Saturday, February 13, 2016

Chapter 1—In the Beginning

     Jimmy Freeman's wife, Michelle, was on the phone with her mother. She had been chatting with her mother, Estelle, Jimmy thought, more than usual lately. What could it mean? Jimmy and Michelle had been married eighteen years. They had been attached one way or another for twenty-two years, which Jimmy personally considered a worthy time, a character builder. For most of that time Estelle had lived in Somerville, Massachusetts with cat and dog and Mr Curtis, who lived upstairs. Except for short visits mother and daughter had let it go. But after so many years—nobody thought Jimmy and Michelle would stay married for more than five minutes—he knew that soon he'd find out what was going on. In no hurry he was happy to wait.
    In 1988 Estelle Snow Bonney and Mr Curtis had sold their Somerville properties and moved to a “gated” retirement community “near the water” south of “the Fort”. They had wanted to be “near the water”. In the front window of their condo you could even see in the narrow view between the buildings “the water”. Estelle would tell them about the water any chance she got, so Jimmy knew all about it. Estelle had seemed to fit right in. “The gulf” was a bastion of warmth and sunshine, the water was invigorating and healthful, the weather hot to mild, so nobody in Florida was ever in danger of the flu. After a lifetime of good and bad luck variously, why shouldn't Estelle enjoy her sunset days and years in peace?  Estelle admitted Curtis was grieving for his old home, and he stayed to himself. He didn't like the smooth talking ex-Realtors, the Wall Street types, went out looking for gruff talking working folks. They had not been there much longer than a month or two when one day an Angus bull in the prime discovered Curtis hiking in a big field near the house. The bull got curious. Curtis ran, staggering almost a hundred yards, fell but while he clambered over the fence he felt something slip in his heart. That's what he told Estelle without going into details. He went to bed. He didn't feel well for a day. But he didn't feel that bad, either. She explained to him about Doctors and hospitals. He was sure it was just a passing thing. Then suddenly he turned ghostly grey, and died.
    Estelle and Mr Curtis, whom she sometimes called Daniel in an arch voice, had made the handsomest couple!  Forget that they were elderly. He was tall, went to the barber religiously; he took care of himself, worried about the weight, drank carefully, did not smoke. He was clean shaved, his jaw lean, youthful. When he smiled, there was irony rather than amusement, a quick flash of white teeth, no gums. He had worked his entire life in the printing business. Though he dressed a little too casually to please Estelle, sometimes stripping down to t-shirt and baggy shorts, she had learned to refrain from criticizing other peoples' bad habits. They had never married, slept in different rooms. The years they had spent together in Massachusetts Curtis went out each morning to get Estelle “the papers”. He liked to walk and to read. He often brought home coffee table books whose printing he admired. He sold the printing plant for good money, hired on from time to time as a consultant. Daniel had a good sense of humor, he spread his “consultancy” on thick to anyone who would listen. He considered it a sign of the times, that someone who couldn't figure anything out for himself paid him for his advice. Back in the regular world he went to the Vets' Club where he had established himself with cronies. They directed considerable back slapping and joking at “the consultant”. But something must have gone wrong in his head during this move to Florida. He wasn't one for hiking in nature. He considered nature extreme; he wasn't in favor of anything extreme. Nobody on earth could figure out what he was doing hiking across a field. He must have noticed the annoying critters wandering Florida open spaces. Someone thought he might be late to watch the Red Sox play the Yankees on the TV, and he had taken a short cut?  He was a fan. Weirder things have happened. Fate found him and Estelle retired in Florida.
