The Beauty of Another Country

yo30097-breaktimehudsonriver1973 Taking a break Along the Hudson River, NYC by Wil Blanche

(Photo by Wil Blanche, Break Time Hudson River, 1973)

The river flowed as if it had a plan, deliberate, strong-willed, slathering the banks and concrete retaining walls with dirt and detritus. Heat-powered scents were redolent of city life combined with ground beneath concrete and brick. Cass had biked there. She wished for a strong breeze. But it was a miracle to be resting, sunshine so easy on sore arms and legs. Honeyed light soothed her. She let go of a twig she had picked up and watched it bounce away on the Hudson.

Cass worked hard at the cabinetry shop her dad owned. The business was even better than last year. She knew how to do things that men older than she did not. There were four other women there, two in the office, two laborers. He liked to think himself progressive, but they were paid less than others. Only Cass made what the men did, with top overtime allowed. That was due to thousands of hours she had clocked since age twelve when she was a “go-fer”. Unpaid labor until fifteen.

Lately she had thought about talking to him about moving on. Making it on her own. She watched seagulls wheel and dive. There was a loud girl chatting up one of the road crew; their talk leaped over the sound of barges. Cass shut her eyes tighter. She wanted to forget all the people who acted so special because they were desperate; the shop and its demands; the endless traffic din. It was the countryside she tried to conjure.

She had last been there three years ago. Hills were burnished with the glow of autumn. Emerald grasses, cows lolling and red weathered barns all seemed to her a part of a living art museum. Trees like bouquets of copper and jade. As a kid she had studied such scenes in a heavy library book of photographs and felt a stirring but to visit it was always like seeing a foreign land. There was a family reunion every five years at Great-aunt Dinah’s farm until she passed. She and her dad and brother had gone to her funeral, something her dad hadn’t wanted to do; it was an obligation. Cass didn’t recall the viewing (other than her hair, white as snow drifts against deep-lined skin) or the funeral (except for a cousin swearing he’d never put on a suit again no matter who died, the idiot).

Later, she’d sat on Dinah’s creaky back steps and drank in the openness of vast acreage. It was like drinking fresh water when she was parched inside and out. She had been needing something, She hadn’t fully realized it until then.

In the city there were weeds that struggled through sidewalk cracks and little parks bounded by streets crammed with people and vehicles. It gave her a headache. Their shop had a break area, a patch of dirt with a wobbly, splintered picnic table that Cass finally fixed up with a blue-potted ivy and a yellow checkered plastic tablecloth. No one said anything except for the office girls who liked looking at it from the second floor window. Her dad saw the modest improvement; he said so when she asked. But the workers often took a smoke and coffee break at the side door, ate lunch down the street.

Great-aunt Dinah had left her farmhouse to her son, Howard. He’d leased it and one hundred-fifty acres, then week-ended in a house he’d built on a pretty spot a few years previous. It was really a cabin, as though he’d dreamed of remote forest living. The majority of land was sold off. Howard was an ancient history professor. He liked to go to read and write, take long walks, he’d told them during a recent visit. He’d retire there soon.

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                    (Photo courtesy of Discover New England)

Howard had some business in the city, so called to see if they wanted dinner at the Zenith; he’d pick up the tab. Cass enjoyed his conversation as well as the food. Her dad, less so. They only saw each other two, three times a year, Howard’s idea.

He said, “You two should come out for a long week-end. There are beds in two rooms upstairs. The master is downstairs. It’s a nice refuge. People enjoy the peacefulness.” He cocked his head, raised his grey eyebrows. “Time is fleeing; family should gather.”

Cass recalled how comfortable it was and the gentle land. She had looked at her dad with anticipation but he shrugged and lit another cigarette off the butt poking from his lips.

“Not likely, Howie. Got a business to run and Cass is my right hand. Started to make great money again. Can’t risk taking time away. Thanks just the same.”

Howard wiped his lips neatly with the white cloth napkin, studying her. “Well, Cass, you’re twenty-one so decide for yourself. Savor some time away. Bring a friend, too!”

Her dad had grunted as though a) Howard had no business extending such a grand offer to his kid; b) Howard was too high and mighty–like he didn’t work for a living, too; and c) Cass wouldn’t consider a three-hour train ride for a week-end marred by “eau de manure”.

