Grey Lines on White Paper
by Diana Pollin
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 with lemon-drop lights jaundicing everything.
Martin Sturges throws his briefcase and newspaper onto an aisle seat and slips out of his coat. The conductor’s “All aboard, folks” loud and tremulous over the banshee PA system. The window of the window seat sends his The Scream face back at him and the yellow lights squeeze the acid out of his eyes.
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 retrieved with a snappy click-clack from the bowels of a Coach bag cannot stop the words from behaving like a hive of bees before his tired, dripping eyes, which he rubs, looking over his shoulder half-expecting to find Philip standing there already with the disapproving word attached to the gesture. “You’ll displace your retina! Don’t you know!”
“Oh but Pa, it feels so good.” 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, to use the current unctuous vernacular. Besides, Martin present at this yearly nocturnal outing 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 is nauseatingly cocky, 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 ploughing a field, his bleak square face and thick eyes shaded by thick eyeglasses as serious as the Swedish car responding to his block-solid manoeuvres, enacts his plan to annihilate Surprise on the Road. He drives in silence, his unsaid “trust me,” not a reassurance but an order.
The Volvo takes possession of a dirt road leading to a restaurant once a farmhouse. Philip negotiates a parking space, turns off the engine and draws the handbrake with the vehemence of a serf paying his tithe. He turns to his passenger and says, “I have already taken the trouble of making reservations.”
The dinner is fine; the conversation, banal. But Philip’s presence creates a stir. GreasySlimeySmarmy in penguin drag, flashing dentally perfect smiles, leaves the kitchen and the office. 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 shuffles 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 that why Martin was called down to the Principal’s office when his marble was in hitting distance of the Big One? Dah Dum folks... An unseen curtain opens and behold a princess in this Americano-European 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. Fat chance! Coffee and brandy are on the house.
End of uneventful dinner unless it was to show the Power of Pa over GSS in Papa’s Podunk chez Pierre. 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 tearing 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 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 most uneducated neighbourhoods in Queens! It’s getting beastly hot here, let’s move to the car.”
Novembers in Poughkeepsie lack the refinement of the chilly end-of-fall Central Park variety. Martin finds himself ill-equipped, and fatigue bears down like a vulture. 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 an opalescent moon 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. Aha Pa... Is She your perfect bride for me?
“Shut up, my son the meeting meathead goon, and listen. For once in your life, you might learn something.”
The young woman, 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 the little poem for me?”
“Yes of course.”
The young woman puts it in her pocket. “I shall take it with me...”
Philip says, “ Like the one you took with you on that night.”
“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 and its veiling mists.
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.” The President will answer questions in the station house drawing room. The Volvo pumpkin will make the 1:36.
Change in press conference scenery. Show and tell will take place in the Volvo pumpkin. Dim car light and heat on. What have you seen, Sir Martin, my son? What have you seen my darling dear boy? And make it snappy. Snappily doth Sir Martin answer. And now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment we all have been waiting for...
“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.”
Shake Rattle and Roil! What the hell is going on! What cheap Ed Wood trick is he playing on me? On Mother? Must yell murder most foul or will throttle the owlfaced snake! It’s come to that point.
“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 your two-timing with a member of the Ethereal profession. Who is, by the way, that supreme being who 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. “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 the 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 darn 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 darn 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 © 2009 by Diana Pollin