"You remember the time we almost hit the submarine?" I was asking Dewey as we crossed the Cooper River Bridge heading towards Mt. Pleasant and Sullivan's Island. "What was that, dear?" asked Dewey's wife Elisabeth. "You've never told me this one." "In fact it was the same threesome," said Dewey. He looked through the rear view mirror at Tess, who was in the back seat of the minivan along with Elizabeth. His three kids were in the back seat of the Toyota, two rambunctious boys and a little sister momentarily distracted by their books. "Where was Stokely that time?" he asked, not directing his question particularly. "That was the summer he was in Europe, wasn't it Tess?" I offered up. "I think so," answered Tess. "So what happened?" Elisabeth was insistent, used to our detours and sidetracks. I started. "It was August, really hot and hazy, and we decided to go on a sail on Dewey's Hobie from Sullivan's Island all the way into the harbor. We were out there somewhere near Sumter, and ahead of us in the haze I saw what I took to be an island with a flag flying from a narrow building on it. You know how sometimes the sky is blue but around the water it's foggy?" I was turned halfway in the front seat, talking directly to her. She nodded. "Anyway, it was the first time I had been sailing in the harbor, and I didn't really know if there was another island in it or not. I had only heard of Fort Sumter." "I was at the bow and Tess and Dewey were astern, talking to each other. I called back at Dewey. What's the name of that island?" ‘"Island?" he yelled back. Dewey chimed in. "Some island. I looked up and saw this Skipjack class sub bearing down at us. They were still a couple of hundred yards off, but they were steaming straight for us, and us for them. There wasn't a lot of wind, and by the time we headed off they were close enough to yell at. There were a few of them in the conning tower waving their hands like crazy and yelling at us, "Assholes!" or something like that." We laughed with the luxury of those safely recalling the folly of youth. Out on Sullivan’s island at Dewey’s family house, things hadn’t really changed that much since we were teenagers. Of course now there were several rows of houses and not a spare lot in sight, but a lot of the old clapboard houses which I remembered from my youth had escaped the ravages of the hurricane which blasted the coast several years before. His house had been in his family for years, passed on through three generations to him when the elder Mr. Ravanel died several years back. We sat on the porch, looking out at the waves and sipping margaritas while the kids played inside. Dewey read through the Shareholder’s Agreement and what Tess and I had written about our talks with Mary and our theory about MacEnzie and his friend Doctor Riley. Dewey reacted like the calm, reasoning lawyer he was. He had his fingers pressed together under his chin, his lips pursed in thought. “Well?” I asked him. “ And you want me to tell you what to do...or what can be done.” “It would help us...decide which way to go.” I said, looking over at Tess as our eyes met in confirmation . Dewey spoke slowly and deliberately. “What does Stokely think about all this? It will have an effect on your whole family.” Again our eyes met, and Tess spoke up. “Uh...we haven’t told him...” she said, “....yet.” Dewey’s eyebrows arched and he ran his tongue over his lips slowly as he realised that the two of us were in on more than just this discovery. “Oh.” he said, letting this fact float in the salt air, carried by the bouyancy of the sound of waves crashing in on the beach. “I see.” “Well, let me put it this way,” he continued. “There is a statute of limitations which runs out after forty years. What is more, all the people involved are long since dead, and proving anything will be problematic...at best. “ “What about the Shareholder’s Agreement?” I interjected. “Doesn’t that give us...I mean Helmut’s heirs, some sort of leverage?” I caught myself trespassing on territory that wasn’t mine, and looked over at Tess, who seemed not to mind. “Don’t you think it’s possible that Tess’s family still has rights to the ownership of UBI? Especially since perhaps MacKenzie killed their great grandfather just to take away what was rightfully his? Isn’t there some way legally to get back at them?” Dewey looked skeptical. “What are you trying to accomplish?” he asked. “Take over UBI? Become multibillionaires?” Tess spoke up. “Justice, Dewey. The assholes always seem to get ahead in this world. Wouldn’t it be nice if they don’t get away with it for once?” Dewey shook his head. “That particular asshole seems to have gotten away with it quite nicely. He’s long dead and I bet he died rich and happy. Even his family no longer owns the company. I’ve got shares in UBI for Chrissakes. So do you probably, and practically every fund manager and Belgian dentist. Don’t you think this might just be like tilting at windmills a bit?” He looked at us, expecting a reply. The waves crashed in the background, a steady syncopation accompanying a silence that gave him his answer. Tess and I said nothing but just looked at him and then at each other, realising without speaking that we were serious. “Well,” he said finally. “Who would have thunk it fifteen years ago? We were just kids then, weren’t we?” He shifted in his chair, uncomfortable with his role as arbiter in a struggle between his friends and an as yet anonymous foe. “ It was all such a lark back then. Everything was. We never played for keeps.” I realised suddenly that he had quietly been knocking back margeritas twice as fast as the rest of us, and that the calm steady voice of the lawyer masked a tiredness, perhaps the tiredness of upholding a perfect and unsullied life. “What do you want me to do?” he sighed at last. “Can you look into it?” I asked. “Can you see if there is a legal basis for a claim against MacKenzie’s heirs? You’ve got the Shareholder’s Agreement and we have Mary as a witness... even if it will be difficult to prove.” Dewey had a pained expression on his face. He looked over to his wife for guidance. Her words surprise him. “Why not, Dewey? What have you got to lose? At least this beats defending big corporations against product liability suits.” “Okay,” he said finally. “We should tell Stokely though. When is he coming back?” The Brains Trust had never really been disbanded, I thought to myself. There was still a leader of the band, and nothing would ever change that. Not even growing up. Tess spoke in a tone that only a sibling could produce. “Stokely’s in Asia until next week,” she said. Dewey grunted non-committedly. “Why don’t you do a little research before then? “she asked. “That way we’ll know whether it’s worth pursuing at all before we tell him.” This was unassailable feminine logic at its best. “Okay,” he said. “Monday. Monday I’ll look into it... Who knows?” he added. “Stranger things have happened.” Dewey suddenly raised his margerita and said with mock seriousness: “To victory over injustice, villains, and....” He left the sentence unfinished. “And what?” I asked. He reached forward, lightly tapping the glass five times on the table. “Best of luck to you all in this quixotic quest!” He tapped four times more. On the final tap he brought the glass down too hard, cracking it in the process. The snap code had been resurrected from the dead. “And UBI!” Tess broke in, still proficient at the code after all those years. I looked at the glass. The crack ran down from the crusty remains of the salt around the rim, stopping at the frontier of the heavy base. The opaque yellow liquid stayed in, peering out through a curved lens on the verge of bursting. “To victory over UBI!” I repeated, clicking first Tess’s and Elisabeth’s glasses, and then touching Dewey’s ever so gently. He didn’t notice the crack as he picked it up. “Careful,” I said. “Go softly.” “Yeah, softly.” Dewey drained the glass and slammed it down on the table. This time the crack didn’t hold and a triangular piece fell out, leaving behind a jagged edge which sliced the meaty base of his thumb. “Damn,” he said. “Damn.” He dabbed at the blood with a napkin. The triangular wedge of glass had falled inward to the bottom of the glass with its most acute angles pointing like an arrow at me. I bent down to pick it up, and the thought that went through my mind was that this was a bad omen, a false talisman pointing its bad luck in my direction. This thought followed me out to the kitchen, lodging itself in the pit of my stomach while I disposed of the glass. There it remained, a warning that went acknowledged but unheeded.
