Editor’s note: This is the first chapter in Jim’s novel Beneath the Surface.
New Berlin, NY — Thursday, February 1, 1979
Leonard Conklin sat in the green overstuffed chair in the corner of his room idly flipping through the latest Sports Illustrated, which he had already memorized. On the cover was number 20, Pittsburgh’s Rocky Bleier, making a leaping end-zone catch over an agonized Dallas defender during Super Bowl XIII (Steelers 35 — Cowboys 31).
Leonard wore his tan corduroys, brown flannel shirt and red sweater vest, as snow was forecast through Friday. The clock radio’s plastic tile flipped one digit to 9:02, and he waited for the soft scuff of Eleanor’s slippers on the linoleum, her soft and happy whistling that accompanied breakfast preparations. Leonard liked to listen to her whistle in the morning because his mother had also been a good whistler.
He’d been sitting quietly since 8:30, listening to nothing but the wind rushing past his window. And no smells. She was never this late, not in the three years he’d been living with them. (Exactly three years to the day: 1,096 days, not 1,095, because 1976 was a leap year.) It was not easy at first, back then, to adjust to the new routines, but his aunt and uncle were patient with him, more so than his parents had been sometimes, and were also firm when he’d gotten out of line.
Eleanor had never missed a breakfast before, except for once when she was sick with the flu and Dan overcooked the eggs and burned the toast. Even then, his uncle was awake long before nine o’clock. But with Dan at the nursing home now for 387 days, breakfast (even a burned one) was unlikely. Eleanor believed in miracles, said they happened all the time. Big ones you saw, and little ones you missed when you weren’t looking. His mother believed in them even more than Eleanor did, but Leonard had never been so sure. Still, he felt compelled to consider the possibility that Dan had recovered from the stroke, been released in the night, took a cab home and was now silently overcooking the eggs. The quietest breakfast in the history of breakfasts — one for the records books. Leonard knew this was a longshot, so he continued to wait. When the tile clicked to 9:09, he got up to check on Eleanor.
The morning light in the living room was strange, muted, as if someone had laid a huge gray blanket over the entire house. Eleanor was nowhere in sight, not even in the kitchen. He parted the dingy lace curtains at the front window. Snowflakes swirled around the back yard between the weathered old barn and the gentle hills beyond. The snow seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. He watched the wind die down, kick up again, then settle as the flakes grew larger and closer together, dropping straight down now. He wanted to stay at the window watching the snow pile up on the brown grass, on top of the barn and disappearing into the hole in its roof, but he knew he had to wake her. He could try to cook something, but he didn’t want to risk burning breakfast like his uncle did. Besides, it was her kitchen, she’d always said.
He’d forgotten his notebook and pen, so he went first to his bedroom for the silver Cross pen and 5×7 black leather Moleskine journal, items that his mother had purchased from Archer’s, a small stationery store in Ellsville, shortly before her death. Actually, she’d given him three sets of pens with refills and a dozen of the journals with store business cards tucked into each one, perhaps sensing that she might not be around much longer and he would need to know where to get more. Leonard slid the pen into his shirt pocket and took the half-filled journal — his last — to Eleanor’s room. She lay flat on her back in bed, the old red and yellow quilt tucked up under her chin.
“Aunt Eleanor,” he whispered. “Are you sick? It’s getting very late.”
Leonard stood in the doorway, watching for her chest to rise and fall, listening for the sounds of her rhythmic breathing . He crept in and sat down on the edge of the bed.
“It’s very late now,” he said a bit louder. “Can you hear me?”
He could learn nothing from the expression on her face. He’d always had trouble reading faces other than happy or sad anyway, and hers was an utter blank to him now. Maybe she was just in a very deep sleep.
He sighed. Really, he knew. This was the day they’d talked about, usually after dinner so as not to spoil his appetite with worrying. He would miss her terribly, but he also knew he wouldn’t cry. He gently pulled back the covers. Her eyelids didn’t even flutter, so he reached out and put his hand to her cheek which was very cold and dense, like the ground outside.
