Learning to Live Again
There he is, Margie told herself. She was sitting on the curb in front of Black River High. She watched the Ford pickup truck circle the loading zone area. Her stepfather expected her to be at the curb, ready to jump in the passenger side of the car. Fright hit like a punch to her stomach, leaving her light-headed, reeling, grasping grass for control. She took a deep breath. There he is, Kid. His name for her, Kid.
“Hey, kid, what you just sitting there for? Get in, will ya? We got a half hour before your ma gets home.” He was grinning their secret at her. Grinning, showing that broken front tooth that made fun of his handsome face.
She got up slowly on unsteady legs. A chill shimmied through her despite the hot sun shining on her head and back. She had promised herself she would tell him as soon as she had him to herself. Just come out with it. Her eyes blurred. She climbed in the cab and smelled the odor of tobacco and beer as she always did the first few moments with him. She usually wondered where the odor faded to so quickly and why, but not today. Her head was down. Tears dripped on the books in her lap.
“Are those tears, kid?” His voice was gentle, as was the squeeze of his hand to her shoulder. “You ain’t sick are ya?”
“No…. Yes…. No,” she replied, her voice a little higher pitched with each word. “I’m, um… I’m um… pregnant.” The last word, a whisper. It was at that moment the real crying started.
Late again! Second time this month. Elevators on eight and six going up. Heart already racing, mouth open, gasping gulps of air, lungs on fire, Sam attacked the four flights of stairs two steps at a time. He lunged forward, landing a vise grip on the handrail, pushing for two more steps. He braked at the heavy door leading to Digitronics, Inc., and mopped his forehead with the handkerchief his mother had implanted in his head in childhood that he should never be without. For once he was thankful for this fetish. Seconds passed. His heart would not give up the race—he tasted salt on his lips. Karen pushed her way past every image in his mind. Sam shook his head, intensifying the pain in his chest.
“Gear! What the hell’s the matter with you, man? Christ! He’s having a heart attack.” This from Mobley, a myopic intern from the Cybercom Division, coming out the office door.
“I’m okay,” Sam said in a hoarse whisper. “Allergies. The pollen’s killing me.” He pulled up his mouth in a grin, with no small effort.
“I hope that’s a sunburn your face is sporting ‘cause if it ain’t, man, you’re a heart attack about to happen…. Serious. You look bad, Gear.”
Go on Mobley, walk on by, Sam commanded, silently. But Eric Mobley stood his ground, watching Sam, waiting for reassurance.
Sam took a deep breath. “I’m okay, really. Ran the stairs two at a time… winded, that’s all.”
Mobley looked less than convinced, but shook his head and continued on down the hall, leaving Sam struggling to gain control of his body.
It was the divorce papers that had struck the brutal blow. Somehow Karen’s threats had been just that, threats. Not reality, not something to consider. After all, they’d been married fifteen years, been through all the ups and downs, including a miscarriage. She had her career, he had his. Workaholics both, dedicated to a fault, they never questioned each other’s obsessions with their jobs. Where was I when the bottom fell out? Where were the warning signs?
Just as he realized his heartbeat had calmed from double time to time and a half, he felt the rushing sting of tears well up behind his eyes. Oh my God, don’t make me cry. Not now. Not here.
Mike West appeared in the doorway as Sam was making up his mind to run to the men’s room. He had to pull himself together before showing up at work. West was the man who had the awesome responsibility of naming the person who would head up the project for which Sam had been accused of throwing away his marriage.
“Sam, are you all right? What are you doing out here in the hall?” Mike looked up and down the corridor. A frown brought his eyebrows together. “We need to talk,” he said, finally.
“Here?” Sam wasn’t himself and he knew it. A bomb had gone off in his head some hours ago. He cleared his throat and straightened his tie, but cotton balls filled the space between his ears, and he could not concentrate on the words he saw forming on his boss’s lips. The pain in his chest drummed on with each new beat, vying for his attention.