Tuesday, 28 July 2009
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Proving a theory is like building a house. If the foundation of logic is solid, the frame of analysis sound, and the angles of support symmetric, then hanging the doors and windows and walls of proof on the skeleton of supposition is merely a question of application. We were sitting in the Richmond Airport. I was going to catch a plane back to New York, and Tess was heading back south to North Carolina. She held my hand easily, naturally, as if we had been this close our whole lives. The silence between us carried just as much weight as words. "What are you going to do?" she asked. This was a question with a thousand and one meanings and twice as many answers. "What do you mean? Today? Next week? Over the long term? About us?" I said it good naturedly, and she took it the same way. She smiled. "It wasn't a loaded question. Start with today..." "Today..." I said. "Today I am going to figure out a way to get back to see you. That means thinking about everything else in my life ..." She picked her head off my shoulder and looked straight through my eyes. "And yours..." I added. "You know, Evan. You don't have to hurry into anything. I'm not going anywhere." I knew what she meant by that. "Neither am I, Tess," I said. We sat in silence, watching people move by at different speeds and with differing degrees of care on their faces. An airport is a good place to view the full gamut of human emotions. In the anonymity of transience people let down their guards. "What about our mystery?" she said. I looked around as people milled back and forth, oblivious to us or to what we were talking about. "It all revolves around the doctor. I think he's the key. Without his complicity my idea makes no sense. Since he obviously wasn't from around Matthews, it's probably going to be easier to find him out about him in New York." I squeezed her hand. "Power, money, and pride. It's all there, Tess. People haven't really changed much over the years. They still do bad things for stupid reasons. And a lot of times they get away with it." The plane was called, cutting short our conversation. I looked at Tess and one of those seemingly incongruous thoughts passed through my head. "Isn't it strange?" I asked her. "What?" "I calculated it once. When you're forty years old, you've lived over 21 million minutes. Yet out of all that time, there are really only so few that count for anything, so few that have any bearing on the direction you take in life, and only two that start you off or end it all." "Oh, that sounds ominous," she said. "No, I didn't mean it like that. I meant these past few days. They were important moments...a new beginning, Tess. We're going on a trip...and I wonder where we'll end up." "As long as we're together," she said. Suddenly a sad smile creased her face. I nodded with my eyelashes. I kissed her and held her tightly, her body a perfect fit against mine. "I'll call you tonight," I said, and as I entered the tunnel at the gate I looked back at her, her shoulders sloping towards the floor, her arm half-raised in an attentuated girl scout salute, a fake pout on her face masking the sadness we both felt. I slept on the plane. When I awoke the lights of Manhattan were ambling past as we banked towards LaGuardia. My mind raced back to earlier that day at Valhalla, when the two of us were trying to eke out a few last moments on the hammock. It's just like God, I had thought to myself. Every so often he lets us all climb out of the valleys of despair, but he makes sure that the slog up the mountain is long and hard. And when we get to the peak, we can't stay there too long. The air is too rarefied, and even though the view stretches endlessly before us, it's an illusion. We'll have the memory, but already we have to start the descent just to survive. My mind and heart were hiving off in two directions like jet fighters at some airshow. Had Tess been there, perhaps I would have ignored my mind and just followed the whims of my heart. Back alone in the chill of the Northeast however, the warm hand of my curiosity was leading me, and I pressed forward to confirm the theory quietly percolating in my subconscious. My phone call to Tess that night was long and frustrating, the magic of technology making her voice seem right next to me, dangling the false closeness maddeningly out of reach. The next night's call was different. "Guess where I've been today?" I began. "Where?" she humoured me. "I went up to New Haven to the Medical School to look through the AMA files they have there..." There was an excited tone in my voice. "And?" Tess was impatient. "Doctor Riley was pretty famous himself. There's a wing of the hospital named after him." "A wing? Which hospital?" "The Yale Hospital. I visited it myself. There's more..." I was being cruel. "Guess what kind of wing?" Tess was losing patience. "Go on, Evan. Tell me." "The Malcolm Riley Cardiology Wing." "Cardiology..." Tess exhaled. "It gets better. Guess where the funds came from to build it?" She was ahead of me. "UBI." "You got it. Every year until he died in 1936." "Jesus." Tess exclaimed. "I also found out his specialty in the journals," I continued. "He was one of the pioneers of cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. He was the first person to use adrenalin to restart hearts. This guy was a clockmaker, Tess. He could start or stop the ticker at his whim. He would know if it were a heart attack, or more importantly, how to make it look like one. And who was going to argue with him in a small county hospital in Gloucester?" There was a stunned silence at the other end of the phone. What had seemed a theory suddenly seemed to make sense. "Faust." Tess seemed to spit out the word. "What?" I hadn't heard what she said. "Making a deal with the devil," she said bitterly. "The bastards." "Can we prove anything?" There was firm resolve in her voice. "Proving a murder eighty years on when the murderers are long since dead will be next to impossible and useless anyway. But it doesn't matter anyway." "What do you mean?" Tess asked, quick to respond. "We have ammunition, or rather your family has ammunition. We may not be able to get back at MacEnzie or his pal, but we can hit his family where it hurts. The Shareholder's Agreement, Tess. It's real alright, and we have Mary who can back it up with what she said about your great-grandfather's words to MacEnzie. We are partners again. Again. The agreement at 1819 is valid. Valid enough to make MacEnzie want to kill old Helmut." "So you think that was the main reason?" "An inventor starts a company with a businessman. The company does well. The businessman sees the possibilities way beyond their initial success. Big isn't bad, he thinks. He buys out the inventor, but he realises when the inventor's gone that he still needs his expertise. He brings him back again, but this time the inventor has wised up. He wants more of a say in the business side. Big egos clash. Something has to give, and the businessman is ruthless enough to win out and get rid of the old thorn in his side." I let that sink in, and then pressed on. "He's smart enough to get away with it, and he eases his conscience by giving some of the blood money for good deeds and by enshrining his dead partner as an icon of the twentieth century. And when nobody ever produces the missing shareholder's agreement, a myth is born. The company grows up around a doctored history, and bad deeds are erased." There was a sharp intake of breath at the other end of the phone. Something between a gasp and a sigh. "Oh me....."she said. "I think you're right." The enormity of it all filtered through the silence on the line. "What are we going to do?" she continued. "We know a lawyer, right?" I offered. "I'll call Dewey and get his opinion..." and then thinking ahead, I added: "Do you think you can go to 1819 and meet me in Charleston by this weekend?" "What should I tell the others? My parents? Stokely?" My brain was suddenly spinning. Between the two of us, a theory was only a theory. Brought out into the open, it would become set in concrete, either as truth or as the ramblings of an active imagination. It would have far reaching implications, both for us and for the family. We were about to cross our own little Rubicon, and rightly or wrongly, I preferred that we do it alone. "When does Stokely return?" Oddly enough, this was the first time we had talked of Stokely since going to Valhalla. "Not until next week," she replied. "Do we wait?" "What do you think?" she came back, the ball in my court. "I don't think either of us want to tell him over the phone with him in Asia, do you? He won't be able to do anything from there, will he?" "No." "And do you want to tell your parents or the others? It is still a theory." "Just us then." "Just us." As simple as that, a club had been created, a secret club with only two members. Perhaps it was the wrong thing to do. Perhaps in retrospect we should have co-opted the others, especially Stokely, by bringing them in at the beginning. I after all, was an outsider. I had nothing to gain. I just wanted to be with Tess. In any case, it was set. I called Dewey, and told him that the two of us were going to be in Charleston for the weekend. He sounded bemused that we were coming as a pair, but was as hospitable as ever, suggesting we all stay out at their house on Sullivan's Island. I didn't tell him anything. Tess and I agreed that we should collect our thoughts by each of us writing down independently what we had done from finding the agreement to our conversation with Mary. That way we would be sure to have a story to tell Dewey that was organised and as close to the truth as our memories would allow. Tess agreed to fly first to Washington, make a copy of the Shareholder's Agreement, and meet me Saturday morning in Charleston. We had built our theoretical house. Now we would live in it.
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Of course you cannot help but compare. Life is a progression between the two powerful poles of desire and memory. With each passing day the desire of youth, fueled by the fearsome attraction of the unknown, is gradually replaced by memories of the known, until eventually all you are left with are memories of desires, frustrated or fulfilled. It is a process as inevitable as the sunrise. You can never replicate the freshness of the first time you saw the turquoise blue of the waters around a Bahamian cay or the silent wonderous magic of the child's first snowfall. Instead the mind uses all experience to create a mosaic of new sensations which have the weight of comparison behind them. Tess was still asleep next to me as the sun streamed through the window. The covers had fallen open and one of her breasts lay exposed to the chill of the morning, her nipple dotted with goosebumps from the cold air. I looked at her in repose, her lips relaxed, the darkness of her eyebrows a horizontal line dividing a face that was both long and full. Suddenly I felt an surge of desire overcome me in waves that coursed through my body, a complicated interplay between emotion and reason as the magical machinery of memory and desire kicked into gear. I reached under the covers and slowly traced a line down from her breasts, feeling the muscles of her abdomen tighten. Her skin grow taut as my fingers approached like attacking soldiers sneaking up on a hillock covered with gorse. She stirred and I bent down to suck her nipple, feeling the initial cold stiffness grow warm and soft, then stiffen again as I drew a circle around it with my tongue. She let out a moan and I moved to quieten it with my lips. I felt her body turn towards mine, her legs opening slowly, a drawbridge to allow me passage through into a warm bottomless lake. "Oh dear," she murmured quietly as her eyes came open. "That was a nice way to be woken up." The word intimate has many meanings. As a verb it can mean to hint or suggest. It can also mean to proclaim. Dressed as an adjective, it can mean close, secret, or sometimes even essential. To become intimate with someone is to combine all these definitions, to shed the external skin that we all have and to enter into a hidden internal world--physical, mental, and spiritual--a world where secrets previously hinted at are confirmed or denied, where barriers are breached, where two people surrender themselves to each other willingly. We were on different ground now. It was as though a trapdoor had swung open from the world we had inhabited all our lives and deposited us in a brand new world, one which looked the same but was somehow very different. Was being with Tess different than Lydia? It is like asking if the blue sky is always blue. I read once that we don't see things as they are, we see things as we are. Everything depends on your point of view, your place along the timeline of your life. I fell in love with Lydia almost immediately, yet it was a long time before I went out with her. Nonetheless, somehow that initial feeling remained constant, topped up from time to time, but never really exceeding the incredible surge of electricity I felt that first time in the attic at Valhalla. I didn't think it possible, but