Not a great hand but a good one

by Michael Ryerson

I wish I could say I knew him well but I did not. Our nodding acquaintance could brighten an afternoon walk if we encountered one another unexpectedly and, if our paths crossed in close enough proximity, we might even call out by name. But this, it turned out, was his nature, to put the other fellow at ease, to accept an easy familiarity quite beyond the actual shape of your relationship. Of course, by the time we became acquainted, he had long since established himself as a writer and a commentator and, in fact, in a funny, circular kind of a way, it was the trouble this created for him in the city that made it possible for me to come to know him in the first place. Truth be told, I had sought him out.

This was several years ago, nearly ten now that I think of it, I knew I wanted to meet him but also knew it would be nearly impossible in the city where he was already under siege. I heard he was a private man who kept to a small circle of friends and to the same neighborhood into which he had moved after the first book came out all those years ago. I heard he rarely did book signings and besides a book signing wouldn’t really serve my purpose and even rarer would he make an appearance at a party, even those which were ostensibly being given in his honor. No, if an actual meeting were to be orchestrated, it would have to be outside the city, or at least outside this city.

Bill, my serial neighbor, he of the frequent flyer miles, said he knew him but after a brief conversation it became apparent what he really meant was that he had once been in the same room with him and had, in fact, not even worked his way through the receiving line for a casual handshake but had rather maintained his focus on the free booze and a lady from Argentina. But he did say he’d heard he had a house up on the lake, the big lake, and that he’d go there in the late summer to clear his mind and do some writing. I listened to this with an air of polite interest. My interest, fascination even, in him, didn’t need to be broadcast.

I drove up in November, before Thanksgiving and well after I imagined he would have returned to the city. This first time I planned to just drive up to get a look at the village, see the size of the place, what it looked like, perhaps stop for a meal, maybe even get a room for a day or two.

It was a three and a half hour drive and about an hour out of the city I realized I hadn’t even confirmed he had a place at the lake and if he did if he used it the way Bill had described. I decided to continue on regardless, that if it turned out Bill was wrong which the more I thought about it seemed likely, I could take a room for the week-end and plan my next move, if there was going to be a next move.

Why I wanted to meet him escapes me. It seemed an amusing thing, I guess, to meet and know someone so difficult to meet and know. Maybe that was the whole of it. I’m certainly not given to celebrity worship, have never asked for an autograph even in those instances where I’ve found myself in a position to do so with little effort, wouldn’t cross the street to get a better look at an actor or politician and except for my first wife, who I stalked shamelessly, have never gone out of my way to meet anyone, ever. But I drove up in the gloom of an overcast November conspiring to meet someone solely because they were a public person and were someone whose writing I admired.

In those days I was still driving the hand-me-down Jeep wagon, the one with the grey primer, jury-rigged tail lights and the aversion to thin air. When I stopped in Montclair for gas and found the air crisp and cold I expected the worst. She coughed dramatically when I restarted her and swooned temporarily when I tried to pull back out onto the road but then she settled down and we made the run up to the big lake without incident.

The village is on the eastern shore and from the road skirting the south shore, with the late afternoon sun slanting in, seems to float magically above the water. I could imagine generations of children coming up for vacation seeing it from here, in this way for the first time, and the sheer anticipation welling up and laughing out loud.

I had a hot roast beef sandwich at Markey’s, a place more blue collar than quaint, inquired about a room for the night and bought a hat that said, ‘I ate at Markey’s so…’ and on the back, ‘if I stumble and fall, it’s probably ptomaine’. The lady who handed me my hat, pointed across the parking lot and said I wouldn’t have any trouble getting a room this time of year, before the skiers and snow bunnies and well after the summer crowds. I said, ‘So then everybody’s pretty much gone back to the city?’ as though making idle conversation but really hoping for some glimmer of people who might still be around. ‘Yeah, I guess…pretty much,’ she said dully, making change and smiling that ‘ya’ll-come-back-real-soon’ smile.

I walked across the road and through the low grass to the boat dock and stood looking across the water, squinting into the evening sun and wondered if he had ever stood here, in this place, watching the sun go down and if he were close enough to walk back to his place or if he’d turned and gone over to Markey’s for a hot roast beef sandwich.

