Grey Lines on White Paper
Early Thursday morning phone call at His son’s office. His usual rudeness to the secretary. “Put me through at once. No, I can’t call back. Got to get through immediately.” Gets through eventually. “Have to see you and yes, alone tomorrow. Damn your most important meeting of the year. Won’t and can’t take no for an answer. Remember (Martin His son pulling the phone wire into hangman’s knots…) it is that time of year. There are matters I have to elucidate.” An order with overtones of a supplication. So, Martin complies-buys a ticket to Poughkeepsie. What is there to elucidate anyway? An old girlfriend Philip Sturges visits once a year? None of his business. A strange degenerative illness? Who knows. With Philip anything is possible.
Friday night finally. The Amtrak Maple Leaf at Penn Station, northbound to Poughkeepsie three minutes before departure. Outside a cold night, inside, an overheated passenger car lit lemon acidic. Martin Sturges throws his brief case and newspaper onto an aisle seat and slips out of his coat. The conductor’s “all aboard, folks” comes loud and tremulous. Banshee time. Is Martin going to announce a death, for example, his? The thought is bad, but honest. The train pulls out of the station; no escape possible. Bound for what? A station in the land of Against My Better Judgment? Possibly. Probably. Certainly.
The Report For Monday has released the smell of the office in the Land of the Meeting, but its words are like bees buzzing in a hive. Martin rubs his eyes, while Philip the Father mentally stands over his shoulder. “Don’t do that. You’ll displace your retina! Don’t you know!” Philip the Father disappears in a tunnel with Martin’s Scream face reflected in the dusty window. Forget that and look at The Times. No luck with that either. The paper drops limply onto his lap, as he shuts his eyes and starts to imagine the meeting – the dark suited actors talking in coded language, everyone with a thousand ulterior motives – and he, Martin Sturges about to spend an evening in the company of a man with whom he has nothing in common and, when all is said and done, does not even like.
Back to the Times and… why not? The crossword puzzle. Beef him up for his father. Also a crosswarrior.
Love in France :
42 across : ghostly French come back ? in 8 letters ? 44 down : big lizard. In 5 letters. Varan, that’s a staple. 45 down electrical con man ? Edison, seen that before. Next to girl’s name in 5 letters… could be anything, Marie, Patty , Janet… End of the word… Ah ! a quote . If we had world enough and … obviously the fill in is Time. So that would give us V E with the last letter T. Ghostly French come back. Come back in French is revenir. Ah ! Can try Nancy for girl’s name in 5. Of course … Revenant ! Varan, Edison, Nancy.
Chug a chug. Nounzan riddles riding checkerboard rails. Meet but once on The Times playing field. Meeting meaningless. Meetingless.
Philip Sturges spends the evening packing his overnight kit and trying to avoid Holly, his wife, out of boredom not guilt. After all, he has nothing to feel guilty about. And after all, she has gone about the house all day enjoying the goosy-rosy mist of self delusion about father and son bonding. Finally. Besides, Martin the Son will be present at this yearly nocturnal outing. That reassures her that all is well. Philip, pours himself a coffee and takes a look at…
80 down : Bought by love in Paris ? French again. 80 across Fifth letter in. Capital of Uruguay : Montevideo. First letter in with the hint : larder. Try pantry. Second letter in ; he was a heel to Paris. Paris France ? Paris Paris… Paris the hero ? Yes, Achilles. Pencil that in. P in pantry A Achilles. Look at the hint ; Bought by love in Paris ? by and buy. Something to do with France Let’s see, after the M … in four letters, auger… It must be omen. That would make it P A .. MO.. Paramour ?
Fits in and it’s a witticism. With the question mark at the end.
The train pulls in at Poughkeepsie and Martin gets off half awake and half briefcase open and half newspaper folded. Philip hates this infernal awkwardness. How can the important man, his son, make such graceless exits? Two brief President of France bestowing medals pecks on the cheek says we’re a weird family but we ‘re a family. All the same. “Let’s go,” Philip says, “It’s getting late. Almost nine. I suppose you could not get away …”
“Until now,” Martin takes up, moving into the car. “Will pick up on things tomorrow. Should be interesting. And of course, I’m reachable via this little darling.”