somehow we managed to keep up the same powerful flow through the years, and I never ever will forget the jolt I used to feel every time I heard her voice say my name, as I felt somehow honoured by God to be addressed by her. Was Tess similar? We were friends for the longest time. It was only after Lydia's death that my feelings for her began to grow in small increments, rising imperceptibly like the level of a tidal pool, not noticeable until I was surrounded by deep water. Comparing the two was impossible and not fair, since they were both different just as I was different. As I lay there, smelling the sweet cleanness of Tess's hair and feeling her body next to mine, I reflected on the two of us, veterans of some long campaign. I felt the strange mixture of contentment and relief tinged with guilt which comes with being a survivor. "Would you like soft-shelled crabs for breakfast?" I asked. "Oh yes, please," she said, wrapping herself around me and kissing my ear. There was a silence in the room, interrupted only by the sound of our breathing. "Thank you," she whispered softly and slowly, her mouth pressed against my ear. I knew it had nothing to do with my offer of breakfast. I looked at her and rubbed my nose against her cheek. "Tess." I said, and kissed her again. The cold floor was a shock to the system, but the day was bright with that newly minted look of spring. The leaves were just at the point of adolescence, changing from the yellow green of new growth into a darker green slightly more care-worn. "What shall we do today?" she asked. I think back now on that moment, and I somehow wish I had said something different, that I had left well enough alone and suggested that we take a walk or a sail or make love again all day or do anything but continue to poke around the ashes of the past. It would have been simpler, and who knows what might have happened. But I didn't, and to this day despite my regret I don't know why I didn't. What I did say was: "Why don't we go visit Mary and Jake again?" A flicker of disappointment, the most miniscule trace, flashed across Tess's face, but she said "Okay," and the day's concrete mold began to set, a footprint that I wish somehow had headed off in a different direction. We called them before going, speaking first to Jake, who despite the early hour sounded as though he had already been drinking something stronger than orange juice. He passed the phone over to Mary, who seemed to have retraced the few friendly steps she had made toward us and was non-committal at best, if not downright unfriendly. We were in no hurry and said we would be over in the afternoon. We spent the morning moseying around Valhalla, cooking a first class breakfast and revelling in what for us was a world with only the two of us in it. We were sitting out on the dock by the boathouse looking out towards the buoys in the distance where only six months earlier we had scattered Lydia's ashes together. What could have been awkward seemed like a natural progression. "You know, life is strange, isn't it?" Tess suddenly said to me, her head leaning on my shoulder. "I used to dream when I was young that we would be doing this, you and I, only I thought we would be doing this twenty years ago. When you got married, I gave up ever thinking it would happen and even when Lydia was killed I never thought..." Her words tailed off as she struggled with what to say. "I hope you don't think that I am gloating that things turned out this way." I hugged her. "Tess," I sighed. "One thing I've learned in life is that we have no control over the big things and only marginal control over the small things. So you have to be grateful when the big things go your way." I paused and looked at her. "And this is a big thing." By the cusp of the afternoon, the sun had warmed up the air sufficiently to take a swim off the boathouse. We went skinny dipping like teenagers, washing the salt off under the water tower. The day meandered by at a languid pace, seconds lurching into minutes and stumbling into hours like drunks with nowhere to go. By three, we were very peckish and decided to stop on the way to Jake's and pick up a barbeque. I was still wiping the remnants off the corner of my mouth as we rolled up to Jake's house, where Mary was sitting out front on an old chair dragged out from inside. "Well, don't you two look like the cat who ate the canary," she cackled as we got out of the car. Tess and I looked sheepishly at each other. I was taken back to the night of my initiation into sex at age sixteen, when I returned home to find my parents and my aunt and uncle surprisingly still on the back porch, drinking coffee and chewing the fat. I felt as though I was different, as though I now sported a badge on my forehead which said THIS BOY IS NO LONGER A VIRGIN. They might have noticed I was acting a little strange, but in retrospect I think their knowing looks were mostly in my imagination. Still, it seemed as though Mary could tell that Tess had found more than a friend. Tess had brought Mary some gifts, a basket with fruits and canned goods and a Christmas pudding that was noticeably out of season. We had also brought a bottle of nice wine for Jake, who had taken advantage of knowing we were coming by disappearing off somewhere. Mary poked through the basket and picked out the pudding, holding it aloft. She had a broad gap-toothed smile on her face. "Lord, child, how dj'you remember I love this?" Tess grinned. "I remember once when I was eight and you and I lit the pudding for the Aunts and you let me hold the match. I know it's not Christmastime..." she said apologetically. "Honey, at my age you don't wait around for Christmas in case it don't come," chuckled Mary, obviously pleased by the gift. Tess had done the right thing. Mary's smile was genuine and it suddenly seemed as though she was on our side. "How long you two stayin'?" she asked. I let Tess do the answering. "We're heading back tomorrow," Tess said, "so I didn't want to leave without seeing you again." I knew Tess was trying to make amends for her family's half-decade of neglect. "Ain't that a pity," Mary said. "I could have cooked you something." Her tone had changed since the phone call. Tess let the conversation wander back and forth like a hooked fish, gradually reeling it in and keeping enough pressure not to lose Mary's goodwill. I remained mute in the background. Curiosity had replaced Tess's earlier reluctance. Suddenly she gaffed the conversation. "Mary," she said. "I know you didn't want to talk about it yesterday but I wonder if you could tell me something about the boat trip with my great-grandfather again." Mary's expression changed slightly, but I couldn't tell whether this was good or bad. "You know child, when you left yesterday I was thinkin' bout that trip and it was all comin' back to me jes like it just happened." She shook her head. "I ain't thought of that for a long time, maybe because...because it changed my life so." She looked around at the chaos of her front yard. I knew she was wondering what a life in Washington would have been like. "I was so young..." she said. She shook her head with a mixture of regret and acceptance. Suddenly she leaned forward in her chair and looked at Tess. "Whatch-you wanna know about that trip, child?" Her tone made it clear that she had just opened a door and invited Tess inside. Tess was a bit taken aback, but quickly recovered. "Yesterday you said that you had never seen two partners go at each other like my great grandfather and Mr. Mackenzie. What did you mean by that?" "Well, child," the old woman said. "You gotta remember that I was a young girl. I hadn't never seen much of what goes on in the real world, you know, how people really act and all. I hadn't never seen Mr. Hoeflinger angry before. He was always so nice to me. Course I knew he must be really strong, else why would he be rich?" She paused for a second. "Mostly on that boat the men they kept to theyselves and so during the day I didn't see much of them. I was busy cleanin' and preparin' the beds and gettin' ready for supper. It only took a day and a half to sail down from Washington, you know. Anyway, after supper they was all playin' poker, and Mr. Hoeflinger, he asked me to stay and serve drinks. Schnapps. That's what they was drinkin'. I know, because I took a swig myself." She giggled and put her hand to her mouth like she was hiding something. She then continued, secretly proud of her audacity as a young girl. "By and by they started talking about their machines and Mr. Ford, he and your great grandfather were doin' most of the talkin'. Finally Mr. Mackenzie, he began to butt in, sayin' how his company could solve Mr. Ford's problems. I remember he kept sayin' "Big isn't bad, Henry. Big isn't bad. My company can help you manage." "I remember it clear as day because that was when your great grandfather he broke in. He shook his finger at Mr. MacEnzie, and said loud, real loud like I never heard him talk before." "Your company, Tomas. Your company. Perhaps you have forgotten ve are partners again." "I remember it cause his face was red and his moustache blew out when he talked and he said Thomas like only he could: 'Toh-mas.' He was pokin' his finger in Mr. MacKenzie's face." She was shaking her head. I spoke up, bringing her back abruptly to the present. "Mary, you're sure he said we are partners again? You're sure he said again?" I said it twice for emphasis. I knew that probing the memory of a ninety year old woman talking about a conversation three quarters of a century before was expecting more than was reasonable. Mary looked at me quizzically. "Yes, I remember it well. I remember it zactly, 'cause that was the last thing I ever heard Mr. Hoeflinger say to someone else. The very last thing." Her head rocked back and forth, as if for emphasis. "After he said it he turned to me and asked me to get the coffee, and when I came back he told me I could go to bed. I could hear them still arguing for a long time, but I didn't hear nothin' they said after that. The next thing I knowed, the Cap'n was shakin' me awake and your great grandfather was dead." Her shoulders hunched up. "Anyway what's past is past, child. Ain't no use in rakin' over coals 'cause the fire went out a long long time ago." She was right, as most people are who have seen ninety years of the ebb and flow of life. The younger you are though, the less you heed their words and the more you plunge forward. My mind was still on that boat, replaying the scene she had just described. "Mary," I interjected, "when Mr. Hoeflinger was yelling at Mr. MacKenzie, what was MacKenzie doing? Did he say anything?" This may seem difficult to believe, but I knew what she was going to respond even before she said it. In my mind I had already seen it. I had already seen it as if the two men had been standing directly in front of us. "No, child, that was the strange thing. He didn't say nuthin'. He just looked at Mr. Hoeflinger and he smiled. He just smiled, child, was all he did."
Monday, 27 July 2009
We were back at the Winter House. We had spent the rest of the afternoon in the courthouse at Gloucester, looking through the county tax rolls from around the turn of the century to see if there was a Malcolm Riley who might have been a doctor at the Memorial Hospital. My first idea, to look through the hospital's staff records, had not panned out. The spanking new building was designed for the future, not as an archive of the past. Our search found no doctors named Malcolm, no Rileys, no-one who could possibly be examining physician for a body brought ashore on an autumn morning in 1916. A theory, still partially formed and as yet too fluid to take shape, was beginning to seep through the sluices of my brain. It looked as though it would be impossible to come up with anything concrete about an event which happened so long ago. We were in the kitchen of the old house, trying to figure out how to turn the heat on. Tess was on her knees with her head pressed to the floor, her rump in the air, trying to see if the pilot light at the bottom of the old boiler was lit. I know that she would not have been flattered to know, but my particular vantage point provoked a sudden and overwhelming desire, lighting a spark inside me which had been snuffed out since the accident. I went into the pantry and found a box of long matches. Kneeling down beside her, I tilted my head to look through the small hole at the bottom of the cylinder. I was conscious of the scent of her hair and the dust of the floor and the sweet acrid smell of the gas which seeped out when I turned the stopcock. "Press here and hold it," I said, indicating a small button which would release the gas in a steady enough stream to ignite it. She reached over to the button and our hands brushed. Like a teenager on a first date to the movies, I was acutely conscious of this touch, as if for a moment the rest of my body did not exist. The moment passed and the pilot light flickered on. Our task complete, we decided to go into Matthews to eat while the damp and musty house heated up. We sat in Mathews' only restaurant, eating crab cakes and sipping cold beer. "You want to know what I think?" I suddenly asked. Tess was looking