City Man, Mountain Man
by Bob Brill
part 1 of 2
I stumbled out of bed, still half asleep, and headed for the bathroom, painfully whacking the back of my hand on the bathroom doorknob. I tried to look at my face in the mirror. My eyes kept drifting shut. When I got my eyes to stay open, something seemed wrong with my vision.
I saw my face and the hard light reflected off the bathroom tiles behind me, but also another image shining through that, like a photographic double exposure. It seemed to be a range of mountains far off in the distance. In the foreground rocky desert, peppered with shrubs, stretching away toward mountains and sky. And in the middle my exhausted, hollow-cheeked face amid the bathroom tiles, the open door behind me.
I closed my eyes. Dancing lights on the inner eye. When I opened my eyes and looked again at the mirror, there were no more mountains, but I knew I was too hung over to drive the cab. I called the dispatcher, told him I was too sick to work, then wandered into the kitchen to scrounge some food.
I opened the fridge and through the nearly empty shelves I saw mountains, row upon row of them, right through the mustard, the mayo, the peanut butter, the tail end of a loaf of bread, a few eggs in a bowl, two six-packs of beer. Mountains, beautiful mountains, receding far beyond the confines of the fridge. My eyes went traveling out to meet them.
The phone rang. My eyes popped back to the kitchen. The mountains were gone. I opened a beer and went to answer the phone.
“Hey Tom, you okay?” It was my girlfriend, Cheryl. “I rang your cab. No answer.”
“It’s nothing, just a hangover.”
“Want me to come over tonight? I’ll fix you a meal.”
“Lemme think about it.” I took a sip of beer. Mountains crowded Cheryl out of my thoughts. Finally I said, “I feel really crappy.”
“I know how to make you feel better.”
“I’ll call you later. If I feel any better you can come over.”
“Sure, whatever you want, Tom.”
I knew I had hurt her feelings, but I was always doing that and I didn’t care.
“Later.” I hung up.
Later I did feel better, but I didn’t call her. I didn’t feel like seeing her. Or anyone else.
Next day I was back in my cab. About noon I had one of those really irritating fares. We were stuck in traffic. Nothing was moving and this old dame was saying, “Can’t you do anything? I’ve got to be uptown by one o’clock.”
“Lady, this cab has no wings. We’re stuck here till the traffic moves.” All the people leaning on their horns were driving me nuts. At last we started to move, but it was stop and go and I had to be really careful not to get into a fender bender. Meanwhile this bitch was yelling at me to pass the cab in front, which was impossible, and that was when the mountains appeared.
They were a lot closer than before. They were taller than any of the buildings through which I could see them. I felt that if there were no traffic I could be driving in the mountains in another ten minutes.
I slammed on my brakes, just missing a bike messenger who was weaving through the traffic. I knew in that moment that I couldn’t keep driving. The view was too confusing. Angry drivers jostling for advantage, trying to cut each other off, pedestrians dashing in front of cars to cross the street, all this superimposed over mountains patched with rocky outcrops amid towering pines, and a long thin waterfall glinting in the sunlight. I turned off the meter. I turned off the engine.
“Lady, I’m feeling sick. I can’t see straight. You don’t have to pay, but you’ll have to get out.”
“I’m not getting out till you take me to my destination.”
“Then you’ll be here all day.” I got out of the cab and started walking toward the mountains. Immediately I felt better. I knew there’d be hell to pay for abandoning the cab, and of course, I made the traffic situation even worse for everybody else, but I didn’t care. I was sure the old bag would complain to the company and no doubt I’d be fired. What a relief!
My cell phone rang. I knew it would be Cheryl and sure enough there she was wondering why I hadn’t called last night. “You had company, didn’t you?”
“Nah, not me.”
“Then what were you doing?”
“Eating stale peanut butter sandwiches and drinking beer.” I knew what was coming next and I didn’t want to hear it, so I said, “You won’t believe what just happened. Crazy traffic, nasty fare, honking horns, big mountains. I ditched the cab and I’m walking up Broadway toward these beautiful mountains that I can see through everything, all the buildings, the people, everything. It’s wild.”
“What are you saying? I don’t get it.”
“I don’t get it myself, but I feel great. If I can reach those mountains that would be so cool.”
“Tom, you’re scaring me. I want to see you. I need to know what’s going on with you.”
“I can’t explain it. It’s just now happening. So I gotta go and let it happen. Maybe later I can figure it out and maybe not. I’ll let you know.” I hung up and kept walking.
After about an hour I noticed that the buildings, the cars, the people were beginning to fade. I came to a trail that led up into the foothills of a great mountain range. As I climbed this trail the city melted away altogether. There was no sense of illusion or double exposure here. I was on solid ground, climbing higher and higher.
I came to a promontory where I could look back over the way I’d come and see far down into the plains. There was no sign of the city. It was desert, scrubland and cactus as far as the eye could see. The air was clear to the sight and refreshing to the lungs. I felt better than I had for as long as I could remember. A great eagle was circling in the distance, riding the thermals. I pushed on.
After a few more hours of hiking I began to tire and grow hungry. I was coming down into a valley and there around a bend in the trail I entered a small village. A man was sitting on a barrel in front of a small house. He hailed me. “Hi there, Tom, where have you been?”
“I’ve come from the city.”
“We’ve been looking for you for a week now, Tom. Ellen’s worried about you.”