He opens his jacket to show a Blackberry with dreams of The Meeting tucked into his inside pocket. Philip starts the car and decides The Blackberry is like a police badge, emblematic, frightening and, in the last analysis, hateful and his son should never be flashing that doodad in his face !
“Latest gadget of the masters of the universe? I wish you would turn that thing off.”
“I can’t. There’s too much at stake. Remember, I left that meeting …”
“I said turn that thing off! The only evening I can see you alone and you spoil it with your damn obsession about maintaining contact at the office. I am too overworked and too tired to argue. Turn it off!”
Martin, too overworked and too tired to argue, silences the Blackberry.
The Volvo slips out onto the road. The frosts of November grow bolder on the country lanes as Philip, driving like a ploughman, his bleak square face and prominent eyes shaded by thick eyeglasses, enacts a plan to annihilate Surprise on the Road. He drives in silence, his unsaid “trust me,” not a reassurance but an order. The Volvo enters a dirt road leading to a restaurant once a farmhouse. Philip negotiates a parking space, turns off the engine and draws the handbrake as if it were the last thing he had to do on Earth.
“I have already taken the trouble of making reservations.”
The fare is fussy and pretentious, the conversation, banal. But Philip’s presence creates a stir. GreasySlimeySmarmy in penguin drag, flashing dentally perfect smiles, cancan out of the kitchen. Cantatas of “You’re looking great, just great” and “Awesome” and -oops the blooper!- “And so this is the young Mr. Sturges. Looks a lot like the gentleman who came last year.” Philip silences that one in a black glance. GreasySlimeySmarmy shuffle away. Philip inquires after Martin’s dating habits and learns that nothing serious… Philip at his finger wagging best, “A good strong marriage is irreplaceable”. So is a good strong board meeting. Was he here to get a DonnaReed rundown on the irreplaceable marriage kit that comes complete with shoe polish? Will Pop morph into the Wizard behind the curtain and voilà Dorothy in the silver shoes appears in this Eurostyle eating joint complete with real oak wainscoting to add the hunting lodge touch. A good strong marriage like his own, no problem if a guy chances on a doormat-doormate cringer, like Holly. Fat chance! Coffee and brandy are on the house.
End of uneventful dinner unless it was to show the Power of Pa over GreasySlimeySmarmy in Papa’s Chez Pierre in Podunk. Nah, too obvious. Meeting must be closing and a thousand desperate voices scream on the silenced Blackberry. Did he even have a job now? An awful choking call for revenge gives way to a gently bracing wave of … He didn’t know what.. Try sentimentality, or, family feeling? The old man was, well you know, getting older.
“Father, you have never given me in any details about the Steingolds.”
“You believe I asked you up here to speak about that horrible man ,my father! We changed our name ten years after your grandfather stepped off the boat in … Well, no matter …”
“They stepped off the boat at Ellis Island like so many others. What’s there to be ashamed of? You are a Russian Polish Jew. That is not good. That is not bad. That just is.”
“Stop it! I don’t want that mentioned! Ever! Do you think I brought you out here to talk about my father who could not read a book even if he had wanted to and who spent his entire life selling plumbing equipment in the roughest neighbourhoods in Queens! It’s getting beastly hot here, let’s move to the car.”
Novembers in Poughkeepsie lack the elegance of the bracing urbane chilliness of Central Park. Martin finds himself ill equipped and nursing a cold. Philip with earmuffs and a scarf unwinds the cashmere from his neck .
“I’m alright. You don’t have to.”
“I said take this! What an idea coming to this place dressed as if it were the month of July! Let’s move out to the car. I have something to show you.”
Moving out to the car does not mean leaving for the station. They are parked at a distance from the restaurant and near a small wood once belonging to the farm. The trees have been pruned and the little paths wend about grassy knolls. Philip leads them to a pond hidden behind a curtain of maples beneath a moon acting like an opal, beaming on a small stone bench where they sit. Martin makes a move to speak but Philip, suddenly the magician of the moon beams, crosses his lips with a finger. A young woman appears somewhere between the misty pond and the curtain of trees. She has the face of an angel and the whitest skin ever seen. The young woman who is dressed in a light shirtwaist dress with short sleeves, forties style, speaks, “Ah here you are mon ami ! Faithful on this night of the year .