His stomach ached.
He pulled the covers up over her face like one is supposed to do for the recently deceased, and went to look for the phone numbers taped to the refrigerator. There were also numbers written on an index card taped to the inside of the cupboard door where they kept the juice glasses, and on his eighth notebook on a page carefully cut out and taped to the cover where he could see it. These reminders were really for Eleanor — he didn’t need them; the numbers had been in his head from the start, like all numbers.
He ran a finger across the paper on the side of the refrigerator, tracing the feathery blue tendrils of her handwriting. True, they’d talked about this day, but now that it was here he couldn’t get his mind to make his body do what needed to be done. First call the police, she’d said, they’ll help you, then call the neighbors, they’ll help you even more. What to say? My Uncle Dan’s at Colonial Pines Rest Home and my Aunt Eleanor just died in her sleep? I’m all alone?
Keep it simple, he thought, start at the top of the list. Police. Then the neighbors: Drexels, Harrisons. Next was cousin Roy, but he’d died last March, and Bernice had moved to Virginia with her sister (their names were crossed through). There was cousin Ted in Ithaca, but Leonard had never liked him — the man knew nothing about sports (that wasn’t the only reason Leonard disliked him) and didn’t seem interested in anything Leonard had to say about the topic. Eleanor said he was a snob.
Then there was his sister Jennie in Florida. He was supposed to call her no matter what, just to keep her informed.
He opened the bread box on top of the old Frigidaire and took out the wrapped loaf. He should eat first. A peanut butter and sliced banana sandwich would suffice. No heating necessary. He prepared the sandwich but let the finished thing sit there on the counter, his mouth too dry to eat it. He wrapped the sandwich in a big sheet of wax paper and secured it with masking tape from the craft drawer: it held the Elmer’s glue, loose rubber bands, little boxes of paper clips, envelopes stuffed with scraps of colored paper, recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines.
He tucked the tape back into the drawer next to a stack of tiny fabric swatches that Eleanor termed the Soothing Squares. When he’d gotten agitated, Eleanor would set these on the faded green Formica table so he could arrange them by pattern and color. They felt nice under his fingertips and would slide softly around the table as he moved them about. He thought it was a rather childish task for a grown man, but he always felt better after he’d finished. He liked the red ones especially, and now reached in and plucked a royal Stewart plaid and placed it in his pants pocket.
By 9:45 the sky had darkened, and it was snowing harder. He didn’t call the police, but instead dialed the Drexels and waited through three rings before a recorded voice told him that the number had been disconnected or was no longer in service. He was told to check the number. After a short pause, the instructions were repeated, followed by static before line went dead. Leonard waited until 10:10, then put on his Red Wings jacket and Cardinals cap, tucked the journal into his old Boy Scout knapsack and headed out.
Despite the thick gray clouds, the snow had slacked off a bit as he walked down the road toward the Drexels’ place. He felt invigorated, the pain in his stomach gone — he’d decided to eat the sandwich after all. There wasn’t a soul on the road and he was making good time. He felt better about the situation because he was doing something, not just sitting in his room waiting around for someone to help him as they always seemed to want to do. Most of the time he was fine with that, he’d been used to it, but there were times when he had to get out and do things on his own. That had often terrified Eleanor — she could be protective of him to the point of suffocation. He loved her like his own mother, but sometimes a man just had to be a man. True, his time with them had been so structured that he now felt dizzyingly buoyant, free to do anything if he could only get the butterflies to stop flying around inside him, or shake the feeling that he was walking a thin dangerous line at a great height.
Luckily, he was wearing his red things that would keep him safe. And the numbers were correct, they helped — especially the three-years-to-the-day anniversary. Three was a good number. It would be a good day.
* * *
The Drexels’ house was on the left as Leonard crested the first hill. Their car wasn’t in its usual spot on the gravel drive next to the big oak tree, and the house looked shut tight. He saw no footprints in the snow around the front door, so maybe they’d gone out before the snow had stuck to the ground. But why was their phone disconnected? If it wasn’t working because of the weather, it wouldn’t have rung at all. Eleanor must have written an old number by mistake — surely he couldn’t have dialed the wrong number, the one he’d memorized.