at me but her eyes were not focused on mine and her chin was propped up on her elbow, giving her a dreamy look. She didn't answer immediately. I felt a little bit self conscious. "What?" I said. "I was just thinking how this was fun, regardless of what happens. It as though suddenly there is a signpost where before there was none. I mean, it's somewhere to go and something to do." "Right." What else could I say? "Anyway. Do you want to know what I think happened?" I continued. Tess was trying to resist coming out of her reverie. Reluctantly, it seemed, she said: "Okay, tell me your theory." "First off, I think MacEnzie killed your great grandfather. I think he killed him and it has something to do with that agreement we found, maybe because he realised he was beholden to Helmut and he couldn't take it. I think he set the whole thing up. He invited Henry Ford along to give it some legitimacy, and I think he was in cahoots with his doctor friend." "How can you possibly think all that from what we know? Mary didn't say anything like that. Not even close." "Do you ever feel like you know something is going to happen before it happens? Do you ever feel like you are plugged into something involuntarily, like someone is leading you and you only half realise it?" Tess was looking at me with a look that was somewhere between bewilderment and wonder. "You are so...enthusiastic about this, Evan. Why?" "You know, Tess, I feel like somehow this is a part of my life...I mean everything. You, Stokely, your family, Valhalla, your great grandfather...Lydia....everything. It's just meant to be. I know it sounds weird. It just seems as though I have been led down a path and I have to follow it to the end. It just feels right." I knew that the mention of Lydia's name was the main ingredient that Tess tasted in what I had just told her. I could tell she was debating over whether or not to say something. "Why Lydia?" she asked, speaking softly to temper what could have seemed a harsh question. Lydia suddenly had come out of the shadow into the light, forcing us both to confront her. I took a deep breath. "This is where I met her. This is where I buried her. There will never be any way of forgetting that or her. But as time goes on I have come to realise that...she is part of my life. A very important part, but a part. A part that is gone now and can never come back." I paused and exhaled sharply. Tess looked distraught. "I'm sorry, Evan.....I didn't mean to..." "Force me into saying something? No....I'm glad you did. Say something I mean. And it's the truth, isn't it?" She wasn't going to say anything, even if she agreed. She only nodded. "Anyway, I agree with you," I said. "This...hunt has given us a signpost to follow." I know that the subtlest things carry the most weight in life. It is not the blatant statement but the casual glance, the turn of the head, the averted eyes, the brief rush of colour to the cheeks which are the most telling and powerful signs. Unplanned words that emerge from the undergrowth of sentences can grow over time into the tall trees of truth. The second I said us I realised it was different. There was no need to say anything else. "I think we should talk to Mary again," I said. "Otherwise any theory I have will remain just that...a theory. I need to know if she remembers anything that was said between your great grandfather and MacEnzie." Tess looked skeptical. "I don't know. She was a little less than enthusiastic. Especially there at the end." "Maybe we could use Jake as an excuse...and bring them something. A gift. To thank her." I knew that for Tess our investigation had taken a backseat to something else. I think she realised that perhaps the more we delved into what was now a lark could turn into something more serious, something which would quickly spread beyond the two of us. She was in no hurry to sacrifice our fledgling relationship for some unspecified benefit for her family. However, there was no stopping an adventure which now had gathered a momentum of its own. "Okay. Tomorrow," she said reluctantly. "Can we go home now?" She said this in a nervous sort of way, a breathless strained little girl voice that was at odds with the rest of her, as if it was a relief finally to be arriving at a destination. We had made a show of choosing separate bedrooms on arriving at the Winter House earlier, hers down at the end of the hall with its own bathroom, mine at the top of the stairs. It was not late, but not too early that we could not both say goodnight and go upstairs to brush our teeth and wash. Years of experience with Lydia taught me that time increased exponentially with women, yet despite trying to pace myself, I found myself in my room, walking back and forth like an expectant father, sitting on the bed, getting up and then down again, wondering what I would do or say and listening hopefully for footsteps coming down the hall. Our attempt to heat the house had not really worked. It was still chilly, and I cursed myself for leaving my rarely used bathrobe in Washington. Finally, in an act of desperation I got under the covers and turned out the light, still wondering what I would do. Suddenly her silhouette was in the doorway. She only said one word: "Evan." Everything was a blur of contradictions: the silence deafening, the darkness bright, the bitter sweet, her cold skin hot as a fire that burns only once a lifetime, the hardness of our bodies mixed with the soft. It was not premeditated and yet not spontaneous, the end of a lifetime's rehearsal for an impromptu hour on the stage. The fear was comforting, the confusion so clear. We said nothing, and explored each other like two blind people grasping for an answer in the darkness, touching and tasting, caressing and probing and lunging and holding and suddenly finding our answer in an explosion of light at the end of a long tunnel. In the calm of the afterwards I held her and kissed her and through the confusing kaleidoscope of thoughts and images and memories--both painful and joyous-- which had led us through the years to that moment, I whispered in her ear: "If we let it, life will never cease to amaze us."
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It is hard for me to imagine someone whose entire life has been spent within a twenty mile radius of a hard-scrabble shack in the middle of the woods. Someone who has never seen a mountain or a skyscraper or eaten Chinese food. Mary was from a different era. She had never wanted it any differently. Her son Jake had gone off to war to fight the Japanese and his stories of the outside world were enough for her. She had never summoned up the curiosity to go much past Washington, and even then she had only been there once. She had been easy to find. We didn't rely on Tess's memory, but stopped to ask the first black person we saw coming out of a church near Deltaville, a few miles outside Matthews. He happened to be the preacher, and when we asked him if he knew Mary Pickett, he looked at us as if we were daft. "Of course," he said, as if everybody knew of Mary Pickett. He directed us down the highway, closing by saying: "If you find her though you'll have seen her more than me. She ain't the church going kind." We followed his directions down a long dirt road heading away from the water. The soil was sandy and the pines were stunted and scraggly. "Bottom land," said Tess. "Not good for much." In the agrarian society hierarchy, those at the lowest rung of the ladder had to make do with what was left over. Jake's house was what a carpenter friend of mine used to call an afterthought. After they built a door, they thought of adding a window; after the walls, some insulation; after a story, another story. The whole building had sort of an improvised and half-finished look, like a man arriving at the office with shaving foam on his chin and his shirt-tail out. Out front there was an old Ford pickup up on blocks. The carcass of a refrigerator loitered around the side. Despite having landscaped Valhalla's gardens, Jake had never brought his briefcase home from the office, so to speak. There was a half-hearted attempt at a bush by the front door, and the rest of the place was left to grow whatever nature had deposited there, with only the most occasional trimmings. In spite of the chill in the air, the front door was open though the screen in front of it was shut and the hook and eye fastened. There didn't seem to be a doorbell of any kind. "Hello!" I yelled. Sometimes you can sense the presence of someone even when there is no response. The house just didn't feel empty. "Hello!" we both shouted in unison as I knocked on the frame of the door. Finally a voice called out from the adjacent room. "What is it you people want? I done told you once that Jake sent the check in last week." Tess looked at me, shrugged her shoulders, and gave an ironic half-smile. "Mary? Is that you?" she called out. There was a pause. "Who wants to know?" said the voice. "Mary, it's me. It's Tess. Tess Haynes," Tess said, trying to eke out some trust from the suspicious old woman. "Tess?" The door to the other room opened and the small hunched figure of the old woman inched out into view. "Let me get a good look at you, girl," she said. She looked through the screen door with her head cocked to one side and one eye squinting. Finally she cackled to herself and lifted the hook off the clasp to open the door. "Lord have mercy, child. You liked to scared me to death. I though you was them buzzards from the finance company come to git Jake's car." She pronounced finance like high-nance, with the accent on the drawn out first syllable. We stood outside the door while she looked Tess over first, finally casting her eye on me. Tess broke in. "Mary, this is my friend Evan." I reached forward to shake Mary's hand, gnarled and knotty like the puny pines around her house. She took it reluctantly. "Friend?" she said skeptically. "Ain't you got yourself a husband yet?" I liked her directness. By age ninety you are entitled to say whatever you want. You haven't got much breath left in you to waste on niceties. "Not yet," Tess said, a bit embarassed. The old woman harrumphed disgustedly. "You best be getting a move-on, girl," she said. "Time's a-wasting." She looked at me like I was to blame. She opened the door and indicated for us to come inside. We went into the living room and sat on her Naugahide couch. The house was dark with an indescribable musty odour, a mixture of stale cooking oil, dust, and human scent. It was tidy but not clean, and I imagined what bottles of disinfectant she had around were still in glass containers, sixties vintage. The whole place had a depressing air to it. Perhaps not to Mary though. She was quite animated. "I remember you when you was a little polecat, an ornery little polecat. You used to poke Stokely's eyes when you fought, didn't you Tess?" She reached out and poked Tess for confirmation, wheezing and chuckling to herself. She continued to run briefly through long forgotten incidents from Tess's childhood, most of which centered around Tess's tomboy adventures. It was her way of getting situated, as she put it. "I'm just getting situated here," she kept on saying as she launched into another monologue which only Tess and she could appreciate. Finally she stopped and looked Tess straight in the eye. "Now whatch-you two come here for?" she asked. "You ain't never been to my house before, Tess. I thought y'all done forgot an old bones-bag like me. All of you. I ain't seen nobody in your family since Aunt Mary died. Lord, that was ten years ago, must have been." There was no point in beating around the bush with her. She was having none of it. She didn't want to hear any excuses either. She knew we came from different worlds. Tess realised this too. "We want to ask you some questions about my great grandfather Helmut," Tess said. Mary let out a hoot. "Lord, you're talking ancient history now, child. I was half your age then." "I realise that. I just wanted to know what you remembered about him." Mary's face turned towards the door and her eyes seemed elsewhere. "Your great grandfather Mr. Hoeflinger," she said wistfully. "He was a real gentle-man." She pronounced gentleman as if it were two words. "Now mind you he wasn't no easy man. No ma'am, not at all. He done told people what to do and they went and did it. He was the boss. But he could convince a body that the sky wasn't blue. He could make you believe anything. Why he done made me believe I could swim." "And you can't?" I offered up. She looked over at me, distracted for a moment. "Lord no, child. I'd sink like a stone. I ain't never been no use around the water." She paused, drawing in her breath, and then continued. "But Mr. Hoeflinger, he just up and told me in that funny accent of his, he said, Mary, ve vill be on de boot togezzuh. Dere is nuttink to vorry about. And I just went. That was the first time and the last time." She shook her head. "Poor Mr. Hoeflinger." "The boat?" Tess interrupted. "Which boat?" "Why the Eric, child. That fancy high-falootin yacht of his. He done told my mama he wanted me to go up and serve for him on the boat, up to Washington and back. I was scareder than I've ever been and I screamed