“No, not here. In my office. Sam, what the hell is the matter with you? You look awful!”
Sam followed Mike through the doors—all of them. There was the outer door that lead to the suite of offices that comprised the Cybercom Division of Digitronics, Inc., the inner offices with each manager’s name plate on the door that separated top management and senior engineers from next-level management. Design engineers, hackers who worked their tails off redesigning prototypes that didn’t quite do the jobs for which they were designed, sat in cubicles.
Sam was a design engineer. It was no secret to management that Sam’s aspirations were much higher; he’d made that clear. They also agreed that he was capable of engineering the new product that Digitronics was espousing in its ads as the next-generation communication device. His prototype, already presented to management, was well received. With applause! Excited discourse between board members gave Sam a positive feeling about the election of him as the director over the project. The DX500 was his baby, his love, his life. The DX500 was Sam’s obsession.
“Sam, where are you?” Mike was leaning over his desk, staring at him.
Daydreaming. How could he be daydreaming about that fateful board meeting when the man before him had the power of God over his future. Sam mopped his brow with the all-too-wet handkerchief. “I’m a little winded. Ran up the stairs, that’s all.” Was he making sense? He watched Mike’s face for an answer.
“Sam, sit down. I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you will be offered the DX500 project if and when management decides to put it into production. The bad news is the project has been scrapped for the time being and will not come up for review until the next board meeting, in the spring.”
Mike put his hand up when Sam began to protest. He looked at a place on the wall somewhere behind Sam and he continued. “I know we advertised the product in last month’s newsletter, but that’s interoffice hype. The fact is Motorola has a similar product about to hit the market. Don’t ask me how we know. Management isn’t willing, at this time, to produce the DX500 until we see just what Motorola comes out with. If at that time we find we still have a far superior product, we’ll decide on production. In the meantime, I suggest you clean up your personal problems so that you can continue your work here with the same diligence and application you have in the past.”
Mike walked away from his desk and glided easily toward the cabinet behind him.
“Besides, Sam, there will always be another project.” He opened the cabinet door, pulled out a stack of folders, and handed them to Sam. “See what you can do with these.” Mike pointed at the stack now clamped between the palms of Sam’s hands. “There may be some great ideas in there for you to work on. Look them over when you have some extra time. Let us know if you come up with something.”
Sam remained sitting, stunned, drained.
“You can get on with your work now.” Mike said, “Just wanted to let you know where things stood.”
Sam rose from the chair, turned around without looking up, and left the office.
The door to Mike’s office squeezed closed behind him. Sam walked down an aisle between the design engineers’ shared space, past his own desk where he laid the stack of folders, and out into the fourth-floor lobby. His pace picked up until, in his mind, he was close to a run, headed for the men’s room. But his legs failed to follow, barely managing to amble him along in slow motion.
He murmured a thank you, finding the lavatory empty. After rinsing his handkerchief out under the cold water faucet, he mopped his face and neck with his right hand. Suddenly, he realized his left arm was numb. Then pain, like a knife slicing into his chest, knocked him backward against the door of a stall. Tripping, banging the door open, he landed in a sitting position on the stall toilet seat, but lurched forward with the impact and fell, skull first, to the tile floor. Conscious, but paralyzed, he lay there, tears streaming down his face, until a janitor making her rounds found him.
“Wild Women,” by the Mamas and the Papas sang out from the CD player, filling the station wagon with memories of this place and his youth as he drove into town. Dusk, foggy with a steamy mist, told Sam he’d entered Green Mountain, Vermont. A sign posted eight miles ago had told him the same story. But the steam came with the city proper. The two-block section of town called Main Street had a permanent fog from the small amount of industry and the inherent weather conditions. Funny, he remembered the steamy look of the Main Street thoroughfare at night, but he couldn’t remember ever questioning the source. Sam sighed deep in his chest. “I don’t care why the damn street steams.”
He smiled, hearing his words, convincing himself he meant all the promises he’d made to his friends keeping vigil at the hospital. I’ve taken out a new lease on life. He rubbed his free hand across his chest and through his receding hairline, making contact with his condition: living. He had died four weeks ago this Sunday.