He walked past the house without stopping. The house was old and smelled of boiled potatoes inside and they didn’t own a television. Besides, he had a comfortable stride, his mind was clear, and the crisp air felt good on his face. If the Drexels were only out running errands, he would see them on the road. He’d be fine. He thought he could walk all the way to Ellsville if he wanted. Sure. It was only 21.2 miles as the crow flies or about 26 on the roads. No matter.
Why were there no crow mascots in pro or college sports? That was a good question, one he would research when he got back to the old house in Ellsville. He thought there might have been a Negro League team named the Crows, or maybe he was thinking about something he heard or read concerning Crows and Negroes. Joe Crow or Jim Crow. Maybe Jim Crow played in the Negro leagues. He could ask his neighbor Reggie in Tampa about that the next time they met at the Bull Pen for a few beers.
When would he get back there? He wasn’t sure, but when he did, Reggie would know since he claimed he’d played in that league for six seasons with the Monarchs before a bad right knee forced him to retire. A right-handed pitcher needed that knee to push off the rubber with — couldn’t pitch worth spit without it. Some of the other neighbors didn’t believe Reggie, but Leonard knew he was a good man and wouldn’t lie about that. He sure knew a ton about baseball, at least how to pitch, how to throw a back door slider and a split-finger fastball.
Leonard wondered if Reggie Weeks was in the Hall of Fame. He’d never thought of checking, but he’d do it later this evening or tomorrow, drop by the Hall in nearby Cooperstown and ask Mr. Johnson at the reference desk. All the more reason to head for Ellsville now. He paused a moment, slipped his knapsack from his shoulder and dug around for the journal. At the top of a blank page he wrote in tiny careful letters: crow mascots – Reggie – Tampa. When? – Ellsville Now. He was glad he hadn’t worn gloves. It would be easier to make notes barehanded.
He was entering Pittsfield. He’d walked there once when Eleanor and Dan went visiting in Edmeston, and a businessman had given him a ride as far as Fly Creek. He’d walked to Ellsville then as well, and they’d had to pluck him from the Dugout Tavern that night and he’d passed out in the back seat on the drive home. Leonard felt bad the next day — the hangover of course, but even more for the disappointment on their faces. That was always the worst: their silence was the same as his parents when he’d stayed out late drinking and they’d had to search the village for him, often finding him in the bar at the Red Toboggan Inn by the lake.
He hadn’t been on a binge for a year now and it felt good. Eleanor had a lot to do with it. She helped calm his mind with her projects, simple things really that were meant to distract him. That’s why he’d loved drinking so much. He didn’t do it every day, just when he needed a break from his mind, when it all became too much. It helped to block out the constant barrage of numbers, statistics, facts, figures, dates, names, places. Lots of beer helped quiet the rolling wall of facts, the endless columns of text flowing by like credits of an epic movie scrolling ceaselessly past his eyes. Drinking helped quiet, fade this. It allowed him to enjoy watching games without so many numbers darting around — sometimes he just needed a rest. When he got to that point, he could let go for a few hours, relax, slow down, become more normal. He could look at people’s faces, linger on them, talk to them for hours without having to look away so quickly. And, he thought, people seemed to like him more when he’d been drinking. Other fans, especially at baseball games, drank too and were good company, mostly — there were a few who got obnoxious and violent.
Leonard hoped he could get back home to Ellsville before sundown. There was no other place to go, no place he’d rather be. He loved the village, the feel, the smell of it. He knew it so well he could walk from one end to the other with his eyes closed. He pictured himself walking down route 80 through Fly Creek, and then past the old folks’ home on his right as he came into town. Maybe the Colonel would be out for an afternoon stroll. (The man fought in World War I, but hadn’t been an officer — he just looked like Colonel Sanders in his white suits and sturdy cane.)
