Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Crossroads


"And I'm standing at the crossroads, believe I'm sinking down."
          --Cream  '68



                                           I was going solo then.  I often ended up marching out of the mountains through Meredith. I'd come out of the hills on Route 25. It came down a steep hill into town and turned right along Meredith Bay. Coming down the hill you'd think you were going to fall into the bay. Then at the crossroads 25 collided with 3. At the crossroads, I'd hope to hitch a ride. The ride'd take me southeast along Lake Winnipesaukee to Alton. I usually had good luck at the crossroads. It was October 1962 and I was waiting. I had been in the mountains for a week. But finally, somebody stopped.
  A young man was driving. On the front seat between him and an old woman sat a young woman. Tucked in sideways beside me on the back seat, as if holed up in a basket, lay a baby.
  The young man was debating with the young woman about the tail lights on Chevys. The young woman argued that in '57 square tail lights changed over to round. The young man didn't know when the change had happened, but he doubted it was '57. His Bel Air was a '58 and it had round. If it had happened in '57, he thought he'd have known about it. It must have happened in '56, or earlier than '57.
  While they were debating about the tail lights, the baby yawned contentedly and wiggled against the swaddling blankets.
  Now it was becoming too dark to figure out which tail lights were round and which were square. The darkness fuzzed them out. So they gave up debating about them.
  The young woman turned around toward me, and she said, "Where are you going?"
  "Back to Durham, eventually, I hope."
  She said they lived in Rochester, which was where they were going.
  Rochester was the next town from Durham. I knew that if I could not get a ride in the dark, I could walk to Durham from Rochester. "Thanks," I said.
  She propped up an elbow on the seat back and studied me. Her skin was fair, but pale, and tightly drawn, as if she were tense. High cheekbones set off a strong, handsome nose. Her eyes were dark, but glimmered as if she wanted something she was unclear about.
  Then she said, "You must have been in the mountains camping. We go backpacking a lot, Scott and I. We love the mountains. My sister lives in Center Harbor. Is that baby bothering you? He was sleeping, but I guess he is awake now. It's wonderful around here, I think. It's something about the mountains and the lake. My sister says when there is a north wind, the souls buried around Squam Lake rise up and flip-flop in the wind like old, dry oak leaves. They chit-chat, too. She can hear them. Then the north wind goes away, and they drop back to sleep. My sister lives right on the lake, and she can hear them. That baby is hers. We're going to take care of him for a while, till she gets her head together. Look at that baby! He has her eyes. If that baby is bothering you, my mother will take him. Look, he's yawning, not a care in the world."
  She smiled at me and laughed. Then she continued, "If you are going to Durham, you must be a student. That's where my sister went to college. But she got pregnant. And then she left school. How do you like that? Now she's up here, trying to get her head together. I don't care. We'll take care of the kid. But I don't think it's good to raise up a kid without a father. She says it was a boy who did it, she won't say who. But I think it was that teacher she was always talking about. She used to come over to visit me with a boy. But if it was that boy, why would she be acting the way she is? I swear the teacher has something to do with it. But that can't really happen. It must not happen. So it must be that boy she was going around with. But why wouldn't he do something? If it were him, I know he'd do something. Darn, I can't remember his name. He was a regular, nice boy. I know he'd want to do something."
  Then Scott said, "Because probably he doesn't know where she is. Most people probably wouldn't know she was laying in on Squam beside an Indian burial mound, digging for artifacts, where the north wind blows the souls around like oak leaves."
  "Why wouldn't he know? She must have told him. She can't keep her mouth shut. That's why I say, if it were the boy, he'd know and he'd go see her. He'd worry about her, and visit her, because she'd tell him."
  Then, turning, she raised herself onto her knees, and extended herself over the back of the seat, and she swept up the baby into her arms. She pressed him close to her, adjusting the folds of the blanket. A moment later the old woman turned and the young woman laid the baby on her arms.
  "But if it were that teacher," she continued, "she wouldn't want to create a stir. She'd be afraid to tell him. And why should he care to find out? You know what I think? I think she should go right back there, and start up again next year. That's what I'd do. I wouldn't be the least bit afraid. I'd be proud. And anyway, what is one baby more in this world? Isn't it true, Scott? Right?"
  "You'd have to be really up tight, I think. It's a piece of good luck."
  "And do you know why?" The young woman interrupted. "It's because they have to sacrifice. People see sacrifice as being a big negative, as something that can ruin your life. I don't. I think sacrifice is wonderful. It is good for you. I never would have thought Nonny would act this way. When she was young, she was the first one to give. And now..."
  Then Scott turned away from his driving for a moment, and said, "Stel, maybe the guy would just like a lift, and not a sermon."
  "But I could just scream."
  "Why? The kid's here, the kid's fine. So what? You know what she could have done."
  "That's right," the old woman said. "I'm glad. We've got another member of the family. A boy, too. I can't wait to see Papa's face. So calm down. And leave the young fellow alone. I bet he has got his own problems."
  But Stel shouted, "When it gets to the point where digging up old indian artifacts is more important than your own flesh and blood, then that sure makes you wonder, doesn't it?"
  She seemed embarrassed by her outburst, and she tried to smile. Her eyes flickered; she turned away, tucking herself in beside Scott.
  They tried to guess what make of car, Ford, Chrysler or GM, was coming toward them by the look of the headlights. She usually had it figured out way before the car came into the light while it was passing by. Scott couldn't figure out how she did it.
  They left me off only a few miles from school. I was not in any hurry. Small, ragged clouds amplified the crystalline sky. Trees groaned, tugged on by the wind and the lowering moon. The firmament was bursting with starlight.
  The road that led into Durham was empty. I could almost hear my heart pounding. I'd wait. I'd wait in this place of shadows, the dark space. The cold had come.

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