Smith’s Drugs. Exactly as he remembered. Nothing changed in Green Mountain, just weathered some. He parked the station wagon in one of the diagonal spaces opposite the entrance. He’d stuffed his prescription in the glove compartment and found it behind the McDonald’s napkins. Old man Smith must be ninety by now. Sam walked into the drug store inhaling old scents and memories. The sign “Apothecary” on the back wall above the pharmacy told him he was entering his boyhood home.
It was a small building, smaller than he remembered. Three counters in the shape of a horseshoe kept customers away from the apothecary medicine. Sam strode to the back.
“May I help you?”
A kid who looked to be about fourteen took his prescription, and to Sam’s amazement, began to fill it.
“Excuse me, son, are you qualified to fill that?” Sam smiled. Old Smith must be around somewhere. Probably in the back. The kid would have to get him.
“Yes, sir, I am.” The boy showed a mouthful of what looked to be two sets of teeth.
“You are? Now why do I find that hard to believe?” Eyebrows raised, forehead pleated, Sam said, ”Maybe it’s the fact that it takes at least a six-year college degree to become a pharmacist, and you can’t possibly have made it out of high school yet. What do you think?”
Sam could feel his blood pressure rising. Why was he letting this incident get to him? He’d learned he could not control the world around him, hadn’t he? All his preconceptions of how things must be done were just that—his. The world would go on with or without him and it almost had.
“Mr. Smith had to make a delivery, sir. He left me in charge. I know this prescription. The bottle’s kept right up there on the shelf.” He pointed behind him. “Lots of people round here have to take it. But you’re welcome to wait for Mr. Smith to get back, if you want.”
“You’re sure about the strength? I can’t read the doctor’s writing, I don’t see how you can.”
The boy looked again at the paper. “Says ten milligrams plain enough. See here?”
“Yeah, looks like ten all right, but I’ll wait for Smith just the same. It’s against the law for you to fill prescriptions, you know that?”
“No sir. I just do my job, what Mr. Smith tells me.”
The bell over the door chimed as a young man entered the store. “You got my prescription, Pete?” The young man swaggered as he made his way to the counter, his hands tucked deep into the pockets of his heavy coat.
Pete disappeared under the counter. He emerged, bag in hand. Sam noticed his hand shaking as he passed the bag to his waiting customer. The young man put the bag inside his coat and left the store without a word.
The boy stole a glance at Sam, then began writing in a ledger that was kept on the counter. “That there was Joe Piccolo. He just picked up his ma’s medicine. She has an account here.” He avoided eye contact. Sam thought the boy’s voice quavered.
The magazine rack caught Sam’s attention. Vermont was snowmobile country. It seemed like centuries since he’d warmed to a bonfire on ice with his parents and their friends riding snowmobiles and roasting marshmallows. He thumbed through Snow Rider and old memories.
At 9:00 PM the phone rang. “There’s a Sam Gear here, needs a prescription. Says it’s against the law for me to fill it. He’s been waiting on you some fifteen minutes now.” Pete listened a minute then cupped his hand over the mouthpiece. “Mr. Gear, sir, it’s my boss. He says I’m to close up now and you can come back tomorrow for him to fill your prescription or I can fill it tonight. I told him you said it was against the law and all, but he’s done gone home and says he’s staying put for the night.”
Sam shook his head. Old Man Smith was making his own law and moonshine as far back as Sam could remember. “Fill it,” Sam said with a sigh. “I can die on principle.” Damn near had, too.
The streets were black as pitch with dusk receded to full-blown night. The only street lamp sat on the corner of Hiker Hill, where Sam turned right onto the dirt road, and headed up to his childhood home. Light shone from a naked bulb on the porch, and through the kitchen window at the side of the house. Could it have been fifteen years? It seemed like an eternity; it seemed like yesterday. He’d pulled up stakes at thirty, had sworn to his father he’d never return, and almost hadn’t. Too bad his dad wouldn’t see his homecoming. Sam had learned too late. He and Karen were in the Bahamas. The message of his father’s stroke was left on the answering machine. By the time Sam had heard the news, the man was already dead and buried. Sam hadn’t even made the funeral.