and kicked and carried on like I was going to run away. But my Mama didn't pay me no mind. She done told me I was sixteen years old and it was high time I quit acting like a baby. So I just kept my mouth shut and went and got on that boat. But I'll tell you there ain't no way I'da ever done that for no man cept Mr. Hoeflinger. That's why it was so bad when it happened." "When what happened, Mary?" Tess's eyes honed in on the old woman's face, straying over to me for the briefest of moments. "When he died, child. When he died on the way back to Valhalla." This time Tess looked over at me and raised her eyebrows. I noticed that we were both leaning forward with our hands under our thighs, looking for all the world like ski jumpers hanging on the winds of her words. My heart suddenly did double time. "You mean you were there when he died, Mary? You were there at Haynes Point?" Tess asked incredulously. It seemed almost too unbelievable. Mary suddenly quietened down. "Yes, I was there child. It was turrible, just turrible. The worst day of my life." "Can you tell us what happened?" Tess asked. "Why do you want to know about that, child?" Mary wanted a good reason to dig up old ghosts. My mind went blank, but Tess quickly responded. "Aunt Lillian is nearly dead. You're the only person who knows anything about that time. I want to find out...for the family." The mention of Lillian in the same breath seemed to elevate Mary to a level she had never reached previously in the Hoeflinger universe. She nodded. "I remember that trip like it was yesterday. It was the first time I done left home and I never went again. No ma'am. His dyin' was a sign. We sailed up on that boat to Washington and I stayed in that house of theirs and I ain't never seen nothing like it since. They was gas lights and a butler who put on airs and called me a little pickaninny till I told him to mind his mouth. Mizz Hoeflinger she bought me a nice dress at some big store, Gar-something. We stayed for 'bout one month till it was time to come back down to Valhalla. I didn't want to come back home by then, no ma'am. Being up there was like being in a different world and I was gettin' customed to it. I mean I was supposed to be learnt how to be a maid but I spent most of my time playing with Lillian and Mary." She shook her head, and it bobbed up and down in a circle like one of those puppets on television. The memory of this brief spell as a sixteen year old transfixed her for a moment. "Then?" prompted Tess. "Then it ended. Just like that. Mr Hoeflinger, he come back one night and said he was going back to Valhalla with some of his friends and he wanted me to come along and cook and clean and so we left the next afternoon, the seven of us, to go back on that damn boat." "The seven of you?" I asked. "That's right. Me, the captain, the mate, Mr. Hoeflinger, and his three friends." "Who were they?" Tess was drawing information out of the old woman like a maestro extracting music from an orchestra. "There was Mr. Ford. I didn't know he was so famous at the time, I was so ignorant. Then there was Mr. Hoeflinger's partner Tom, though I ain't never seen two partners go at one another like the two of them. Then there was their doctor friend." Tess and I looked at each other. "Doctor friend?" "That's right. Fat lot of good he did, though I spect it was too late anyway." "Too late for what?" "To save him...when Mr. Hoeflinger had his heart attack," she said, suddenly biting her lower lip as she talked. "We was all sleeping right before sunup. All of a sudden the Cap'n, he was roustin' me and yelling for me to come and we were out by that damn lighthouse and we had to carry Mr. Hoeflinger across to the beach and go through those waves and I kept screaming that I couldn't swim and the Cap'n he smacked me upside the head and told me to shut up. Then we came onto the beach and we had to wait forever for the ambulance. Like I said, by that time it was too late. He was already dead when it came...that damn ambulance." The recollection of the event was painful for her. She spat out the word ambulance, rhyming it with dance, and it seemed to echo around the room. "And where did you go then?" Tess continued to lead her on. "We went on down to the hospital in Gloucester, and then we went on back to Valhalla, cept for Mr. Tom. He said he had to go to Washington to take care of things...for the family, you know." "Washington?" I asked. "You're sure he said Washington?" She gave me a puzzled look. "That's what I remember, child." Suddenly her attitude seemed to change course. She had had enough of dredging up bad memories. "I didn't never go nowhere again," she said, slamming the door of the conversation shut. "I don't want to talk about that no longer. Everything changed after that." There was an awkward silence that seemed to empty the room, halted finally by me. "Can I ask you one more question, Mary?" Reluctantly she nodded her head. I was an interloper. "Go ahead, son. I ain't got all day." "Can you remember the doctor friend's name?" She looked at me like she was picking ticks off a dog, wondering why in the heavens I would want to know that. I thought she wasn't going to answer, when finally she said: "I remember that, child. I remember cause when I met him the first time I thought he was askin' me to come over. Malcolm. That was his name. Doctor Malcolm."
A car trip is a can opener to prise open the psyche and spill out the contents of two people trapped inside. For the driver, conversation is a distraction from the mindless work of guiding the car. He has control over where talk goes, directing the flow of words with less effort than it takes to turn the wheel. The awkward silence or the pregnant pause almost doesn't exist in a car, because there is always the ready excuse of the job at hand or the distraction of the evolving scenery. The passenger has a different perspective. Conversation is not a distraction but something to ward off boredom or sleep. The passenger is an observer, a supplicant, a second class citizen in the confessional booth of the front seat. It is an unequal relationship, a delicate balance between being guided and being manipulated. Tess wanted to drive first, and said little during the journey past the marquees of Civil War names on exit signs for Manassas, for the Rappahannock River and for Fredericksburg, on down the road towards the capital of the Confederacy. I respected her silence, content to watch the Northerners heading south like flocks of pale birds craning their skinny necks in search of the Southern springtime sun. I feigned sleep, my head turned towards her, and looked at her profile in the early morning light. Tess had a strong nose, with dark eyebrows which met in the middle of her forehead and alway gave her an intent look, as if she were puzzling over some difficult maths problem. She never plucked them, which in the perverse modern world could be seen as sort of an affectation, but which I found attractive. There was an almost mannish quality to her, a square jaw which even in her late thirties had lost none of its strength. Her hands, positioned comfortably on the wheel at ten till two, were strong with veins like hedgegrows. Nonetheless there was something very feminine about her, the earth mother with a simple haircut and auburn hair which had lost none of its natural luster in spite of the odd grey strand. She was no classic beauty, but if anything she had improved with age. Durable, I suppose is the best word to describe the way she looked. She had honesty written all over her. Perhaps the honesty was what scared the shit out of most men. I found myself wondering why she had never married, and as we passed Fredericksburg I decided to break the silence. She had quite independently come to the same conclusion. "WhenwewereWhyhaven'tyou.." we both blurted out simultaneously, our words climbing on top of one another across the front seat. We laughed, struck by the irony of choosing the same millisecond to talk after forty minutes of silence. "You first..."she said, quickly adding, "Why haven't I what?" I smiled. "Do you want me to ask or answer? Your choice." "Okay. You ask me first," she took her eyes off the road only briefly, a plaintive glance that said go easy on me. I think she knew what question I was going to ask, and was secretly glad that it was I and not she who would bring the subject up. "Why haven't you ever gotten married, Tess?" Her gaze remained steady and her head didn't turn. She took the briefest of moments to respond, but I knew she had correctly anticipated my question. "I never found anyone good enough for the bad in me," she said quietly. This was not at all what I had expected to hear, and I didn't really understand. "What do you mean by that?" "I've always wanted to live my life on my own terms," she said, "and I suppose you could say I have, at least from the outside. I mean, I live alone, I make my own schedule, I've had..." she looked over briefly, "...a modicum of success." I said nothing, and her words hung out over a cliff before dropping away in the silence. "But..." she sighed. "But what?" "But really I have always been second in line. Second behind Stokely. Second behind my family's name. Second behind what was expected of me. Second as a woman, I suppose. It's our lot." I didn't want to get into a discussion about the plight of women. "But what has that got to do with being bad?" "There's a part of me which wants to rebel and just say the hell with everything, and I am always fighting against that part. And I guess I was always looking for someone who is strong enough to bring me back to creating something good...I don't know...a family, another chance, a reason to pass things on to another generation. To be....first for a change." "You mean someone to be the father of your child." "It's not just that, though I suppose that is a large part of it. God knows, my mother keeps reminding me of the biological clock ticking away." She sighed again and looked across the median at the onrushing traffic. "Sometimes I look at all these people heading somewhere in a hurry and I ask myself: What's the point? Where are we going? Why bother if we all end up like Aunt Lillian anyway? I don't know...It seems such a bad attitude to inflict on someone for a lifetime." Appearances are deceptive. This came from someone who had resolutely played on in spite of a broken leg. "But that's not bad, Tess. That's just being human. We all feel that way. The truth is we'll never know where we are heading or what we'll see or why we do what we do..." I paused. "...or who we spend our time on the planet with." She looked at me when I said this, and I know she thought I was talking of Lydia even though in fact I was thinking about the future. "Can I ask you my question?" she said. "Shoot," I replied. "When we were young, what did you think of me?" When she said this, I realised how things between us had changed over time. Now there was none of the tension that I felt in those days, the competitive jousting, my view of her as Stokely's kid sister outside the boundary of our little circle of the Brains Trust. Now we were just two people with a past, part common and part our own, with almost forty years of pain and joy and love and hate and success and failure and all the ghoulash of human experience. Before, time had been an obstacle on a road we had both been hurrying along to somewhere else. Now it was a bridge between us. "When we were young..." I began. "...when we were young I was intimidated by you." "Intimidated?" She laughed. "That hardly seems possible. You and Stokely were always lording over me from that club of yours....what was it called?" "The Brains Trust." "The Brains Trust. You boys were something. Modest too." She smiled a side road smile but then immediately got back on the main track. "Why intimidated?" she asked. "Because you were smart. Because you were committed. Because you were a woman." "Were?" "Are. Sorry." "Anyway, you seemed to know where you were headed and the rest of us were just bouncing along." "Did you like me?" "Yeah, sure..." I stopped. "What do you mean by like?" "Didn't you ever feel like asking me out?" I thought back. Of course I had thought of it. Maybe that's what I meant by being intimidated. The idea was there, but the timing never seemed right. "You know Tess, sometimes you get so close that you might as well be far away. You can't really see. You can get any....perspective. You were Stokely's kid sister." "You see what I mean? Second behind everybody." I looked over at her and waited until she had made eye contact, long enough that I noticed the clear green of her irises. "I said were, Tess. You've grown up now." Sometimes in life you can feel change happen, like walking up a see-saw and reaching the exact moment when the balance tips in the other direction. We continued talking, words flowing between us easily like electrons between magnetic poles. It seemed that our original purpose for going to Valhalla had been momentarily shoved aside. We switched over driving at Richmond, and as we neared Matthews, Tess's eyebrows knotted in concentration as she tried to recall exactly where amongst the scrub pines and dirt roads we could find Jake's cabin.