Leonard saw himself walking past the old Ellsworth place as he crossed Grove Street, going down the hill and over the railroad tracks, turning left onto Reading Avenue toward the tiny Red Owl Grocery on the corner at Lindenberry Street. He might even buy a pack of cigarettes there. He hadn’t smoked in three years, but somehow it sounded good now. Nothing against his aunt and uncle, but he had a new sense of freedom, of a heaviness lifted from his shoulders. Theirs was a comforting routine in New Berlin, and they’d given him almost everything he needed, but he missed his long walks around Owananda Lake and stopping to sit and smoke in the woods. Striking out again was invigorating, if a bit unnerving. Things would be fine the closer he got to Ellsville.
He remembered the grocery’s quirky little sign on the door that read ‘Thank You. Call Again’ from many years ago when he and Jennie first went there for candy when they were young. Why ‘call’ and not ‘come’ he had asked. She’d explained that calling on someone meant the same as visiting; at least that’s what their mother told her when Jennie had asked the same question.
By the time Leonard was in his twenties, he would touch the sign as he went in for smokes, run his fingers along ‘Call Again’ and think about being a boy, how those same letters had been there all those years. He liked the fact that the sign had been hanging there the entire time of his growing up.
Now, he imagined the long straight shot down Lindenberry past the familiar old houses, and wondered if it would still be snowing. And the lake? Would it be frozen solid by now? He suspected it would be. He was anxious to see the old house. It was the one that he most associated with home. There was the smaller house on Cherry that he and his mother moved into after she’d gotten so frail, but they’d only lived there briefly and it didn’t seem as real or as important as the bigger house.
His pace increased ever so slightly.
He was reminded of a strange book his sister had read one summer about a man named Billy Pilgrim who could travel back and forth through time. Leonard hadn’t been very interested in the book, but he could clearly see in his mind the equally strange name on the cover: Kurt Vonnegut. There was a passage where Billy imagined himself skating on a frozen river in his socks while thousands of people cheered for him. Leonard remembered the words of the only part of the book that had caught his eye: “Billy Pilgrim went on skating, doing tricks in sweatsocks. The cheering went on, but gave way to time travel.” There were other words, but this was the passage that stuck with him — it reminded him of hockey. For years afterwards he had often thought of skating on Owananda Lake in his white sweatsocks in the moonlight. He was sorry he had never tried it.
He began to think more about time travel. If he walked long and hard enough, could he ever get back to a place where his parents were alive, where his sister was younger, where he was a boy and still beautiful, not the rough, coarse man he was now? There was a photograph of him and Jennie that used to sit for years on the mantle in the Lindenberry Street house. He was five, she was 12, and they were sitting on the back steps just after they’d moved into the house. He was wearing shorts and holding a toy train, Jennie’s arm slung around his shoulder. He looked like a porcelain doll, even with the little eyeglasses he’d been forced to wear, his pale skin so smooth. Normal. Where had that picture gotten to? He would look for it on the mantle. If he had to, he would walk forever to get there.
* * *
Leonard figured by the time he got home it would be Happy Hour at the Dugout. He tried to nudge the thought away, but a beer would taste wonderful when he got there. He knew Eleanor would be disappointed, but he would try not to drink too much. Anyway, how could she be disappointed? Eleanor was dead, he knew that. It was a fact, a cold hard fact, as they said on the police shows. He thought about writing this down too, but just kept walking.
He thought again about time travel, and if he was able to do it, maybe she would return too. Or was it he who would go back? Sure, he would go back and bring everyone with him. He would be the instigator, leading everyone back in time. He had only to walk and think hard about it, want it badly enough. And he did want it. But what would he say to Eleanor if he got drunk? And Uncle Dan? Fine, he would have just a few, maybe order a triple burger and a basket of fries as well.
