I heard Jane’s voice through the kitchen wall over the stomping of my work boots as the screen door shut behind me.
“Oh, yeah?” I said. Oh, shit, I thought as I walked through the house and slumped onto one of the kitchen chairs. Jane placed a glass of lemonade on the table.
“He wants you to call him back, right away.”
“Terrific. What’s going on?”
“He said there’s been a wreck out towards Lake Clear. He needs somebody to cover it.”
I shook my head and drank my lemonade.
This was Saturday.
This was August.
There are lots of walls on lower Park Avenue. The street runs along the foot of Mount Pisgah, and the walls were built to keep people’s front yards from falling onto the sidewalk. Our yard was one of them.
Near the intersection with Baker Street, the walls end. That’s where Helen and David lived in a rambling, quasi-Tudor apartment house. Occasionally, we’d meet them as we walked. They’d come bouncing along in David’s ugly, old Dodge with its sunburned paint and its four bald tires. They’d stop, and Helen would say, “Why don’t you come up sometime?”
We’d always say, “Sure, “ but we’d always forget we had.
They lived six houses away.
When Howard’s call came, I’d been gathering rocks from a vacant lot on Ampersand Avenue for a new wall we were building. It was drumming rain, but it felt good, and I would have been soaked with sweat anyway rolling hundred-pounders end over end up a two-by-ten into the back of my blue truck. When I stood to catch my breath and stretch my back, I could just see the roof of The Hovel through the trees on Van Buren Street across the tracks.
The Hovel was the low-rent house in which Larry and I, along with a half-dozen other aspiring journalists, had tried to hatch ideas for an underground newspaper called The Point, but where we’d mostly sat around reading Zap Comix, drinking, smoking, and talking about fixing the plumbing so that maybe somebody could wash the dishes. It was also where Larry and Helen had conceived Michael.
The Point died and, eventually, so did Helen’s devotion to Larry; but Michael was born strong and healthy on the thirtieth day of May. We were coming out of the snowiest winter on record. Fifteen feet, one inch had fallen on us that year, the last of it only a few weeks before; but on the day of Michael’s birth, the air was full of the subtle smells of run-off and moist soil, sunlight touched us like a friend, and Ruth Newton began her twenty-third year of life among the hallowed pines on the northeastern shore of Upper Saranac.
Mainly it was Ruth who was on my mind as I rolled rocks in the rain the day that Howard called. I had met her when we were both working for the dairy at Shenley’s Corners, summer of ‘67. She served cones and shakes at the ice cream stand, and I drove the summertime milk route through Lake Clear, past Land’s End where Ruth’s folks lived, on through Saranac Inn to Fish Creek and back via the Forest Home Road and McMaster’s Crossing, near where I would sometimes make special runs to Camp Triangle, hitting eighty miles per hour along the strip of blacktop across the bog, milk cans dancing a jig in the back of the van.
I’d gotten the job after one of the LaBrake brothers lost his sense of direction on a curve just west of the Inn. His van sailed into the woods, and all his milk and yogurt and eggs and orange juice went through the windshield, but he bailed out as the wheels left the road and escaped with a sprained back and some samples of pavement in his face.
It was just as well that I drove the trucks and Ruth served the cones, because she was wild behind the wheel. One of my earliest impressions of Ruth is of her leaving work in the big, grey, tank of a car she owned: the accelerator squashed to the floor, tires smoldering, gravel flying all over the place, and her eyeing me (instead of the highway she was launching herself onto) with a look of amused defiance. Yet I trusted her completely. I would lie across the front seat with my feet out the passenger’s window and my head on her lap, watching the tree-tops whiz above us and listening to the road burn beneath us. She was eighteen and I was nineteen. We were invincible and incorrigible, and we thought we were immortal.
Lunchtimes, when my route was done for the day, I would walk into the ice cream stand, and from behind the counter Ruth would bring an ancient, battered, five-gallon cottage cheese can to be my seat for the next hour or so. She would hand me a tall, chocolate shake, and after that another, and sometimes even another. I would guzzle the first and meditatively nurse whatever followed, watching Ruth watching Whiteface Mountain and the serrated wall of the McKenzie Range staring back at us through the glass front of the stand. Then the restless woman behind the counter would turn pensive and seem to escape through dreamy, hazel eyes to her own secret skyline. There were times when I thought those were the only eyes in the world.
During busy hours, the boss’s youngest daughter would come in to help. She was slender and fourteen, with a precocious manner and an aura that gave me the vague feeling that something was on fire somewhere. That was the Helen I knew as a peripheral character in my life as a Heaven View Dairy milkman.