“Faithful as always. I long for the time I can join you.”
“As always. Do you have a thought for me?”
“Yes of course.”
The young woman waves through the mists.
“I shall take it with me…”
Philip says. “ Like the one you took with you on that night. The night I said I loved you.”
“Yes.” She replies. “One day things will be as they should. Until next year Au revoir.”
She steps from the clearing and disappears over the pond.
Fierce the cold ,fierce the Martin looks, fierce the Philip silence as they return to the car. “I want no word from you until we get to the station,” he says The President for life will answer questions in the station house drawing room. The Volvo pumpkin will make the 1:36 to Grand Central.
Change in press conference location. Show and tell will take place in the Volvo pumpkin. Dim car light and heat on. What have you seen, Sir Martin, my son? And make it snappy. Snappily doth Sir Martin answer. And now, ladies and gentlemen, Philip deigns to take the floor.
“Now I know I am not going mad! Thank you!”
“You owe me an explanation,” Martin’s voice rises a pitch.
“I don’t owe you anything. And I have just given you an explanation.”
What the hell is going on! What cheap Ed Wood trick is he playing on me? And on Mother? I’m on the point of throttling the old Steingold bastard. It’s come to that!
“Listen here. I find it hard no, impossible, to believe that you pulled me away from the most important meeting of my career on the coldest night of the year for THIS! You can very well drop me off here and drop me out of your life. Or you can tell your trained dog where the smell of meat is coming from! Remember the Holly – and-me-and-Martin-makes-three- talk back in the restaurant and now… now your two timing with a member of the Ethereal profession. Who is, by the way, that supreme being who fucking so looks like me? And the love poetry. Have you EVER written anything for Mother? Who bends when you crack the whip. She may but I don’t. I am not asking for an explanation, I am DEMANDING it!”
“I took your uncle, my brother Joel last year. In fact, both of you look just like our mother, your grandmother Frieda.” Philip’s voice is soft, his eyes are cast down, Martin has never seen him so tame. Is it from shame? “I’m growing older and felt the need to see if I were sane. Who is more biologically like you than your brother or your son? And at one time, Joel and I were close until he became a Republican. Well, never mind. The only difference is that he saw nothing. NOT ONE THING! And you did. That proves to me that my mind is in place.
“The lady you saw tonight died three years before I met your mother. She committed suicide on this very day. She lay down by the pond – there was no restaurant at that time, only wilderness – she let the cold of November carry her off. Death by freezing. It was horrible. As soon as I heard that, I scraped together all my savings, borrowed money and bought that tract of land surrounding the restaurant. Of course, now, they, the restaurant people, want to build an enlargement or a resort hotel or whatever. That’s why I get the royal treatment when I appear for my yearly visits. But I’m not selling as long as I live. Now you know that I am the owner of land and it will go to you when I am gone. You know that I want to be cremated. I want my ashes scattered over that pond when I go. Paradoxically, I don’t believe in a life after death, only embodiment of strong desires – that haunt us – let us call them ghosts for lack of a better word – that we can or cannot share with others. What happened tonight was that we shared one of those desires, in one of its forms.”
Philip looks at his watch. “Now, if you don’t have your ticket, I think it is time to buy one. The ticket windows are closed. You’ll have to fiddle with those damn machines.”
The empty railroad station lights the way to dusty life. That would be all he could get from Philip and the rest was just his unquiet curiosity and what did it matter in the long run?
Philip waits alone a minute or two then returns the car to darkness as he gathers his son’s briefcase and newspaper and steps out into the icy air. He enters the station hall just as one of “those damn machines” is delivering a ticket to his son. Silence and stinging looks. Two warring generals studying topographical maps of Mars. Then Philip in a sudden unexpected gesture waves the white flag of The Times,
“I see you have almost finished the puzzle. Let’s sit down here. We still have seven minutes until your train.”
“Ah! An interesting one here”, Philip folds the paper the way old men do in buses and trains. “Seven letters. Smiles of small talk or love sorrows? And how in Heaven’s name am I to see what you have already filled in! How many times have I told you to use a number 2 pencil. The good number 2 blackens in properly and erases cleanly. You persist in using absolute garbage and the result is a smudge of grey lines on white paper!
Copyright © Diana Pollin