I’d never seen this man before and yet I knew his name. It was Jason Peabody. Then I realized that I did know him. Or did I? It was a bit like the double exposure effect, but not in a visual way. More like a double layer of what I understood to be real. The whole aspect of the place was familiar. Yet I also knew, or thought I knew, that I’d never been here before.
“So tell me, Jason, how long have I known you?”
“Must be about seven years, Tom. Ever since you and Ellen moved here.”
“Seven years. Amazing.” I had a clear picture in my mind of this woman named Ellen. I had a sudden longing to see her. “Walk me home, Jason. We can talk on the way.” I wasn’t sure I could find my house without help.
Jason got to his feet and came alongside me. “You seem strangely distracted, Tom. You okay?” We began to walk.
“Actually, I feel a little disoriented. Have you ever lived somewhere for seven years and one day you look at it like you’re seeing it for the first time?”
“T. S. Eliot.”
I didn’t know what he meant so I didn’t say anything.
“You know, the poem where Eliot says: And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
“Yeah, that’s very close to what I’m feeling. Except...”
“I don’t know. This is not the place I started from. I don’t know where I started. I don’t know where I’m going. It’s so confusing.”
We turned down a little side road which ended in a ramshackle dwelling that looked patched together, as though it had started small and had rooms added as afterthoughts. A geodesic dome stuck out from the roof. A Ford pickup truck was parked outside. I knew right away that was my house and my truck and I had built all those crazy additions with my own hands. Me and who else? Me and Ellen, that’s who.
Ellen came out drying her hands on a dish towel. She looked radiantly happy to see me. “Come on in, Tom. You’ll be wanting to look around and remember where you live.”
“How did you know what I was thinking?”
She laughed. “I know you so well, my love. I know your every thought before you know it yourself.” I came to her then and took her in my arms. The wave of emotion that swept over me was so powerful that tears came into my eyes.
After a few days I knew I was home, the memory of my life with Ellen fully restored. I remembered how we had met at a carpentry workshop in Los Angeles. We had collaborated on the design and construction of a desk with a built-in bookcase. By the time it was finished we were lovers and when the question came up who would get to keep it, we decided to move in together and share it.
For seven years we had been living in the Rockies in the hamlet of Pinecone Hollow, slowly expanding our little home in the woods. Somewhere along the way we got married. I had a job teaching carpentry at a vocational high school about fifteen miles away. Ellen was writing software for a firm on the west coast.
It amazed me that I had only missed a week of work. After leading a dissolute life in New York, driving a cab, neglecting my health, sparring with my neurotic girlfriend, Cheryl, a life that seemed to have dragged on for years, I came back here and only missed a week of work. It didn’t make sense and I couldn’t imagine how I got to New York in the first place or why.
I told Ellen about my life in New York and how the sight of mountains brought me home again, but as the days passed that part of my life faded from my thoughts. I was back where I belonged and I stopped wondering about it.
One night a few months later we were talking about art museums and she said something like, “Did you ever go to the Metropolitan when you were in New York?”
“I’ve never been to New York,” I said.
“Oh, Tom. I don’t know what I’m going to do about you.” I could see she was on the verge of tears. “Don’t you remember telling me that you lived in New York and drove a cab?”
“No, my love, I have no such memory. Did I really tell you that?”
Ellen looked at me for a long moment, then she said quietly, “Yes, Tom, you told me that and a lot more too. You had a girlfriend named Cheryl. You drank a lot of beer. Smoked pot too. You lay around a lot feeling depressed, not knowing why. Ring any bells?”
She gave me a penetrating look and spoke in a voice that held an unaccustomed quavering note. “You forgot about us, Tom.”
“I don’t understand. I’ve been here all along.”
She sighed. “Something has to be done about this. I want you to get a checkup. Not from a regular doctor. I mean a psychiatrist. We’ll go down to Denver and find somebody really good to examine you.”
That came as a great shock to me. “What are you talking about, Ellen? I don’t see that there’s any problem.”
“That is the problem,” she said.
One day we went hiking in the high mountains. This was one of our great shared pleasures. It was what brought us out of LA and into the Rockies. We had been climbing all morning and were on the lookout for a good spot to have lunch.
On a narrow trail between high rock walls topped by tall pines we came around a bend to a panoramic view of mountains and sky. High overhead two eagles were circling on a rising thermal. We looked at each other and without a word we sat on a fallen log and opened up our lunch.
I had a sense in that moment of perfection, of total satisfaction. The right place at the right time with the right person. In the midst of that I had twinge of a feeling I had no name for, like a cloud that momentarily passes before the sun. A feeling that I could lose it all in a heartbeat, that for reasons I couldn’t understand I didn’t deserve this and so it would be taken away. This feeling passed and the wonder of this peak moment returned, but not before Ellen detected the change in my face.
“What is it, my love?”
“Just a stray thought.”
“Want to share it?”
How I loved her in that moment. She who could follow the twists and turns of my thought, who understood me deeper than I did myself, who was the angel that looked over me and smoothed my path. There was nothing I could or would withhold from her. I told her of the feeling that had briefly come over me.
“Unworthy of happiness? How unlike you, Tom, that is, the Tom I know and love. I think it must be a bit of print-through from your other life.”
“You know, New York.”
“Oh, New York again. I know nothing about that, but you could be right. Anyway, the feeling has passed and nothing could be more perfect than this moment and our whole life together. I feel truly blessed.”
“Oh yes, me too.” We held hands as together we watched the soaring of the eagles overhead.
Copyright © 2009 by Bob Brill