    The entire Curtis family from the marriage, except wife of old, a shrewish woman, Estelle thought, had showed up to take their father home. The two boys were in spectacular Navy dress blues with white gloves, and their sister, Lorraine, a strapping girl, was an amazing beauty. It burned Estelle to know that they would take him to be buried with them. She had an ache in the heart for a long time. He had been a sensible man. Everyone was pleased with how he thought of them in the will. Estelle was grateful. Though the Curtis family was polite, Estelle was not invited to the funeral. The wake would be in Massachusetts. There were three hundred people at the funeral mass. Estelle avoided sentimentality. Rather, she encouraged the feeling in herself that the pressure was off, and now she could do anything she wanted. She had friends and lady allies among the neighbors and she was always off on a visit somewhere.
    Estelle had in front of her an empty road and nobody telling her specifically where to go or what to do. She had imagined about and dreamed of a time for herself. She had always believed men in general to be a little too conceited. Hardly past the first weeks of mourning Estelle caught the flu. How do you catch the flu in Florida, she wondered, awestruck?  Could it be a premonition of worse to come?  She had been so healthy in her life that she had never thought of death as a possibility. Her sins began to disturb her. She became frightened, and there was no one that she could think of other than Michelle that she could talk to deep down. The flu stuck with her for months, she took to her bed, and then she called her daughter and that was how it started.
    “Mom's been calling me every day, Jimmy. I've never seen her like this. She has always been able to take care of everything, and you know that yourself. But she seems knocked out, is the only way I can put it. She's scared. You know how you can't trust anybody but family?  I don't know what to think. She's my mother.”
    “No,” Jimmy said. “You're not going to Florida all of a sudden to take care of your mother. There are plenty of people in Florida to take care…in these situations.”
    “Why? Our babies are gone. Dawn is in school in Farmington, and Dwight has his own place and won't be back except maybe on weekends, and then only if you ask him because he'll go to get Amy and they'll stay together. Mike is off in the world. There's just you, me and a couple of farm animals.”
    “Michelle! No!” He wondered why he opposed her going so forcefully.
    “No is just a word, considering where it comes from. You've wandered off on your own in the damnedest situations, if I remember right. I want to make my peace with my mother. And I know you don't have the heart to stop me.”
    “We weren't milking twelve goats in those days of my sinning.”
    “Milking twelve is nothing compared to how it was around here a few years ago. I know you can handle it for a month or however long it takes.”
    “A month! You are killing me. I'll be dead by the end of a month. I work, you know job, j-o-b!” He was always saying that, as if she were ignorant of those kinds of responsibilities. She had worked sometimes during their marriage, and she had put in long hours.
    “You've got vacation time. Do this for me. It's been forever. We weren't close. I want to make my peace.”
    “Michelle!” He looked at her. She had always taken care of herself, never smoked. They drank beer together sometimes. She used to find solace in getting her hair done, but since for years she had stopped coloring it blond, now the natural bushy rings were a soft grayish brown. She had slowly lost weight since the kids left. The kids' hunger had increased her own. She cooked more and loved snacking with them at bedtime. Her eyes were large and dark and moist with love, which had always attracted him, though he had never put words to it. Her eyes always retained their softness even when they were both rebellious kids. That never changed even during the bad times in their marriage when they were unhappy. He had gotten so that he depended on her presence. And lord knows, back in the day, Estelle had dumped Michelle and her two brothers in the street and left them behind while she went her way. That was a bitter story from long ago that Jimmy was too wise to recall to Michelle now.
    “Please don't be a baby about it,” Michelle said, as he walked away cussing.
    She and Dwight had cooperated on a study—a mancave, Jimmy called it, a place for his books and papers, rather than the lunacy of litter dropped anywhere around the house. They had wanted to keep the room a surprise. He was working that week a thousand hours of OT and he came home too tired to notice anything but goats and barn. It was a big surprise. When home he amused himself for hours in peace keeping a journal and reading about oddball projects he dreamed up, for he was Jimmy Freeman, a great dreamer. All through his life he could always find the energy to read. The written word drew his eyes as if hauled there by a powerful magnet. It could be the names in the phone book, if the only book available was a phone book. But he had classic works of literature on the bookshelves surrounding him side by side with garishly covered Mickey Spillane paperbacks. (He loved paperback pulpers as much as he loved well published, hard cover “great literature”.)  He thought of himself as a scientific rumor monger. It was worse than curiosity. He wanted to forge in himself a quietness with the world's troubles.