“I might do that,” she had said. But she had one week’s vacation, saved for Atlantic City with her best friend. Still, which sounded better?

The girl by river’s edge shrieked with laughter. Cass’ eyes flew open. She watched a man trying to grab her so he got smacked. They roared as if this was hilarious.

The strong waters churned but Cass imagined reclining on a pontoon, holding an iced drink. Coming to join her might be someone tall like her, with wiry brown beard and longish hair, a guy who appreciated women who knew machinery and wood and had a mastery of both. Who had some savings and a dream. They would sit and watch the world drift by. He’d also like a horizon far enough away that you had to travel a long time to feel any closer to it.

Cass’s shoulders slumped. She needed more beauty in her life, hard-core awesomeness, the kind that multiplied with each season and is valued for all time. Trees, bugs and creatures, dark rich earth, flowers among vegetables. The weather seen coming from the distance. The strange music of birds in the morning. She wanted kindness, enough so her hard work and restless nights finished well with interesting talk and a kiss that meant something. Her long, muscled arms stretched above her, soaking up sunshine.

Then she said aloud, “Dang, I want my own carpentry shop. Sooner rather than later.”

Wanted to leave this city, sit on grass by Howard’s cabin and learn about the things he knew. Figure out how she could start her own true life. She felt a frisson of energy slide upwards. That’s what she was going to do. It was amazing how easy it was to decide once she was ready.

As she rode her bike back to the shop, she looked long at the girl with pastel bell bottoms and bare shoulders, the bottle blond hair. It was not her destiny to be that way but she raised a hand  in greeting. The girl stared back and Cass wanted to call out, Don’t take what you can get, find what you want, but peddled on.

Hagg Lake outing 023

Bus Stop

They used to meet here, back when things were easy. They dashed through the winter rains and caught a bus to Markham and 8th, then found their booth in a café. Leon liked the fish and salad combo; Celia dug into the Shepherd’s pie as though it was something special. Every Thursday it was lunch here and then back to their respective jobs. He was a doctor’s office assistant, taking classes at university and hoping against hope for med school. Celia danced then, hours and hours of it. Strong back and legs and a gift for lithe improvisation landed her a scholarship, then a place in the dance company. Such big talk they shared, plans growing as they ate and gabbed. Each savory lunch underscored their vitality, the possibilities.

It was odd, but suddenly things stopped for them, as though there was finally a period pressed hard into the page at the end of a series of stories. She didn’t see it coming. Nothing was resolved for Celia but Leon shrugged off her calls, his voice embarrassed and soft. They parted ways the summer of nineteen eighty-two. He married a journalist within the year and he invited Celia. She didn’t attend. She heard they ended up in New Zealand a few years later. He may have become a doctor, but she suspected he let his wife work harder. He’d liked to talk more than work (he was so good at it) and had confessed he’d always wanted to loaf on a beach.

Celia mourned despite her best intentions. Her father told her she had better do something besides weep about the rooms. Her mother said nothing, just looked at her from hooded eyes and shook her head.

On a night when the moon was so clear she could imagine living there, Celia had a vision. It left her unmoored, then sent her to back to church, the one by the bus stop, the same one where Celia and Leon had sometimes waited on shaded steps. From that point on it was as though things were meant to be. She had found a way back to a useful life and it was part solitude and part service. It was the service part that filled her up and made her strong. The solitude pared her down but it also brought things into sharper focus, sorted what mattered and what did not. She got up each day with a vivid need to give back what she found by accident the night the moon dipped low.

Still, when she and the Sisters visit this part of the city looking for homeless who needed care, Celia wondered sometimes if it was the wrong turn in the road, the moon watching, her visionary moment gone mad, the church that finally brought her to her senses and the work that now claimed her. She felt Leon’s presence like a happy breeze in the street. Only once did she feel a bit more, startled when she thought she saw his face at the bus window. It haunted her all day and into the evening as she tried to pray. It was as she lay half-sleeping that she mused it could have been his son and this cheered her. Yet, likely not. Leon had left for New Zealand thirty years ago. She had stayed and made a durable life out of other wonders. The past was something that lingered only if you let it. It was a small revelation and long in coming. The bus stop was just a bus stop; people got on, people got off. Celia sighed, turned over. Her snoring was musical, sweet as birdsong; she shifted, moved on.