He saw himself sitting at the bar, the small group of tables in front of the television in the corner, the knotty pine walls, the cigarette smoke curling from his lips, his meal settling warmly in his stomach, felt the cold beer biting against the back of his throat, the chatter of the other patrons as he watched the action on the screen through the blue haze of smoke rising in the room, laughter and hoots after the Rangers scored, the horn blasting. It was like being there, like traveling through time. Yes! Easy as pie. The horn kept blowing even after the goalie picked up the puck and flicked it to the referee. The horn must be stuck, Leonard thought. Louder it blew. Something big and dark eased up next to him. It was a car pulling alongside him, the driver honking and motioning to Leonard. The snow was really coming down hard now. Maybe the man was lost. Leonard stepped to the curb as the man rolled the window down.
“You need a ride? Car break down or something?” he asked.
Leonard bent down to the window. “No. I’m walking home today.” The man looked like Vince Lombardi, but with thicker hair and long sideburns. He had the same old glasses, though.
The man squinted and laughed, a quick sound like a single dog bark. “You’re a long, long way from home my friend. You expect to walk there in this weather? Get in.” He waved Leonard in, cleared some leather binders off the passenger seat. Leonard thought they looked very much like his journals, only larger, and he wondered if they were Moleskines too. He pulled the handle and got in.
“Good day for penguins,” the man said.
“They’re doing okay this year.” Leonard wrinkled his nose at the warm air in the car, sweet like hundreds of cough drops simmering in a pan of hot water, and he knew the man had been drinking. He set his knapsack by his feet on the floor which was littered with scraps of paper with little shorthand notes scribbled on them, directions from one town to another, and pink WHILE YOU WERE OUT pads. “They’ll make the playoffs for sure, but they can’t keep up with Montreal. And the Islanders are surprising everyone. They’re on pace for a run for the cup.” His eyes began to water slightly, so he breathed through his mouth for a few minutes. Yes, the man had been drinking. A lot.
“Hmmm,” said the man, smiling. “So you’re a hockey fan.”
“And a baseball fan, judging by your cap. Big Cards fan are you?”
“Yeah. And I like Boston. Cincinnati until they fired Sparky Anderson. They won 92 games last year, so I can’t understand why they let him go. I suppose the owners wanted another championship right after ’75.”
“I see you’re a fan of the color red, too.”
Leonard nodded again. The man was giggling, and the dash above the glove compartment was cracked and reminded Leonard of a river on a map. Maybe the Ohio. It made him think of skating again.
They rode in silence for a while, gliding past the white blanketed fields as they eased out of Pittsfield.
“So what’s in Ellsville?”
“If you don’t mind my asking, what are you doing way out here?”
“I was staying with my Aunt Eleanor, but she just died. I need to get back home to let someone know.”
“Really? My God, that’s terrible. Sorry to hear it. Your phone dead too?” The man winced and shook his head. He did not laugh. “I mean, not working? You know, I’m headed up to Utica, but I’d be happy to drop you at Ellsville.”
Leonard remained quiet.
“Shouldn’t you contact your family right away?” The man sounded puzzled. “If you want, I can stop somewhere so you can make a call.”
“I can take care of it all from my parents’ house. I just need to get there.”
“Okay then. Good deal. It’s nice to have company, even if it’s just for a little bit.”
The man reached under the seat and produced a shiny silver flask, twisted off the cap and took a swig.
“You don’t mind if I imbibe, do you? It warms me up. You want a shot?”
“Sure.” Leonard reached over and took a long pull. It was stronger than beer, and although he hadn’t drunk much hard liquor in the past, he recognized it as whisky. He coughed as he handed the flask back to the man.
“Smooth, eh? That’s some of the finest single-malt whisky from Scotland. Glenfiddich, yessir. My name’s Fraser, by the way. Donald Fraser. And you?”
“Leonard Conklin. From Ellsville.”
Donald extended his hand. “Yes, pleasure’s all mine.”
They motored down the meandering two-lane road, each man taking turns drinking and talking sports, the car’s snow tires crunching over the powder.
They stopped at a diner in Edmeston to go to the bathroom and refill the flask from the bottle in the trunk, and then they were off again. Leonard felt warm and relaxed in the car, and Donald was friendly and listened intently when Leonard spoke.