I took a cabin on the high side of the parking lot for thirty-five dollars. I backed the wagon into the space between me and the number four cabin so that come morning if her arthritis was acting up I could get a rolling start and pop the clutch to bring her around. The sheets, crisp and cold, smelled clean, the two wool blankets heavy in a reassuring kind of way and as I lay in the dark I could make out a tiny shaft of light coming in from under an eave and lighting the far wall and an enormous cobweb above the Formica table. I decided to stay through the week-end, to go see Eddie at the gas station in the morning and give him another seventy bucks and drive back to the city late Monday morning. At three AM, I sat up and wrote the line, ‘Under their feet lay the bones of dead men, on the horizon they could see the big cats.’ It was the first line of Mastodon. I don’t know where it came from.

In the morning, I pulled on an extra sweat shirt and my brand new baseball cap and noticed that even in the cabin I could see my breath. I knew the Jeep was going to be unhappy. I walked over to Markey’s, somewhere up to the left, in the trees, a dog was barking, the sound coming down through the trees in that unique echo reserved for pine forests, out on the lake I could hear an outboard motor and voices, fishermen, I guess, talking and then some laughter. I considered how one might go about looking for someone, a stranger, in a small village without seeming to be looking for them. It meant, among other things, I couldn’t mention his name, couldn’t ask for directions, couldn’t even intimate that I was vaguely aware of some semi-famous author living hereabouts. In fact, any inquiry whatsoever would sound an alarm, so I was left with some aimless wandering. Pleasant enough in these surroundings but again I started to calculate what would be the odds of finding him, or anyone for that matter, with aimless wandering. The waitress, Doreen her name tag said, brought me a cup of coffee. I surveyed the room. Not counting the cook, Doreen or the youngish girl at the register, six men and two women, retirees I thought, plus a handyman, a guy in mechanics overalls and a young couple wearing plaid jackets and Sorels.

Next I strolled over to the gas station. Eddie wasn’t on duty. Charles W. was apparently the morning man. I told him I wanted to extend for a couple of days and started fishing around in my pockets for money. ‘I’ll tell Eddie,’ he said as if to save me the trouble of coming up with the cash. ‘Can’t I give it to you?’ ‘Naw, Eddie handles that,’ he said looking up at the cabins. Involuntarily my eyes followed his. The Jeep wagon with the grey primer and the jury rigged tail lights sat among perhaps a dozen cabins. There were no other cars, no movement, no sign of any other cabin dwellers. ‘It’s not like we’re gonna throw you out,’ Charles W. said smiling.

I went back to the cabin and spent an hour or two jotting down some thoughts. I wondered how he might look in real life, older, taller than I expected, friendly, taciturn, distracted…would I even recognize him?

As the morning warmed up, I coaxed the Jeep awake and drove down to Exeter Mills which is about twelve miles and consists of a motel made to look like a log cabin, a gas station (two pumps) and a chicken take-out. And a boarded up sno-cone stand which probably does a brisk business during the summer months. But Exeter Mills is more about the surrounding summer camps, there are few houses. I decided to circle the lake. What does he drive? Surely he buys groceries. I wondered if he was a regular at Markey’s. Maybe he doesn’t cook, maybe he’s strictly a Markey’s regular but just as surely, he has likely gone back to the city by now.

I stopped at Privet’s Landing, a small, sandy beach where the kids can hang out and give their counselors a break but in November crowded with drift wood and a square wooden platform which, in July, would be anchored out in the lake, ‘Privet’s’ in big block letters painted on all four sides. The trees on the far side of the lake seemed to come right down to the water, I could just make out a car or truck moving along the road and then I could pick out the village, little more than a couple of white flecks in the dark of the tree line and a faint plume of smoke.

I spent the rest of the week-end getting to know Doreen and Eddie and Charles W. Saturday night, I had the spaghetti, slightly over-cooked and spicy, and talked with Berg, the cook, a refugee of the youth camps who had trouble cooking for fewer than a hundred. I decided to come back in the spring, maybe get a realtor to show me around, make some light conversation. Yeah, maybe get a realtor.

I got back to the city late Monday afternoon and went to bed. The Markey’s hat ended up on the door knob of the coat closet.