    But most important, the one thing he most loved to do was to write in his journal. He kept during his life numerous journals. There was a journal specifically on flying, and a different journal on life in general, and whenever he found himself studying a subject in particular, such as gardening, or philosophy, he'd start another journal book. They were sturdy, well-bound, five hundred lined pages, 7x13. Michelle got them in a mail order catalog. He believed, though she'd never admit it, that his writing reassured her. Before they were married she bought him an expensive camera, and he liked to paste pictures in with the writing. It became a habit and a pastime, and at this time in his life there were thousands of pages in a half dozen books. Now he wrote in his small, platonic cave of a room, and he'd read into the wee hours. Some days he liked to get up ghastly early, make coffee and disappear and fuss with his thoughts without disturbing anyone. Grateful to Michelle and Dew, the youngest, whom Michelle had given him early on in their marriage—the other two, Dawn and Mike belonged to long ago boyfriends, though Jimmy often wondered which of them he loved best—he would dream for hours and hours about God and Man. In his cave before dawn he'd hang on the words of Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Dostoyevski and Whitman, the KJV and a thousand others. But he loved the barn and Michelle's goats, too, and all barnyard animals, even sheep, who were dumb and vital as grass. So thanks to Michelle he had learned something about that too. And he had a job he usually liked. As men go he was pretty happy. He had no right, he knew, to hold Michelle back from anything she wanted to do. But it felt wrong to think about being away from her. Those few times he had been away from her had been desperate. He could point to certain passages in his journals.
    One time he had moved to Mexico to live on the Yucatan. He and Michelle had been separated during that time. He left with a box in which were twenty volumes of the Torah. He was worse than lost. The only things he was sure about were sunset and dawn. Though fine and meaningful they are not enough to live on. He had believed that these holy books would clear up his confusion. He thought about the night of the fire when his mother and father and two sisters had died. He remembered George's face, his father's friend, when he found Jimmy in the dark under a tree. Now he remembered George's face with more clarity and poignancy than ever. When he felt Michelle's warmth on him, when he remembered George's kindness, although by no means did he feel easy, he had come to feel less hard. Jimmy loved to think about the first time he and Bones, Michelle's youngest brother, had wandered around to Michelle's. It had gone only okay but the softness in her dark eyes impressed him. And then it had progressed from one situation to another. Mike, Michelle's second child, had been sick as a baby. They thought sure he was going to die. Mike turned out to be smart. His father was a kind-hearted black man, who later on became active in his son's life. Jimmy remembered how the little boy went to school. So smallish with thick glasses dangling on his nose. He graduated from Phillips-Andover when he was sixteen, and then Ted, Michelle's older brother, helped to take him over. And Bones got into trouble—drinking, among other things. Dawn going off to college. Maybe he didn't want to remember all these things right now. With Michelle gone, what else would he do but remember?
    Jimmy had become a pilot. He had got his commercial license from Embry-Riddle in '75, but when the controllers' strike happened in '81 he wanted to quit flying. The breakup of the strike by Ronald Reagan had put an entire gang of newbies in the towers and on the radar, and within days of each other he had to put up with two terrifying close calls. From the point-of-view of the pilots it was chaos. But he hung on for six more years. The chaos in the towers lessened, but he had learned not to trust anyone. He wanted to live for a long time, he had taken care of himself to live for a long time because how else would he learn how to go deep, to think thoughts that were deep before he died?  Wise men live for a long time because it takes a long time to be wise. So he had decided to quit flying. He had thought about hanging around airports as an administrator or businessman or mechanic. It was an awful experience to throw away the hours of training and the money he had spent on it; there was the gutty determination to make a national carrier without military experience and an obsessive fascination with instrument flying. It didn't seem right. He had become confused about what to do, to soldier on or quit. Then Michelle had come up with her country thing. She wanted space, she wanted a barn and animals. He wasn't sure where it came from. Moving around at the whim of the airlines was not what she had in mind.
