucks which were already on the scene. The road, which ran in a long straight line across the fields and through the woods to the beach, had the cars of the volunteer firemen parked on either side. The air was thick with the drones of the pump trucks and the voices of men shouting. Stokely drove up through the line of cars, where we were stopped by someone who said we could go no further. We were only a hundred yards or so from where the road entered the woods, and we could tell that nearest the road the fire had been brought under control. Perhaps it had begun there, the casualty of a careless cigarette. Stokely backed the car down the way we had come to the end of the line of cars and pulled over to park. He said: "Who's for checking it out?" I was the only volunteer. The two of us ran up to the front where we had been stopped. In the woods, the fire was no longer blazing on a strip fifty yards on either side of the road. "Pity we won't be able to go down to the beach," I said. Stokely's face was visible in the flickering light. He had that look in his eyes. "Why can't we?" I found myself saying a familiar refrain. "Are you crazy?" "Come on. You only live once." I looked again down to road leading into the woods. There were no flames visible, just a long charred tunnel leading into the mouth of hell. We turned to head back to the car, and walked past the line of men who had stopped us. None of them seemed to be police officers. What makes a perfectly rational man do irrational things like go bungee jumping or ski down impossibly steep mountains? The fact that someone else is willing to try. Someone who believes and more importantly, can make you believe, that anything is possible. "The others won't go for this," I offered helplessly. We returned to the car, and Stokely opened the trunk. He pulled out a flashlight with a red emergency light on it and an airhorn. We both got in the front seat with Tess in between us. She asked us. "So how does it look?" Stokely started up the Green Monster and began to back into the road. "They've got it under control," he said. It suddenly became clear to me that Stokely had no intention of asking the others what their opinion was of his idea. Parachutists and downhill skiers do not make decisions by committee. In one quick move he turned on the red emergency light, placed it on the dashboard, and gunned the engine, heading down toward the woods a hundred yards away. He then held the air horn out the window. It let out an ear splitting screech which drowned out the screams of everyone else in the car and distracted the line of men at the edge of the woods as we sped by them and roared into the midst of the fire. Once into the woods, he dropped the air horn and had both hands on the wheel, staring straight ahead with his foot mashed down on the pedal. Tess was screaming, hitting him and yelling "Stop! Stop! You crazy bastard!" It was only a quarter of a mile down to the beach. As he and I had observed earlier, there were no flames near the road. There was nothing left to burn. The trees were charred stumps. There was a heat, but the sandy road in the middle was like a cold blooded vein through the heart of the forest fire. We were through the woods and out onto the beach in almost no time. Between the woods and the dunes was a tidal marsh which of course had escaped the blaze. We were all either screaming or laughing hysterically. Clare was sobbing. Stokely was screaming too. The entire experience had lasted twenty seconds, maximum. In retrospect, I can say that he had not really put any of our lives at risk, but at that moment, with the adrenaline coursing through our veins and under the illusion that we had just escaped the fingers of the Devil himself, I never felt more alive. He may have been crazy, but it was the craziness of a courageous man. Return to Table of Contents