Sunday, 26 July 2009
CUCCULA is the whimsical name given by my friend Arne's mother to their summer house near Helsinki, located on an island in the archipelago of thousands of islands along the Finnish coast. He and his wife Elina invited us up for four days, having spent a weekend with us in London during the winter.
Arne is an accomplished sportsman (tennis,basketball, skiing,kayaking etc.) whom I knew from the early 90s from when I covered Scandinavia briefly and whose friendship I renewed when I returned. What I didn't know when invited to Cuccula was how Arne and Elina have created a prototype piece of heaven for these days and this world- a place where by dint of hard work and imagination they have created a self-sufficient, natural (read green) bit of the world . No running water, but wide screen TV. Only in Finland, I guess. Recyclable waste (ie. an outhouse that turns effluence into compost and manages to smell nice (figure that one out, I couldn't), a sauna fueled by the wood that Arne chops, shower from watering cans, food coming fresh out of the sea or gardens (smoked fish...oh my...thinly sliced beef carpaccio with radishes and sesame dressing).
What a place, what a time and what a memory! Self sustaining rustic elegance. The natural barrier for the dock hewn out of boulders from a glacier long ago, carried personally by Arne. The smell of freshly chopped wood as you answer the call of nature at 3 in the morning, the door to the outhouse open (who is watching?) to the lichen floor of the forest. Clean pines already visible in a land with no real night to speak of. A big sky looking across to Estonia , with a Finnish watchtower in the way on an island in the distance, a relic from the Cold War. The Russians occupied the peninsula right near Cuccula, and their watchtower on Arne's island has now been replaced by his own tower, all polished wood with a snug table that slides in and out on wheels, where you can sit in comfort and eat fresh fruit and play board games or gaze across the archipelago. A wood-fired sauna which leaches out the residue of city life. Jumping naked into the water (18 degrees...so brisk but that will soon change this far north). Some places leave traces in your mind, which can summon up sensory memories and wash away the grim claustrophobia of a stuffy subway car and replace it with a wide open sky where the smell of the sea and the pines mix with fish being smoked on a barbeque and fresh paint.
That was Cuccula. Timeless.
Thursday, 23 July 2009
Return to Table of Contents I remember once coming down a ski slope in a white-out. When I got to the bottom, the fog suddenly lifted, and I looked back in horror at the sheer cliff I had just blindly come down. We all make decisions based on obstacles only a few feet in front of our noses, rarely looking beyond to see what lies ahead. From my vantage point now, I wonder what made me take this discovery and push it to the limit. The thrill of the chase? Greed? Lust for power? A selfish desire to see myself as a crusader against the corporate behemoth, a result of my newfound self-righteous cynicism? These are all obvious reasons, and although partially true they do not really tell the whole story. I was at a low point in my life then, a castaway floundering around in deep waters looking for a lifeline, any lifeline. My body had mended, but my mind and spirit were still wounded and I hurt inside. This piece of paper was a diversion, an explanation, and a solution. In my mind I saw it as a way off the unlucky path I had suddenly found myself on. It explained a sequence of events which began long ago, leading me to Lydia, the discovery of the safe deposit box, the serendipitous visit to UBI and the coincidences of the birthdays on the documents. Somehow it was just meant to be. It also seemed a solution, not just to the direction of my life but to the discord which was ripping apart my best friend's family. It could at a stroke solve the problem of succession, making Valhalla a minor point of contention instead of the major point. Then there was Tess herself. Seeing her again was a signal to me to move in a different direction, and to follow the moment. All of these things things alone would not have been enough, but together they were more than plenty to make me drop my life and pick up a new one, an acquisition which would lead me eventually to this cell and an uncertain future, for better or worse. That night in Helmut's study remains vivid in my mind though. Tess's first reaction was a combination of shock and skepticism. "What do you mean?" she said. I told her what I had been thinking about ever since I saw the other agreement in the exhibit. "My working life is about the value of ownership, Tess," I began. " It's what our society is about. This agreement is the same as a will. If it's genuine, it's the last word on who owned UBI back then. Of course you can't argue that UBI today is the same company, but for sure that document would give your family some sort of rights. It's worth something." "Maybe we should tell my parents," she offered. I shook my head. "I don't think that's such a good idea. Besides, we don't even know the story behind this, or whether it's really legitimate. We would just stir up a wasp's nest. Can you imagine the reaction of Johann and Ilsa if they knew?" I was adamant. "No, I think we investigate on our own, and if it pans out, then we tell them. In any case, I think the first person we should tell is Stokely." I was persuasive enough. Tess nodded her head. The two of us looked at each other awkwardly. We had just made a discovery and a decision, but now like two people planning a trip around the world, we had to decide where we would head first. "So now what?" she asked. "Well, tonight we can't do anything. We're in the right town though. Tomorrow we'll go to the Library of Congress and do a little research. There's got to be an explanation for this." Retiring to separate bedrooms, a long night went by slowly, as spinning thoughts slowed down the passage of time. I had been to the Library of Congress several times during my summer in Washington. Back then doing research was an arduous and time consuming task--searching through card catalogues, noting facts on index cards, and putting in requests to have books brought up from the stacks. The computer age had changed all that, marrying together paper and electronic bits to make the whole process relatively painless. All that was required was to tap a few computer keys which were linked into vast databases. Dedicated PCs neatly arranged by subject matter made it even simpler. We had to wait ten minutes in the Technology section before a machine freed up. Even at nine o'clock on a Saturday morning, the machines were jampacked. April was the beginning of the big push for most university students, and there were many bleary eyed faces staring intently at the screens. Finally a bearded graduate student type shifted away from his post and indicated that his seat was now free. I sat down at the keyboard and after following the menu, started searching for three things: all articles and books about Helmut, about Thomas MacKenzie, and about UBI. The search for the first two yielded a fairly rich trove, including one biography on Helmut and five on MacKenzie. There were also lots of newspaper and magazine clippings, scanned into the computer in their original form or with their texts transcribed. I was somewhat shocked at how easy it was. My memories of squinting to read microfiche in the bowels of the Duke library were reminiscences of an antedeluvian past. We didn't have to even jot anything down, just printing off the screens. I then did a search for articles on or about UBI. Printing these off would not be possible. There were hundreds of entries, ranging from technical articles to the records of the antitrust case that the government waged against the huge monolith for twenty years before it was finally dropped by the Reagan administration. Clearly we had to narrow our range, and sorted this information by two categories, date and history. We then got a manageable list, and printed off a few pages of books and articles. We began to review what we had and decide what to look for. As an author, Tess was like a perennial student, and was a professional at organising research. "We'll start at the end, and then work our way back to the beginning," she announced. "That's the way I always do it." "The end?" I asked. "Which end?" "The end of Helmut's life," she replied. "He died in 1916." "He did?" I asked incredulously. "When?" "I think it was September or October," she answered. This made my eyebrows rise. I had always assumed he had lived much longer beyond the May signing of the contract. No wonder nobody had found the safe deposit box. We searched the newspaper articles for the news of his death. Helmut was a well known businessman, and his obituary appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. There was also an article from the Richmond Leader, dated October 6, 1916. The headlines were at the top of the business page. PROMINENT BUSINESSMAN DIES ON BOAT TRIP FROM WASHINGTON Matthews, Va.- Helmut Hoeflinger,58, of Georgetown and Matthews, died Sunday while sailing on his yacht the Eric en route from Washington. He was brought ashore at Haynes Point in the early hours of the morning and rushed to Gloucester Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The cause of death was cardiac arrest, according to Doctor Malcolm Riley, the examining physician. Mr. Hoeflinger was accompanied on his trip by his business partner Thomas MacEnzie and friend Henry Ford. He is survived by his wife and his four children. A memorial service will be held in Georgetown on Thursday, October 9th at the Church of the Holy Cross. A well known businessman and inventor, Hoeflinger founded Universal Business Implements, a company providing calculating machines to business and government. The article went on to describe his life, detailing his early years as a mathematics student in Heidelberg and his steady progression after his invention of the Census Tabulating Machine. The articles in the other three papers, dated one day later, were of a similar bent. DATA PROCESSING GIANT DIES OF HEART ATTACK, said the Wall Street Journal. TITAN OF INDUSTRY FELLED IN PRIME, blared the New York Times. PROMINENT INVENTOR DIES SUDDENLY, echoed the Washington Post. All three articles were long on biographical content and short on details of his death. The was another article which caught my eye in the Wall Street Journal, located just below the one about Helmut's death. LOSS OF INVENTOR WON'T HARM COMPANY PROSPECTS SAYS CO-FOUNDER The article was datelined October 6 from New York City. It was an interview with Thomas MacEnzie at his company headquarters. He mourned his colleague's death and then went on to say how Universal Business Implements was on a solid foundation and would be able to withstand the loss of the inventor originally behind its major product. There was no mention in any of the three big papers of MacEnzie being with Helmut at the time of his death, nor of Henry Ford, who even then was a well-known national figure. Given the fact that the media back then was not the intrusive force it is today, the omission was plausible. Yet something didn't ring true. I was taken back to Stokely's description of the logic gates inside a computer. In this case there were two conflicting bits of information as inputs: the Richmond paper, which had his two friends with him at the time of his death, and the big city papers, who either neglected to mention this fact, or in the case of the Wall Street Journal, had an interview with his partner at his headquarters in New York the same day. In Stokely's explanation, to return an output of a binary digit 1 or a true condition, there were three alternatives. Through the AND gate, both articles must be true. Through the OR gate, either of the two articles could be true. Finally, they were both NOT true, the result of journalistic inaccuracies or omissions which obscured the true story. I explained this to a befuddled Tess, who obviously had never been the recipient of this particular lecture by her brother. "In those days, surely it wouldn't have been possible for MacEnzie to be in his office in New York the day after the murder would it?" I asked her. "From Matthews to Washington was at least a half a day, I would have thought. Would he have left his friend so quickly? It just doesn't make sense." Tess picked up the Richmond newspaper article again