He pulled into the gravel driveway, following his memory, taking it slow and easy, trusting that nothing new had been added to block his path, like a rut or a fence or a tree. It was a darn sure thing he wouldn’t be able to see it. A floodlight came on in the yard. His mother must have heard the car. Well, at least he could get to the back porch without breaking his neck.
He rang the doorbell.
“I’m coming. Hold on.”
He heard the deep contralto voice from somewhere in the house. Strong, husky, yet silky soft, the sound made his eyes sting. She’d find a blubbering fool at her door if he wasn’t careful.
“Sam! Sam! Come in.” His mother opened the door wide and stood back, bracing herself, leaning against the foyer wall opposite the door. “Let me look at you.” And she stared at her son for what seemed to him a very long time. “You look fine now. Are you well?”
“Good as new.” What else could he say?
She smiled then, and he remembered how her face lit up like a beautiful sunrise. He grabbed her around the waist, lifted her up and pressed her against his chest in a bear hug, careful not to squeeze her fragile frame too hard. He was grinning, his face and ears red with embarrassment at his sudden burst of spontaneity, as he set her down. Laughing now she kissed him on the lips, grabbed his hand, and led him to the kitchen.
“There’s a fresh pot of coffee. Sit and tell me all about my Sam.”
It struck Sam that there wasn’t much to tell. Oh, he could talk for hours about his work, the divorce, his heart attack, but not about her son. He really didn’t know the man. That was what this trip was about. Everything he left was here, nothing changed. He smiled again. Same ceramic creamer and sugar bowl sat in the metal tray on the red Formica tabletop. The table’s wooden legs stood unmoved on the threadbare linoleum floor. The scene would have depressed the old Sam, the Sam of only a month ago, but it made this Sam glad. This Sam needed to touch his roots.
“It’s wonderful to be home,” he told his mother, unable to stop the flood of emotion escaping in a torrent of tears down his cheeks.
The Railroad Car Diner on Main Street was Green Mountain’s truck stop. Famous for miles around for its fried clams and scallops, it had been a favorite eatery for skiers, hunters and truckers. After Margie was hired as cook five years ago, the diner became even more popular earning a reputation for the best apple pie and sour dough biscuits in this north eastern state.
Tonight as it did every night when Petey entered the diner, Margie felt her heart swell with pride and affection at the sound of his voice. “Hey,” he said, greeting Hannah, the short order cook out front. It was 9:30, later than usual. Must have had a last-minute customer. She put the batter she’d been fixing for morning pancakes in the cooler, and wiped her hands on her apron as she made her way to the swinging kitchen door.
“Bet you’re hungry,” Hannah told him, and Margie knew she’d have already started food cooking on the grill for him. Margie sighed. She could never tell Hannah that the boy needed some real food, a balanced meal from the kitchen. She practiced the speech she’d devised over and over, wherein she proclaimed her tremendous appreciation for the care Hannah lavished on the boy, but… It was the “but” she fell apart on. But he needed balanced meals with plenty of wholesome vegetables and good protein, not the fried fare from the short-order grill. She hunched her shoulders in defeat, once more taking consolation in the salad she had fixed him. She grabbed it and headed out to the front counter and her nightly hello.
“Eat every bite,” she said with a pinched smile. “And before you eat one bite of that Western sandwich.”
“Mom!” It was the same exasperated cry every night, but he ate it, she knew, just to make her happy. He was a good boy. Thank God for that. She didn’t know how half the people she knew handled the emotional strain caused by their children. She led a charmed life, for sure.
“You’re late,” she said, leaning over the counter to brush her fingertips across his cheek.