Donald said he was on his way to a trade show in Utica. He sold restaurant equipment for a living and knew the owners of the Dugout and the Deer Path, and the co-owners of the Red Toboggan. He even knew the manager of the Oswego, but didn’t supply them with equipment. He didn’t know who did.
They finished the bottle going out of Fly Creek and Leonard thought Donald must have been an experienced whisky drinker, because he navigated the increasingly treacherous roads with ease while talking about his boyhood in Philadelphia, playing pee-wee hockey and following his beloved Flyers. He drove slowly but not over-cautiously, his left wrist atop the steering wheel, fingers dangling while he sipped from the flask with his other hand and passed it to Leonard.
It wasn’t long after Leonard removed his jacket and settled down more comfortably in the seat that they were turning onto Lindenberry Street, easing up to the old house.
“Number 11 you told me, the white one?” said Donald, peering through the windshield as he slowed the car. “Doesn’t appear to be anyone home. Got your keys?”
“Someone will let me in.”
Donald squinted down the snow-covered street. “I’ve cut through this street a time or two calling on customers. Always admired the houses. Wonderful place to grow up, I’ll bet.”
“Yeah.” Leonard fumbled with his jacket, knocking his baseball cap askew. He opened the door and stood up, the snow — about six inches now — crunching under his boots. He wasn’t used to drinking so much hard liquor and leaned on the door as he turned to shut it.
“Sorry about your aunt,” Donald called from the car. “If you ever get to Binghamton, look me up. I’m in the book.” Leonard nodded and shut the door and the man drove off.
He went to the driveway and headed for the back door because only visitors (or like the store sign, callers) ever used the front door. The driveway was covered with snow and there weren’t any tire tracks. He imagined the old brown Buick parked in the dark of the garage as he tramped through the snow toward the door. It was surprisingly dark for early afternoon — two at the latest — the sky a slate gray, silent white curtains of snow falling all around him. He climbed the three steps to the door and knocked, then tried the knob. Locked. He peered inside and recognized the kitchen, but the table and chairs were different, not the rectangular white one with sky blue trim he remembered. This one was a honey brown wood and round.
He was overcome with the scent of peaches he associated with the kitchen. It had always smelled like that, as if the floor, the walls, the cabinets had absorbed the scent of his mother’s favorite fruit forever, which now seemed to seep through the cracks around the door jamb.
This scent was a good sign — it might mean that the past was coming back, a small part at least. After all, how could the scent of peaches linger in a house after three years? No — more like four years, since they’d sold this house and moved to a smaller one on Cherry St. Now he was getting ahead of himself, skipping around through time when he should be concentrating on the one part of the past he most wanted to get to. He began to worry that he hadn’t walked enough. He should have insisted that Donald let him off at Fly Creek so he could walk into town as he had imagined.
Now he would simply have to walk back out of town and retrace the steps that he’d taken in his head. Maybe that would fix things. He was awfully tired and hungry, but he felt that if he started now he would be finished by dinner time and everyone would be home again. All he had to do was set his mind to it.
He turned and headed out to the road and began walking, hesitant steps at first, then long purposeful strides, his head down, hands jammed into his jacket pockets. Left up Lindenberry, left again at Reading Ave., right on Glen Ave. He slipped twice going up the hill toward Grove St. and banged his elbow hard. By the time he got out to Route 80 his arm was numb, as were his toes.
He turned around and walked back into town as he’d imagined earlier in the day.
Soon he’d be home again.
One of his favorite books when he was a boy was a collection of Bible stories his mother had given him. The people in the stories, especially in the Old Testament, were always walking, miles and miles into and out of deserts, up and down mountains, making pilgrimages from place to place. And miracles seemed to happen all around them, especially in the newer stories during Jesus’ time — miracles left and right. Maybe all that walking contributed to those amazing events. And hadn’t Jesus himself walked on water?
Although Leonard couldn’t recall anyone time-traveling in the Bible, it seemed a simple task compared to burning a bush without consuming it, parting the Red Sea, making cripples walk and blind men see, or rising from the dead and moving a huge boulder.
