Road Closed

I awoke early, pulled on my clothes and stepped out the door onto the back porch. It was a fine clear morning: the air was fresh, the recent humidity had all but dissipated.

I set out on foot down the street, then turned right onto Winthrop, crossing over to the opposite side. The sidewalk was torn up at regular intervals to accommodate the new street drains. The edge of the macadam had been scarred in preparation for paving. A town highway truck passed by, rumbling down the street.

I rounded the bend to find not a single car parked in the small lot outside Peyton’s barber shop. I quickened my pace to the front door. The sign in the window said “Closed.” As I bent down to retrieve the morning papers lying outside the door, I checked my watch: 6:45 AM.

I pulled the Times from its plastic wrapper and skimmed the headlines on the front page. A pickup truck ambled down the street and eased into the lot. Five minutes later Peyton appeared in his truck. As he walked over to where I stood reading, we both looked up, suddenly surprised by the thopp-thopp-thopp sound of a helicopter.

“That Lifestar?” Peyton said.

“Sounds like it,” the man in the pickup said. He got out and searched the sky, but no helicopter appeared.  Gradually, the sound faded into the distance.

Peyton pushed a key into the lock and opened the front door. We followed him inside. It was warm and muggy.

“Be with you shortly,” Peyton said, disappearing into the back of the shop.

“Right you are,” the pickup truck man said.

I sat down and continued reading. Two more men came in. “Get the lead out, Peyton,” one of the newcomers said.

“Who’s that?” Peyton’s voice came from the back.

“A dissatisfied customer,” the man said.

Peyton appeared in his blue smock. “Have a seat,” he said to the man. “We don’t open ’til 8:00 AM.”

We all chuckled as Peyton motioned me into the chair. I sat down, took off my glasses and slipped them into my shirt pocket.

“What’s new?” Peyton said, fastening the drape around my neck.

“Not much,” I said. “Is all that road work affecting your business?”

“That street,” Peyton said, “is a pain in the arse. Some of the old-timers can’t figure out how to get here anymore. They’ve had it blocked off for weeks.”

“It seems like a long time,” I agreed.

“I hear they’re supposed to pave it this Thursday,” the pickup truck man said. “About time.”

“You got that right,” Peyton said. “They couldn’t get it done soon enough. It’s affecting my business, all right.”

He started in over my ears with clippers, then switched to a comb and scissors to even it out.

“I saw they put up a sign downtown at the lower end,” I said.

“Yeah,” Peyton said. “They won’t let cars through except local traffic, but even the locals are scared to drive past the barriers.”

“This sign said: ‘The Road Less Traveled,’” I said.

Peyton kept right on snipping. “Yeah, well the one out here says ‘Road Closed.’ People read that and they back up and turn around.”

“They’ve got another sign at the top of the street, too. That one says, ‘The Road Not Taken,’” I said.

“Pain in the royal arse,” Peyton said. “You wonder who thinks these signs up anyway? You want your beard trimmed?” he asked.

“Sure, you can trim it. Moustache too.”

He finished up, pulled the drape off my chest and shook off the excess hair. I reached for my glasses and adjusted them on my nose.

“They should be done with the paving by the end of the week,” the pickup truck man said.

“Couldn’t be soon enough,” Peyton said. “And I’m not the kind to whine, neither.”

I paid and stepped out into the bright sunlight. Already you could feel the heat coming up off the macadam. I crossed the street and retraced my steps up the broken sidewalk. Workmen were already moving their heavy machinery into place.

Dr. Hampton stepped out of his front door and stooped to collect the paper as I sauntered past his house. “Fine morning for road work,” I said, smiling at him.

He stood up with a hand on his hip. “They tear it up, resurface it, roll it smooth, then tear it up again—a never-ending cycle.”

“Your local tax dollars at work,” I said.

And then I thought of another sign: ‘Temporary improvement, permanent inconvenience.’

Goodbye, Sadie Hawkins

It was the week before the junior high Sadie Hawkins dance, when the traditional shoe fell on the other foot. Back then it was the boys who asked the girls out on dates; nearly every boy asked a girl to senior prom. But on Sadie Hawkins Day things got switched up; on Sadie Hawkins Day the girls asked the boys out to the dance.

This was particularly problematic for a shy boy like me. I made it a point to keep an extra low profile in the weeks leading up to the dance.

We were sitting in the back of an empty classroom one autumn afternoon, chatting among ourselves after an extracurricular club meeting. I don’t recall which one it was, only that we were there lounging at the desks, making small talk; when suddenly there she was, straight shoulder-length brown hair framing a face accented by heavy dark-rimmed eyeglasses, staring at me.

Uncomfortable, I reached for an imagined yellow pencil behind my ear and slid forward in my seat, as if I could dematerialize in the process; but she stood her ground. I knew it was coming, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

“Would you go to the Sadie Hawkins Day dance with me?” she asked in one continual uninterrupted breath.

“Who, me?” I hemmed and hawed, pushing myself up into the seat, only to slide back down again.

“Of course, you,” she said, and waited expectantly for an answer.

“I, well I—” I gulped some air, cleared my throat and offered some lame excuse as to why I couldn’t make it that particular night.

“Is it because you’re hoping someone else will ask you?” she asked, undeterred.

“No, no that’s not it at all. It’s just that I, well I…” The words trailed off like the hollow notes of a loon over a lake.