Occasionally, her brother Paul would stop by and talk about airplanes. In contrast to his vibrant and unpredictable sister, he was soft-spoken and serious, a straight arrow in word and deed but with an ironic tendency to drift on the highway. I’d ridden in a milk truck with him a couple of times and simply couldn’t imagine how he would become the airline pilot he envisioned as his future self.
The next time I saw Helen after that summer, she was four years older and had lost her girlish figure; but she was surrounded by the same aura, except that the fiery feeling it gave was less vague and left the impression that “somewhere” was quite near. By then, Jane and I were living in a log cabin in Keene Valley, and she was teaching senior English at a soon-to-be-defunct Catholic high school in Saranac Lake. Helen was one of her students: bright and troubled, sensitive and tempted to do everything possible to simultaneously mute and indulge that sensitivity.
She would say: “I love Joplin. I love her soul. I understand the blues. I used to listen to the blues and do downs.”
She’d speak with amazed pride of her adventures with alcohol and drugs and how close they had brought her to the edge of oblivion. Yet, with Larry, she seemed to be backing away from her hidden holocaust.
Larry was an artist, older than Helen by several years. He had come from New York City, and he’d been through a few other places considerably less friendly before he met the dark-eyed teenager who’d rarely been farther from home than Plattsburgh. Larry, too, understood the blues…and drugs. He had thrown a heroin habit by sheer force of will after flunking out of one rehab center and escaping from another. He heard Bob Dylan sing “time passes slowly up here in the mountains” and decided that lethargic clocks would save his life, so he came to Saranac Lake and moved into The Hovel.
When Jane learned that Helen was pregnant and I learned that Larry was the father and we both learned that Helen’s parents planned to send their daughter to an unwed mothers’ home in Albany, we offered to have Helen stay with us in The Valley until the baby was safely born and up for adoption.
We all spent the winter of the big snows together, embraced by log walls that desperately needed of chinking. We would snuggle beneath our blankets and press our faces against the cracks and watch the white flakes fall until we made love or just fell into sleep. In the mornings, we would find the dog’s water frozen in its bowl. Yet it was never a cold house. We were warmed in the glow of our growing closeness.
Larry was someone I came to deeply respect as well as deeply like. He had a down-to-earth wisdom and sense of humor that acted as a stabilizer for me during my habitual flights into esoterica. As for Helen, she was simply a good but impetuous person who, for reasons known only to the spider, danced her life – both by choice and by chance – on the web of destruction.
After Michael was born, Helen almost died from severe hemorrhaging. A few months later, she was hospitalized with hepatitis and was saved only by massive injections of cortisone – a dangerous business, but that’s what they did in 1971. Then she went on a campaign to break every one of her doctor’s orders.
Jane and I moved out of the valley to an apartment on Charles Street, and Helen joined us. Larry was at school in Potsdam, but he hitch-hiked the seventy miles to Saranac Lake every weekend while Helen was in the hospital and every weekend after until she told him to forget it.
I would see her in the Waterhole: sometimes stoned, sometimes drunk, and sometimes I couldn’t tell what. She would come home in the small hours, often not alone, rarely more than once with the same man. There were nights when she didn’t come home at all. Her doctor had told her to rest. He had told her that alcohol could kill her. We told her she’d better go live with her parents.
It was now nearly fifteen months since that Keene Valley spring when child Michael greeted the world without a last name. Larry had found a new girlfriend, Jane and I had bought the house on Park Avenue, and Helen had met David – an intelligent young man who had come north to stay with his uncle and divest himself of a number of nasty habits.
He and Helen were soon living together happily and planned to marry in December. Whenever we encountered them on the street, I would alert myself for the smell of smoke and the sound of flames, but the smell and the sound were no longer there, or perhaps the “somewhere” that was once so near had become a place very far away. It was beginning to look as though Helen had finally danced free of the web.
So as I stood surrounded by the pieces of an unbuilt wall, I was mostly thinking of Ruth who, after meeting Jane with me two-and-a-half years earlier, had sat upon a fence of rocks and mortar and through her tears and clenched teeth said to me: “I must just love stone walls.” Ever since, I had been furtively and foolishly trying to win her back.
As I rolled the last hundred-pounder of the day into the truck, I found myself wishing that the walls people erect around their hearts could be as easily breached as the walls they build about their door-yards. Then I slammed the tailgate closed, climbed into the cab, and drove home to Jane – and Howard’s message.
“He said you should call him right back.”
My fingers tightened around the lemonade glass. “Son of a bitch, it’s Saturday! Why can’t somebody else do it?”
Jane said nothing. She just looked at me in that way of hers that somehow expressed both sympathy and disapproval. The scene was not new to her.
I dialed Howard’s number. “Howard, it’s Phil.”