He began thinking of all the references to walking he’d ever read in his life. There was biblical walking, the 23rd Psalm: Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . and the hymns his mother sang: “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “Walking in the Good Old Way.”
Then there were the songs he heard on the radio: “Walk Like a Man” by Frankie Valli. But the song he really liked was Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’”. For years that’d had been one of his favorite walking songs. He’d always loved the rhythm of it, the catchy words, and he’d often sung it softly to himself as he walked around the lake or wherever his legs took him.
I’m walkin’, yes indeed and I’m talkin’ ’bout you and me
I’m hopin’ that you’ll come back to me
I’m lonely as I can be, I’m waitin’ for your company
I’m hopin’ that you’ll come back to me.
Whatcha gonna do when the well runs dry,
you gonna run away and hide,
I’m gonna be right by your side,
for you, pretty baby, I’d even die.
Then there was baseball, of course. He’d start with pitchers.
Amos Rusie, 1890 NY Giants, most walks overall in a single season: 289. Babe Adams, 1920 Pittsburgh Pirates, fewest walks in a single season: 18. Adams also held the record for longest game by a single pitcher (21 innings!) without a walk: July 17, 1914. The ambidextrous Tony Mullane, first to throw lefthanded and righthanded in the same game, and holder of the Cincinnati Reds single season record (1891) for most walks allowed: 187. Jim Devlin who played only two seasons (1876-77) with the Louisville Grays walked a total of only 78 batters through 1,181 innings. Cy Young, 1904, who pitched the American League’s first perfect game — no opposing player reached first base, not even a walk.
Leonard trudged down Glen Ave. again. There were a few other people out, but none he knew. Besides, he didn’t want to be distracted by anyone, so he kept his head down and concentrated on getting back home. It didn’t even have to be far back, just enough so that everyone could be together in the house. Maybe they would go out to eat, or simply stay home. Either was fine.
I’m walkin’, yes indeed …
Fat snowflakes pelted him now and he could barely see four feet in front of him. Not that he needed to see, he knew the streets so well. He came to the corner store. The lights were off (it was three now, maybe four in the afternoon but it looked almost like dusk) so he shuffled to the door to brush the snow from his face and shake off his cap. In the shelter of the awning over the entrance he noticed that the old sign had fallen off the door and was lying on the ground, propped up between the wall and an old brown barrel. He bent down to pick it up, flexing his fingers for a moment — he hadn’t brought his gloves. He could still see the words through the rust. He told himself to keep moving, so he slipped the little sign into his knapsack and continued down Lindenberry St.
I’m hopin’ that you’ll come back to me…
He really hoped this would work. The sign reminded him of his sister, and he wondered, if this time travel business didn’t work, where he might end up. With Jennie in Florida, probably. There wasn’t anyone left up here, and he didn’t want to live with strangers in some apartment home or hospital like Aunt Eleanor had alluded to during her sad moments after Uncle Dan had gone to the nursing home.
Think, he told himself. Think only about the past and who you’ll see when you get to the house: Mom, Dad, Jennie. The Walkers might be over for tea (they amused Leonard because they were both fat and didn’t live up to their name — they didn’t walk, they waddled), or perhaps Eleanor and Dan would be up for an afternoon visit. Maybe there’d be dinner at the Deer Path later, or the Red Toboggan. If the roads were passable, if anything was open.
No, there would be no ifs. It simply will be.
He tried to quiet his mind of anything but images of home; the home he knew and longed for, dreamed of now, but the song kept intruding.
I’m lonely as I can be . . .
It was a sad song in parts, but the tune always kept it happy enough. The kitchen will be warm, he thought, and full of good smells. Pot roast and mashed potatoes, green beans, cold beer in the refrigerator.
I’m waitin’ for your company . . . I’m gonna be right by your side . . .