“What then, is it because I’m not pretty enough?”

“No, it’s not that at all. It’s just that I, I don’t dance—I don’t know how to dance.”

Somehow this explanation seemed to placate her. “Well, maybe you ought to learn to some day,” she said, and walked away.

Five years later I attended my senior prom—alone. I took my 35-mm camera mounted on a tripod and took photographs of couples for free. I don’t recall if she was there that night or not. I was only thankful that the camera had saved me from having to ask a girl out for the evening, even if I had to pay for the white-coat formal wear myself.

Years later our paths crossed at a Thomas Howard lecture in Lancaster.  She was doing graduate work in Vancouver; I was just finishing up my undergraduate degree.

I never saw her after that until our 35th high school class reunion. Suddenly there she was with her husband of two years; she had fallen in love and married late in life, too late to start a family. She still had her dad; her mother passed away when we were in high school.

That evening she was exuberant. She told me about her translation work; I told her about my book. She wanted to know where she could get a copy; I told her she could find it online. Eventually, the conversation died down. She and her husband seemed so much in love.

Today I learned of her recent death from liver cancer. She would have turned sixty this September.

Try as you might, you can’t pack nearly sixty years of life into a few paragraphs of newsprint—it just doesn’t seem to do the person justice. But then, in the end justice isn’t what it’s all about.

In the end what it’s all about is mercy and grace.

In the blink of an eye

After what seemed an eternity of nearly unbearable hot humid weather, temperatures suddenly plummeted into the low 60s overnight.

We turned off the air conditioning in the downstairs rooms and the upstairs hallway and opened the windows for the first time in weeks. Several times during the night I stirred, feeling first for the sheet neatly folded at the foot of the bed; eventually reaching for the counterpane as well, pulling it up to my neck and snuggling down beneath it into the warmth of a bed in autumn.

I felt a bit dizzy after dinner last night. Thinking I might have been a bit dehydrated, I drank a large glass of water and went out for a walk with my wife and the dog. The air was still warm as we sauntered down the sidewalk where the men had been working to replace the drains in the street. We sat on one of the new benches in the center of town and looked out across the green to the old three-story turn-of-the-century building that housed the restaurant.

“The upstairs apartments are vacant,” my wife said.

You could see that there were no longer curtains hanging in the windows.

“Which one did Millie live in?” I asked, referring to one of my wife’s friends from long ago.

“The one on the left,” my wife said. “But I don’t recall that she had a view out the front. She must have had one of the back apartments.”

My wife had helped her paint the tiny apartment when Millie first moved in. Now Millie lived in another town with her American husband. Her boy had grown up and was out on his own. They had come a long way from the atrocities of Kosovo.

“Things have changed so much from when we first came to town,” my wife remarked.

“A lot can change in thirty years,” I said.

The dog panted and strained at the leash. Slowly, we rose and walked back up the street in the evening heat.

We cut through the church property on the way up to our street.  As we approached the house, our neighbor called out from his back yard and walked across the grassy expanse to where we waited. He looked distraught.

“I had to put Bella down today,” he said.

Bella was the second dog he had lost in the last month.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Kidneys gave out,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it when the vet called with the lab results. She had lost so much weight after Colby died.”  Colby had been the older dog.  “I thought she was in some sort of a funk. She and Colby were always together. Now they’re both gone.”

I shook my head. “Things change in the blink of an eye,” I said.

Slowly, he nodded his head.

A modern tragedy

“Where were you when you got bitten?” I ask my 19-year-old patient.

“Biarritz,” she tells me. “I was walking on the beach in Biarritz when I got bit.”

My ears perk up. Intrigued, I ask, “Did you see what bit you?”

She shakes her head. “No. I just noticed the redness and the swelling afterwards. It itched, but I didn’t see any bug.”

“What did you do for it?”

“I put my leg up when we got back to the hotel,” she says. “And I put ice on it.”

“What happened?”

Thoughtfully, she reaches down and strokes the outside of her slender ankle. “It seemed to get better,” she says. “But now there’s a little bump there.”

I bend down to examine her foot. I run the pad of my index finger over the site and detect a slight thickness in the subcutaneous tissue. There is no tenderness. She has full range of motion of the joint.

“You didn’t see any ticks on you?” I ask.

“No, there was no tick.”

“Good. Well, I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about. This will most likely subside on its own. Call the office if it persists.”

Satisfied with my pronouncement, she steps down from the exam table and smoothes her sheer dress over her hips with her hands.

“How long were you in Europe?” I ask, as I open the door for her.

“Ten days,” she says. “We flew into Paris, then traveled to Biarritz and Saint Jean de Luz, then crossed over into Spain to Pamplona and on to Madrid.”

Suddenly, I remember a literary fictional excursion that took place along that same route. I glance at the calendar on the wall. “Did you see the running of the bulls in Pamplona?”

“No. We arrived two days before the Sanfermines. They showed us where the bulls are brought in before they run through the streets to the arena. We watched it on television in our hotel room in Madrid.”

I wonder if it weren’t the Hotel Montana.

“When did you arrive stateside?”

“Late last night,” she says with a slight yawn. “I need to get some sleep.”

To sleep, perchance to dream. To be in Spain at the opening of the Sanfermines, only to have to watch the drama unfold on TV. A modern tragedy in the wake of another smaller tragedy: a bug bite on the beach in Biarritz.