    Jimmy had around that time disappeared in the Torah like a rat in a hole, struggling with wonder what to do, how to live a life, how to do anything the right way, the way a good man should live his life. Michelle's country aspirations had been going on since the beginning. To buy a farm somewhere, move into it, and afterwards pick up and move again, as they had done three times since they were married, would not work out. They hadn't even bought a house, rather stuck to apartments that would be convenient to move out of. The Lynnfield house, where they had lived before finally moving to Maine, had been a duplex, a nice house, though a rental. But Michelle had a good job too to keep her busy, and then working for a boss struck her as being a less than desirable experience. The thought of buying a farm and living on it, or buying land to build into a farm and living on that, became like a fever in her mind. Then there were the close calls flying. Jimmy was not tough enough to walk away from them without wondering whether it was a good idea to go back. Some of the fellows took the strike in stride; others felt like he did. And the goat farming thing kept cropping up, and how raising kids on a farm is best for the kids. Nobody was happy with what city and apartment dwelling did to Dwight and Dawn, though Mike seemed untouched by distractions of any kind. He was too smart for public schools so his father arranged for him to go to Phillips-Andover. Jimmy was away flying, and Michelle working. Mike was away at school, and living with his father's family. Dawn and Dwight were amid teenage hormonal imbalances. Jimmy wondered, would they have the wherewithal to get by?  Oh, the Torah looked great to Jimmy then. In fact, he could swear up and down that it was the female side that confused a man out of the certainties of a spiritual life. That was another idea that seemed to pop up from nowhere. He thought it was in the air at the time. She bugged him too much; there were a thousand interruptions. So he quit and he walked away from flying. Studying the religious development of the Mayans was okay for awhile. But a man sure does miss his family, no matter how he would deny it. It turned out to be a long vacation. Six months later he crawled back like a serpent. She wasn't happy. He rented a studio in Danvers. They made compromises, and moving to Maine to do farming was one of them. That done he discovered interests he didn't know he had. But he still wanted to work for money. The Torah ended up in a corner of the hay loft. The spiritual life?  What about it?  If he was lucky, there'd be time for that too one day.
    And now, Michelle would hold Torah and Mexico up to him. To be honest, she didn't have to do that. She wouldn't take no for an answer anyway, whether he liked it or not. Jimmy wondered to himself, “Do you blame me?  What am I gonna do with myself, just me, the house empty, the first time I have been alone, except for Mexico, which had been a disaster, in twenty years?” He worried, would he drink? would he think too much, remember too much? He was doubtful about taking a vacation during that time. There was too much going on, and the extra time might leave him in a quandary. There were new computer parts he wanted to buy. She got riled when he bought computer parts then she bought them herself, but gone to Florida with Estelle, he might spend a couple hundred dollars without her knowing it. He could take care of the animals and the barn his way, without having to listen to her fussing. He could go out into the barn at 2am, turn on all the lights and do the chores then if he wanted to; he could leave a litter of books all over the house, in the bed, any place he wanted to. The more he thought about it, the better it seemed. He could prepare himself for retirement. Retirement was coming along one day. Maybe Michelle was not a long liver, and she'd die young, he had to get ready for that possibility too.
    After an hour or two considering pros and cons, he forgot about it. One of the consumers at work was having a hard time. He was mute, and Jimmy thought it must be his teeth. Sometimes Jimmy could get through to him. Jimmy was working the OT. Every so often Michelle said something about Florida. It seemed unclear, hard to imagine. It happened suddenly. He wasn't exactly sure what she said. “Mom needs me. Wednesday morning at six.” Something like that.

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