and started to look through it. Suddenly she stopped. "Wait a minute. Do you know what you just said?" I looked at her, puzzled. "Yeah, Matthews is too far from New York to..." She cut me off. "No, I mean when you said the day after the murder. What makes you think there was a murder?" The human brain is like a series of logic gates which will involuntarily spew out answers if left to its own devices. Often, though not always, these uninhibited reactions are closer to the truth. Anyone who has changed a correct exam answer which has seemingly come out of nowhere for one which is derived consciously can attest to this. I was unaware of my mistake. "I did?" I asked. "You did," she replied. "Why did you say that?" "I don't know," I stammered. "It just came out." I paused. I have lived my whole life based on the premise that things just happen, that behind every insignificant act there is some sort of order or purpose. I have never questioned why things happen, but have just accepted each event as it comes along, good or bad, and done what seemed natural. "It's possible, isn't it?" I said. "Don't you think it strange that the national newspapers didn't mention the fact that two well-known people are with someone at his death, especially someone as famous as Henry Ford?" "Well, yes, but.." she began, before I cut her off. "I think you're right." I announced. "Right about what?" She was wrongfooted by my firm intervention. I pointed to the material before us on the table. "That we should start at the end. We need to find out about the actual circumstances of his death." I suddenly recalled the trip we had made to Haynes Point that October weekend long ago when Tess first mentioned that Helmut's body had been brought ashore there. I tried to picture in my mind the Eric, the steam yacht with its teak deck and single smokestack, out of place at the small dock by the lighthouse. In the morning mist, the deck looked like a magician's top hat from which sprang shadowy figures hurrying off into the dawn. The images of Henry Ford and McKenzie from the photo in the UBI archive suddenly came to life in my mind, barking orders and directing rescue efforts from the beach to the island housing the lighthouse, as people crashed knee deep in the surf to carry the inert body of Helmut to the waiting ambulance, one of Ford's own machines. Tess interrupted my thoughts. "What do you suggest we do?" she asked. "These are no good," I said, pointing to the articles before us. "These didn't inform anyone back then and it's unlikely they'll start now. Who is still alive that might have been there on that day?" I said, before adding unnecessarily "...except Aunt Lillian, that is." The mention of her name suddenly seemed to make what had been an abstract thought suddenly very real. These were real people we were talking about, not cardboard figures out of some historical novel. Tess frowned. "Everyone would be dead now..."she said, suddenly catching herself, "except Mary." "Who's Mary?" I asked. "Jake's mother. You know, Jake the handyman at Valhalla. His family has been around Valhalla their whole lives. Mary was born there and worked for the family since her early teens. She's in her mid-nineties now." "Where does she live?" I asked. "Near Matthews. She still lives with Jake, has done since here husband died. Mary is a cantankerous old coot with blowtorch tongue that can peel paint. We used to be afraid of her as kids. My mother used to say she was the only person who could ever tell Aunt Lillian what to do. I think she's mellowed a bit, but she's still a tough old bird." "Let's go see her," I suggested abruptly as I stood up from the table, the bit between my teeth. "When? Now?" "No. On Monday. We were going to Valhalla anyway, weren't we?" I said. "Now we have a real reason to go. We're detectives now, you and I." What had started out as seeds of skepticism were now tiny sprouts of belief. Tess's face said as much. The two of us had suddenly become silent partners in some crazy scheme. For the rest of the weekend our secret little quest was confirmed in knowing glances across the solemn dinner table of the Hoeflinger mansion as we impatiently awaited our return visit to Valhalla and an old black curmudgeon. Return to Table of Contents
Sunday, 19 July 2009
Return to Table of Contents Going back to Washington was like going home. Although I had only spent a summer and a few other short lived visits there, the memories had been intense enough to push aside other places where I had spent more time. I still remember the sense of awe I felt the first time I saw the Pentagon and the Washington Monument. I was in the back of Dewey's van coming up to meet Stokely my second year of Duke. We were chatting away, when all of a sudden I stopped in mid-sentence. This was just after Watergate, and the cynicism towards the powerful had only just begun to take hold in a national consciousness burned by Vietnam and the assassinations of its leaders. I was still easily impressed by the trappings. Now I am more impressed by the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam slab. Somehow they can still inspire a spine tingling awe for the accomplishments and fates of individuals caught up in a vision of their own creation. This time I had an experience which gave me the same sour taste you get when you read in the paper that some two bit baseball player has renegotiated as a free agent for $5 million or 35,000 people were killed by handguns in a single year or some politician indicted for embezzling has been reelected in a landslide. I had a Haitian taxi driver in from Dulles. Not surprisingly given his origins, he had little time for politicians and was unimpressed by Washington. We spoke in french. He quoted Rousseau: Entre les paroles et l'action il y a quinze kilomètres et dix ans." (Between words and action there are fifteen kilometers and ten years.) He had a good sense of humour, and without going into the gory details of his life, I think he needed one. We were sitting in line at the toll booth on the freeway when abruptly we heard loudspeakers behind us saying "Get out of the way!" My cab driver, who was in the midst of paying the toll, was waved on by the toll collector in a gruff voice. "Forget it pal, pull aside." He hurriedly went through and pulled over on the apron. A motorcade then came blowing through the toll booth at 40 miles an hour. A phalanx of motorcycles led three escort cars and three stretch limos with darkened glass, followed by the same sequence of vehicles--a power sandwich moving through the capital's digestive tract at high speed. There was a cop standing over to the side. I asked him out the window. "Who was that?", expecting at least a Vice President or Senator. He looked bored. "I dunno. Some candidate." A candidate. Not even an elected official of the world's greatest democracy. I'm sure Mussolini or Papa Doc Duvalier would not have been disappointed with such a hermetically sealed delivery, isolated from the teeming masses yearning to breathe free. The mass of gargantuan buildings on the way into town suddenly looked less impressive to me. I decided that in spite of being in the center of the nation's political life, I would refrain from discussing politics. Luckily Stokely was not coming, though I always appreciated his candor. In the hospital the afternoon of their visit, somehow we had blundered onto the subject, taboo in the atmosphere of political correctness where paradoxically it was incorrect to discuss anything having to do with politics. Stokely had referred to the new President as a lying sack of shit, and he and Tess had had a slanging match which got vicious while I watched from the sidelines. Eventually I had to intervene by changing the subject. Tess was a committed idealist, partly because it was her nature and partly because she had actually been witness to an unpleasant alternative during her stay in Sri Lanka with a Tamil family. There she had seen people's heads beaten in for their political beliefs. She took it personally, whereas Stokely was more cynical and less sensitive. The Aunts' mansion in Georgetown was isolated from the political hubbub of the capital, tucked away across the dividing line of Rock Creek Park. The taxi came up Massachussetts Avenue to Dupont Circle, and then went on P Street towards the enclave of Georgetown. The numbers of the streets started to climb along with the house prices. Washington's street system was astoundingly logical and simple. This was perhaps because the man who designed it was named l'Enfant. The grid was like a kindergarten class agenda--the alphabet going from South to North, the numbers from East to West, and the names of States running diagonally. When I lived there I used to think that it represented America perfectly, a great big overgrown kid fascinated by its playthings and the great outdoors. As we passed over Rock Creek, the memories of the summer I spent with Stokely came flooding back. There to the left was Rose Park where I used to go after work for tennis and basketball. Further along was the corner store at 28th and P where I bought croissants that would make a Frenchman proud. The townhouses in Georgetown reeked of wealth. In a city that was eighty per cent black, Stokely used to say that the letters NW of the northwest quarter of the city stood for Nobody but Whites. Noone was too politically correct then, and especially not Stoke. On 29th Street we turned up towards Dumbarton Oaks, and my Haitian friend deposited me outside the front door of 1819 Q Street. "Pas mal," he said, giving me a thumbs up and a smile as he drove away. I rang the bell. I could have actually gone around the side, since I knew where the key was hidden. I thought this might be presumptuous though, so I waited patiently and only rang the bell a polite three times. Finally I heard footsteps, and the door opened. It was Tess, and she came out to hug me. "Evan!" she said excitedly, as if she had been waiting there all day. There are different gradations of hugs. Hers sent a subliminal message, lingering a few extra seconds, enough time to make me aware of her breathing and her closeness. She smelled like she did at the hospital--Ivory soap, a trace of lavender, and fresh air. Her cheek was warm and dry. I was conscious of the form of her body against my chest. My own reaction surprised me. "Tess! It's good to be here," I mumbled, as I held her back from me and we looked each other over. "You look...so much better!" she exclaimed. "I'm trying to make a comeback. At least my nose is back to a normal colour and the crutches are gone," I said, remembering how I looked at Thanksgiving. I returned the compliment. "You look great yourself. That bike riding in the mountains does something for you," I added. She beamed. "Come on up. Everyone's here." The ground floor of 1819 was more or less unused. Perhaps during Helmut's day the anteroom had been used to receive guests, but now there was a dimly lit entrance hall with two rooms off to the right, one large room to the left, and a room at the end now used as a laundry room and workshop for the gardener. Even on a sunny day it was dark and musty. On the second floor was the living room, dining room, kitchen, and library. As we came up the stairs, we were greeted by the welcoming committee--Stokely and Tess's parents Jeb and Laura, Uncle Johann and his wife Ilse (a genuine German), and Aunt Edith. After a warm greeting from Jeb and Laura whom I had seen at Christmas, I had a slightly less effusive welcome from the others. Then, as during the whole weekend, I noticed a pall which hovered over the family, undercurrents of negative feelings which swirled uneasily around them in invisible eddies. This had not been the case the previous times I spent with them. My memories had always been of the clinking of glasses and easy going comraderie at oyster roasts at Valhalla. Then of course the Aunts were alive, or at least conscious. Tess took me up to see Aunt Lillian. She lay on her bed in a room on the third floor, a waxen figure who somehow reminded me of the preserved body of Lenin in his Moscow mausoleum. Helmut's money had allowed the best of medical minds to construct a high tech hospital room, and the steady rhythmic pulsing of the machines carried out a concert for a solitary audience unable to appreciate it. I decided I wanted to spend as little time as possible in the house. I suggested to Tess that we spend the afternoon going to museums. I had the Air and Space Museum in mind but she had a better idea. "Why don't we