He pretended not to notice. “Some guy—Sam Gear—do you know him? He came in for a prescription. Wanted the old man to fill it. Said I was breaking the law or something—can I have some ketchup? Anyway, at closing he decided I could fill it after all.”
“Sam Gear? Must be a relative of Allison Gear. Her husband’s name was Sam, wasn’t it, Hannah?” Margie knew who Sam Gear was. Allison Gear had a photograph on the mantle in her living room. Margie also knew that Allison’s son was coming to visit his mother, a rest cure after heart surgery. But Margie didn’t think she should share Allison Gear’s confidences with Hannah. For one thing, Hannah resented the closeness of the two women and, for another, Margie cherished that closeness for the precious gift it was.
“Sam Gear in town? He’s Allison’s son.” Hannah scraped down the grill while she talked. “The Green Mountain Post had an article last month about him. Triple by-pass surgery. They didn’t expect him to live. I went to school with Sam . . . well, kind of. He was three years ahead of me. A football hero. Every girl I knew and some I didn’t had a crush on Sam. He was some good lookin’.” She stopped her cleaning to push a strand of blond hair off her forehead, and looked at Peter. “He’s got to be forty-four, forty-five. Tell me he ain’t bald and fat, Peter.”
“He ain’t,” Peter said, “but he sure is uppity.”
“That’s ‘cause he’s some kind of highly-paid mucky muck. Works for some big computer outfit in North Carolina. The paper made him sound like Einstein.”
“Don’t like him much, do you, Hannah?” Peter said.
She giggled. “If that man looks anything like he used to, honey, I won’t let his brains get in my way.”
Peter slapped both hands to his mouth to keep laughter from spurting food all over the counter. The devil peeked from his dancing blue eyes.
Hannah wiped her hands across her apron front leaving them to rest in fists on her ample hips. “And what’s so funny about that?” she asked, grinning at the boy.
Peter shook his head and waved his arms, unable to speak or laugh out loud.
“Careful you don’t choke,” Margie said. They sure were silly, but she was laughing, too.
Outside the diner the street was wet from the fog, and smelled of rain though none was falling. The rush of the White River soughed like the wind as mother and son trekked past Brownie’s garage and over the bridge to Hiker Hill.
“Hannah’s a trip, ain’t she, Mom?” Peter said, punching playfully at his mother’s arm.
“Ow!” Margie rubbed the spot. “Hey, look. Mrs. Gear’s floodlights are on. And the house is all lit up. She’s such a dear lady. God grant you some happiness, Allison Gear.”
Peter walked backwards, watching the Gear house flicker out of view as they made their way up the hill to their home. A floodlight at the southeast eave lighted the walk to the front porch and made long, spooky phantoms of their approaching forms. Pat barked, running toward them until the end of her chain choked her to a stop. She sat then, dusting the ground with a foot-long broom of a tail.
“Hiyah, Pat!” Peter wrapped his arms around the dog’s barrel chest, but broke out of the embrace when her tongue against his ear became unbearably ticklish. “I love you too. Cut it out!”
“Allison Gear told me last week that her son was coming home. I mean, she asked Hannah to get me out of the kitchen because she wanted to talk to me, and then she told me. Is that weird or what?”
Peter gave his mother a skeptical look. “She trying to fix you up?”
“I don’t know. I think maybe. Imagine that. Allison Gear. I can’t believe her thinking any woman good enough for a son of hers. Much less me.”
Margie scratched Pat’s back. Then she gave her son her best smile, the one that told him he was her very best friend. Her confidant.
“Race you,” she said, and beat it to the front door.
“Not fair, Mom!” he said panting, slamming the door behind them.
Margie’s mind was past the game. She shouldn’t ask him. She was being schoolgirl silly. “What does he look like?”
“What does who look like? Sam Gear? I don’t believe this.”
“Forget it.” Margie’s face turned red. Peter was watching her from under furrowed brows.
“Hannah has a crush, don’t you think?” she said trying to ease the atmosphere.
“He’s a geek, Mom.”