“Yeah…look…there’s been a bad accident on the Lake Clear Road. Kathleen
heard it on the scanner. She says it could be a fatal. I want you to go out there.”
“Isn’t there somebody else who can do this?”
“No. Nobody else is available, Phil. Just go out there and take some pictures. You can get the story from the cops Monday morning.”
So that was all there was to it. Take some pictures; get the story Monday morning. I grabbed my camera, said “See ya” to Jane, and drove off into the thundering August rain.
For the first four miles, I grumbled to myself about what a pain in the ass it was to be making a living from other people’s misery, a professional peeping-tom paid to assuage the voyeuristic appetites of a bored public, sent to record somebody’s Saturday afternoon tragedy so there’d be something exciting on Monday’s front page. But as I made the left turn at Shenley’s Corners where the highway splits north to Gabriels and west to Lake Clear, rolling through that rain between Heaven View’s pastures, I remembered that Ruth had recently returned from a year on the Oregon coast and was again living at Land’s End. Was this about her? The mere thought made my stomach drop, and I was soon trembling with the sharp and sickening fear that she had finally made the crucial error on this road – a road she knew maybe a little too well.
The shaking stopped when I saw the flashing lights. I pulled off the road well before reaching the cluster of emergency trucks and walked the rest of the way to the scene. I couldn’t identify the vehicle, but I felt certain now that it was not Ruth’s and that, whosever it was, she was not involved.
It was a big car. It was resting on its side, partially wrapped around a mediocre Scotch pine, roof against the tree, wheels facing me. The location was a curve so slight it was almost unnoticeable. I had begun to move into a good angle for a middle-distance shot of the knot of men working with cutting and prying tools when, from the corner of my eye, I noticed Paul standing beside me. He looked like he’d been standing there forever in the middle of that highway.
“You know who’s in that car?” he said.
“No,” I said.
“That’s Helen in there. That’s my sister in that car.”
I felt heavy and hollow. I backed up two steps. I couldn’t speak.
“I was following them. We were only going fifty. Then they just went off the road. They just went off. There was nothing I could do.”
Paul’s voice stopped. His eyes were empty. The rain ran down from his sagging shoulders. It spilled from the tips of his limp fingers.
I couldn’t talk. I backed up two more steps. I couldn’t even say, “Oh, no.” I couldn’t even say, “Oh, shit.”
The camera hung stupidly from my neck.
Take some pictures. Get the story. So simple.
(Here’s a portrait of your broken friend. Here’s a close-up of her brother’s grief.)
David had already been freed from the wreck and was being rushed to Burlington. Helen had been thrown into the back and was trapped between the smashed roof and the deck behind the rear seat. By the time the knot of men got her out, it had stopped raining. They put her on a stretcher and carried her to the rescue van. I had never seen her look so serene. I didn’t see any blood. She was just asleep.
Monday afternoon’s front page framed a photo of the ruined Dodge together with the facts of the accident as I’d received them during the morning’s routine police calls. And, since Helen was alive, there’d be follow-up stories, of course.
Helen’s heart had stopped twice on the way to Saranac Lake General. She was transferred to Plattsburgh where she underwent seven hours of surgery. After that, she slept for seven more days. Then she left without awakening.
I was asked to be a pall-bearer, and I accepted, but I could not bring myself to approach the open casket; and, during the service, I sat in another room. Through the wall, I could hear Jane crying.
It was months before the eyes opened in David’s face, but the eyes of his memory stayed shut.
When I next saw him, it had been three years since Helen’s death and nearly half a year since my newspaper’s publisher called me at home to say he was firing me. I was shocked and angry; but, within two weeks, I discovered that, beneath and beyond those knee-jerk emotions, I was actually grateful.
Howard had long since quit his editorial post and bought himself a liquor store—a change that resulted in about an eighty percent drop in his own alcohol intake.
Larry married his girlfriend and moved to Santa Fe to paint murals for the State of New Mexico.
Ruth went off to raise flowers with a man who lived in a 108-room mansion that stood within sight of Lake Ontario.
And Jane took our toddling son and went back to Baltimore to pick up the thread of her life where she had dropped it when she met me.
As for Michael, there was no information.
I was sitting in the local sub shop when David walked in. He stood beside my table and stared at me. I said nothing. Then he sat down.
“My name’s David,” he said. “Would you like to know me?”
“No,” I said.
Phil Gallos has been a newspaper reporter and columnist, a researcher/writer in the historic preservation field, and has spent twenty-eight years working in academic libraries (which is more interesting than it sounds). Most recently, his writing has been published in Thrice Fiction, The Vignette Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Sky Island Journal, and is forthcoming in The MacGuffin, Blueline, and The Wire’s Dream.