go to the Smithsonian? There at least we can visit old Helmut, in a manner of speaking." Stokely had told me in the seventh grade that his great grandfather's portrait hung there, but I had never seen it. On the way over we began talking of her family. "So it looks like they're jockeying for position." I ventured. "That is what it seems," she said sadly. "Johann and Edith are aligned against my parents, but I really blame Ilsa. She is the one who wants the money most of all. Everything else is secondary and she could care less about whether or not Valhalla or 1819 stay intact." She shook her head. "We have been dreading the day that Lillian dies for a long time. When it finally happens I'm afraid that life as we used to know it will be finished." "No more wavejumping?" I asked half in jest. She shook her head. "That's the worst case, but it's possible." She sighed. The thought depressed me. "Old Helmut would be turning in his grave if he thought that Valhalla would be turned into a development, if he even could imagine what a development was. That's progress for you." Tess was definitely the sort who would be happy if the world had not advanced past the horse and buggy. The red brick building of the Smithsonian housed the history of those who had helped push the progress that Tess resisted. She was nonetheless proud of Helmut's accomplishments and had obviously been there many times. She led me straight to his portrait which was housed in the Technology section. Underneath it was his name and the title Pioneer of Data Processing, along with a paragraph about his life. The portrait showed a man with thick eyebrows and an even thicker moustache. His eyes burned unblinkingly as they had for seventy years, watching mutely as the world changed around him. I tried to imagine the sheer willpower which lay within this man, a drive which had propelled him and others like him to alter the landscape and the direction of his adopted country. I thought it the right moment to tell Tess of my visit to UBI. "Whatever happened to that stuff of Helmut's we found in the safety deposit box in Richmond?" I asked. She looked startled. "You mean in college? Didn't we tell you?" she asked. I shook my head. "If you did I forgot." "Well, Stokely had the documents framed and presented to Lillian and Mary the following Christmas. We also gave them the jewelry and the watch, but Aunt Mary insisted that we keep them. Stokely kept the watch, though it was stolen from his house a couple of years ago. I still have the necklace and the ring. They belonged to Lillian and Mary's mother, but they said that would rather that I have it. As for the documents...I think that they kept all that stuff in the fourth floor room--Helmut's shrine. We can look when we go back this evening. Why?" I told her about the Shareholder's Agreement that I had seen in the company exhibit at UBI, and the fact that the date was five weeks before my birthday. Tess was not the kind of person to be interested in financial matters, and didn't immediately catch on to the significance of this fact. "So maybe the one we found was a different draft," she suggested. "Then why would Helmut suddenly own 25% if he had already sold off his entire shareholding five weeks before?" I asked what seemed to me to be glaringly obvious. She shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. Are you sure of the year on the one we found?" "I thought of that," I answered. "That is what I have to check...when we get back." "Sure," she said, seemingly unconcerned. The conversation moved onto other things. Quite naturally, we began to reminisce about Valhalla experiences. She told me a story I had never heard about Aunt Lillian. It reconfirmed what I already knew of the strong-willed but slightly peculiar woman. Apparently when Stokely and Tess were teenagers they were helping the two ladies prepare a meal in the the Winter House. The receep called for sauteeing oysters in butter and placing them on squares of toast with lemon and fresh parsley. Stokely was in charge of heating the butter, but true to form he got distracted and left it on too long in the skillet. The black smoke which filled the kitchen finally got his attention. Aunt Mary became quite distraught, holding her hand to her head and saying what a catastrophe it was. Aunt Lillian, furrowing her brow in thought, suddenly raised her hand to quiet the brouhaha that was about to develop between Tess and Stokely and to calm her sister. She announced: "Wait a minute. I believe I remember a receep which calls for burnt butter." The old woman then flipped through her loose-leaf notebook of collected recipes, nodded her head, and ordered Stokely to pour the blackened butter into a bowl and place it in the refrigerator while she supervised, a mediator always in control. I laughed. This was not quite like saving a yoghurt container, but it spoke volumes about a different generation. When she died, an institution and a way of life would be lost. Though she had had the luxury of not having to worry about money in her lifetime, in her lexicon there was no room for a fast buck or a wasted penny. The world could do with a few more like her. Tess and I continued to wander around the Smithsonian for a while. We then strolled on the Mall, doing the entire loop from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. Eventually we ended up in a Vietnamese restaurant in Georgetown, where we continued to talk over nems and Thai beer. The whole day we had tiptoed around the subject of Lydia. I could tell that Tess had wanted to bring her up several times, but had veered off at the last moment. It seemed to me that in a barely perceptible way the calculus between us had changed, and we were both reluctant to confront the possible change in our emotions. All through our lives the timing had never seemed right. Finally Tess asked in an innocuous way. "How are you doing?" I knew exactly what she meant. "Six months is a short time, and yet it seems an eternity," I answered truthfully. "I think I have come to terms with being alone. I feel...I don't know, I guess guilty is the best word. There have been days when I don't think of Lydia and I think that maybe I will pull out of this tailspin. Then for no real reason I'll go for days thinking of nothing but the life we've lost and pretending to myself that somehow magically it will reappear. Then I'll change again. I'm confused." I looked at Tess who was nodding her head, and I was struck that not for the first time, I looked at her and saw two faces--one of my friend, and one of a woman. I know that the two should be one in the same, but life is never that simple. "You know, Evan," she began. "I don't have much personal experience to go by, but it seems only natural what you feel. It's too soon to...let her go." I could tell that she was measuring each word with care, hoping to spoon out advice without spilling too much of her own emotions. "Nor should you," she continued, "let her go, I mean. But life goes on, or will go on, if you want it to. And one day you'll wake up and you'll just decide to build again. I'm sure of it." She reached over and patted my hand. As we strolled back to 29th Street from Wisconsin Avenue, we linked arms. The flowers were out and the night was mild enough to allow a leisurely pace. For the first time since the accident, I felt like a whole person. Tess's parents were watching television when we came back to 1819. The others had gone out for the evening. We sat talking to them for a while. I always liked Jeb. A tall powerful man, he gave the impression of being confused while still inspiring confidence, as though he were the mad captain of a ship whose eccentricities were the only reason the ship stayed on course. He had a good sense of humour and always seemed to be able to see the funny side of life. His wife Laura had the Hoeflinger genes. She was a strong willed woman--both physically and mentally very fit, with a commanding presence and a quick wit. She came from a long tradition of people who had been in charge, and she guided her family forward with a steady hand on the tiller, though I am sure that in private Jeb had more influence than publicly he seemed to show. Like most parents who have seen their children's friends grow to adulthood, they treated the two of us with a mixture of easy familiarity and a slightly patronising tone, as if they were slow to realise that we were now fully grown adults. In my twenties this attitude which I saw in my parents and others of their generation grated on me. When I reached forty I found myself doing the same thing. I came to realise that it represented a frustrated and futile attempt to hold onto the next nearest memories to youth, those of early adulthood. With Tess's parents' generation, early adulthood meant getting married and having kids. Our generation postponed this rite of passage. We continued to pretend that we were still the free wheeling college rock and rollers whose youth culture was largely intact, the proof being that teenagers still listened to Springsteen or Pink Floyd. Their generation talked down to us because they had crossed the line into adulthood early and emphatically. Our generation talks down because we have deluded ourselves into believing we have never crossed the threshold of adulthood, and therefore we are like seniors instructing underclassmen. Both are different sides to the same coin, attitudes which evolve with the passage of time. In spite of being made to feel like a teenager again, I really liked the Haynes as a couple and as individuals. In talking with them I came to understand better how Stokely and Tess had turned out as they did. It seemed as though the genes had crossed the gender line. Stokely had inherited his mother's stubborn streak, whereas Tess was a little more like her father, resolute but with the hard edges rubbed off. When the others came in, we stayed only a few minutes more before making our excuses and going up to bed. They had put us on the fourth floor, in separate bedrooms, of course. The house had not changed since the summer I stayed there. The bathrooms were still like those in England with hand held showers that required gymnastics in the bathtub. I was towelling off my hair when Tess knocked at the door. As a concession to the family, I had packed both pajamas and bathrobe, two accessories I hardly ever used at home. Tess was in a long flannel nightgown, the kind with a high collar that in a pinch could have been worn in public. "Evan," she whispered. I didn't know what to expect. A proposition, perhaps. "Don't you want to see Helmut's room?" she asked. So much for expectations. "Sure," I replied enthusiastically. I thought she had forgotten. We tiptoed across the hall, an unnecessary precaution since the others were all on the second floor and Aunt Lillian one floor beneath us would not have heard us if we were elephants dancing the polka. Helmut's old office had an old fashioned light fixture with a round brass switch that was spring loaded and made a very loud and satisfying click as we turned it on. The light bulb threw a harsh light on the dust which covered the desk and the file cabinets. On the walls were various framed pictures and documents, now yellow with age. One looked slightly whiter than the others. I recognized it immediately as being the Shareholder's Agreement from the Richmond Savings and Trust. "Le voilà," I announced in a loud whisper. We both moved over and looked at the framed document in unison, like schoolchildren admiring a museum painting up close. The date was clearly written across the top of the document. I had not been mistaken. There in black and white was my birthday, and the year was 1916. "Whoa, boy!" I whistled under my breath. Ever since the meeting at UBI, I had been thinking about the implications of finding out that the Aunt's document was written in the same year as the one I had seen in the exhibit. "Do you know what this means, Tess?" I asked. "No, what?" She still looked confused. "Things in life are never quite so straightforward," I started, "but if this document is genuine, this means that your family still owns 25% of UBI. Try sleeping on that thought," I added, perhaps a bit too melodramatically. When I finally did fall asleep that evening, the last thought I had was the view of Tess's slack-jawed look of surprise as I told her this. Her eyes were just beginning to comprehend the enormity of what I had said, a few words which, if true, would blast apart a world around her family that was already slowly crumbling.