His heart sank as he approached the house. It was still shut tight, the windows blank and lifeless. At the edge of the gently sloping yard, he brushed past the fir trees covered in a fine white dust near the tops, but heavy with clumps of snow on the lower branches. He plodded across the yard through nearly a foot of snow, reaching the back porch at the far corner of the house only to find the door locked as before.
He wrapped himself in an old canvas tarp he found atop a small pile of firewood. He sat down in a white wooden rocker, folded his arms across his stomach, put his chin on his chest and slept for a few hours.
* * *
He awoke with a pounding headache. The snow had subsided, reduced to small flurries against the pitch black sky beyond the back yard. He pushed aside the tarp and slowly stood up, steadying himself on the rocker’s arms. He felt like an old man, and all he wanted now was a glass of water and something to eat. Behind him the house remained dark as he stepped off the porch and made his way back up the driveway toward the street.
He shifted his knapsack from one shoulder to the other, turned left off Lindenberry onto Cherry. A pickup truck rumbled past him before he crossed to the alley that paralleled Main Street leading to the far side of town. He slogged through the snow behind the shops and the movie theater, his old shortcut that lead to the Dugout Tavern.
He came up behind the place just short of Hunter Ave. There were no lights burning in the enclosed rear patio, so he walked around front.
Taped to the door was a piece of paper with a note scrawled in black magic marker: CLOSED DUE TO FAMILY EMERG. SORRY FOR INCONV. — MGMT.
Main Street was empty. He had no idea what he would do next. He felt as if his brain was slowly freezing. The snow picked up again, came down like slow-motion rain, big round flakes that landed silently around him. He peered down Hunter toward Lakefront Park, squinted his eyes into slits and forced himself to walk, trying once more to set his mind to the business of time travel.
When he fully opened his eyes he found himself stepping onto the lake. The big boathouses by the camps on the eastern shore would be straight ahead of him and to the right. Although he couldn’t see them in the dark, he knew where they were, even though he didn’t know why he wanted to go there.
The wind was like needles of ice piercing his scalp and face. He was cold and hungry, his mouth dry and strangely hot. He wanted to crawl inside his mouth, to curl up and go to sleep.
He kept walking, or thought he was walking. He wasn’t sure. He seemed to be sliding down a hill, like the earth was made of jelly, wobbling underneath him and then gently shifting, slipping out from under his feet — did he still have feet? He shook his head and opened his eyes wide again. He was sitting on the ice, his legs splayed out in front of him. The hills loomed up darkly on either side of him, great big masses of impenetrable blackness against the blue-white of the icy lake.
It seemed to take hours, but he finally tugged his boots off. His white sweatsocks shone in the dark, brighter than the ice. They seemed to glow. And they felt warm. His whole body was warming up, he could feel it rising up his legs and into his chest, his neck, slowly up to his face. It was a totally comforting warmth that was unlike anything he’d ever felt. It was as if he were free, separated from his body.
He rolled over and pulled his knees under him, balanced himself on his fists and stood up. The dark hills began to come alive. At first there were voices that turned into shouts and then the collective roar of a crowd, the most gigantic crowd he’d ever heard. There must be a million fans surrounding him.
He was on the grandest hockey rink in the world and he would now skate for the people. Up and down the lake he would fly, skimming along the shoreline so close to the edge that he would feel bare branches nipping at his elbows, the wind in his face, the crowd roaring for him, screaming even louder because he would do all this on magic sweatsocks. He could almost feel himself racing up the eastern shoreline toward North Park and wondering where the boathouses had gone. Had he skated past them already? Then, inexplicably, he was hugging the opposite shoreline heading south, and then somehow he was back on the other side of the lake. It all seemed so real, he could even feel himself turning to look behind him, the wind lashing the back of his head and stinging his ears, and when he turned forward again the first boathouse wall appeared in a sudden flash of white slamming against his cheek.
The crowd went mute.
His mother was sobbing in his ear while his father cradled Leonard’s neck from underneath. Uncle Dan stood at his feet and said he shouldn’t have taken off like that alone, he might have gotten himself killed. From somewhere, Eleanor shushed her husband and said he’s home safe so leave the poor boy be.