Twilight on the Finger Lakes
by Lou Antonelli
part 1 of 2
The old man had a shock of silver hair and a wide, old-fashioned mustache. He leaned over his makeshift workbench — planks across a pair of sawhorses — and planed a fresh soft pinewood board.
Roddy sat on a log. He played with a whirligig the old man had whittled for him the day before. The boy in shorts smiled as he stroked the notched stick with a Popsicle stick and the propeller spun.
The old man chuckled to himself as he held up the board to check the accuracy of his work.
“You like the gimcrack, don’t you?”
The boy looked up. “What’s a gimcrack?”
The old man laid down the board. “A gewgaw, or a thingamabob. A whatamacallit.”
The boy giggled. “You talk funny, Old Henry.”
The old man sat on the log, facing Lake Cayuga. He stroked his full white mustache.
“Us old folks talk funny because we use old words, you scamp!”
He tousled the boy’s hair. The youngster jumped up and ran over to the shore.
“Show me how many times you can skip a stone, Roddy!” the old man called out.
The boy picked up a smooth oval rock as large as a silver dollar. He skipped it across the clear blue lake. The stone sank after the eighth skip.
The old man applauded. “Well done, young master Serling! A brilliant turn!”
The boy bowed as he accepted the mock homage. When he stood up, he saw something in the distance. He ran past the old man.
A young woman was walking down the path. The boy clasped at his mother’s skirt.
“I see you two are having a grand old time.”
The old man rose slowly from the log. “Young Rodman has been keeping me company whilst I whittle a new birdhouse.”
“It’s very kind of you, Mr. Porter, to keep Rod company.”
The old man mopped his brow with a brilliant white handkerchief.
“Think nothing of it, Esther. You have no idea how nice it is to have a bright young thing like him for company.”
“Mom, Old Henry told me he was going to teach me to be a great writer, like he was.”
Esther winced at the ten-year old’s use of the past tense.
The old man smiled as he rubbed the boy’s head and began to walk up the path.
“It’s time for me to take my afternoon nap.”
“Can I come back tomorrow, Old Henry?”
The old man turned and bent down with his hands on his knees.
“Now that depends, young man, whether you’re good, and whether your mother says you can.”
He winked at Mrs. Serling, who smiled back.
“We’ll see.” She smiled.
The old man tucked his handkerchief into his back pocket and began the trudge up the hill. The young mother and her son went back to their summer cabin by a different path.
* * *
“I don’t know anyone else at the lake who likes borscht.”
Sam Serling ladled out a large helping of the bright red beet soup to the dinner guest.
“I acquired a taste for it at the turn of the century, Sam, when I lived in New York City.”
Roddy was all smiles to see his new friend at the family’s dinner table.
Porter looked across the table with mock seriousness. “Are you ready to go back to school, young man?”
Roddy shook his head vigorously as the three adults laughed.
Sam passed across a large platter of breaded pork chops.
“Stop that!” Sam waved his fork in the air. “I know exactly what you’re thinking!”
Porter feigned a look of simple-mindedness ignorance worthy of Harpo Marx. Roddy laughed.
“You’re thinking, ‘Some kind of Jew! Wolfing down pork chops for dinner!’’’
“You have found me out, Sam!” Porter smiled as he stabbed a fat chop and plopped it onto his plate. “Of course, irony was always my forte.”
Roddy looked rather puzzled. The old fellow smiled at him as he cut up his chop.
“Talk about irony, can you imagine? Old General Hindenburg dead, and that mincing Charlie Chaplin look-alike corporal taking over,” said Porter. “Deutschland’s surely fallen on hard times.”
He stroked his mustache and rolled his eyes at Roddy. “The fellow doesn’t even have a decent lip quilt!”
The boy laughed.
After dinner, the adults sat and chatted in the living room of the summer cabin. Roddy played with his Lincoln logs on the rug.
“It really is peaceful here,” said Sam as he leaned back in the red velour armchair, the smoke from his cigar rising straight up. “It’s a lot quieter here than in Binghamton.”
“That’s because you get away from the meat plant,” said Esther. “You need to take more time off.”
“It is very quiet,” said Porter. “The Finger Lakes are peaceful and beautiful. That’s why I moved here.”
He puffed a fat Havana. “I was living the high life in New York. Then one day I was curled up in a hospital bed in Bellevue, dying of cirrhosis. That’s when the high life ended.”
“There was a doctor one day — I never saw him before or since — who poured a bottle of some foul-tasting patent medicine down my gullet,” he continued. “Whatever it was he dosed me with, it worked. My doctor kept stopping by my bed to see if I was dead. After a week, he said, ‘I don’t know how, Porter, but it looks like you’ll live.’ And I did.”
The old man glanced over to the braided rug, where Roddy was assembling a cabin with the Lincoln Logs.
“I had been working myself to death, writing a story a week for both The World and McClures. I’d drink two quarts of liquor a day to keep going. I never ate, and I stayed up all night.”
He winked at the Serlings.
“When I checked out of the hospital, my doctor set me straight. He said, ‘Porter, if you go back to the way you were, you’ll be back here soon enough — and the next time, you probably won’t be so lucky. Get away from Baghdad on the Subway.’’’
“I’d heard from friends who had summer places how nice it was here in the Finger Lakes. I threw the few things I had into a valise, went over to Penn Station, and bought a one-way ticket to Binghamton. From there, I made my way to Interlaken, and bought this cabin.”
“I got a phone line installed, and gave everyone the news. They all understood — bless them.”
“Must have been a big change,” said Sam.
“Dying would have been a bigger change,” said Porter.
He looked thoughtfully out the window and through the trees. The bright moonlight wavered on the waters of the lake.
“I would have loved to have gone back to New York — but I know I would have hit the bottle again, and that would have killed me.”
He chuckled to break the mood. “Of course, with the telephone and RFD — who has to live in the city any more?”
Roddy had been playing quietly with his Lincoln Logs by himself. He spoke without looking up. “Daddy says you’re the greatest writer in the whole wide world.”
Now he looked up. “He says everyone’s read stories by Old Henry!”
The old man leaned forward and peered at the cabin the boy had assembled.
“Sam and Esther, doesn’t that look just like this place?”
The parents both agreed. The old man sat back in the chair. “I’d be afraid to look in the window. I might see three grown-ups sitting around, and a small boy on a rug inside!”
* * *
“Mom gave me a copy of Whirligigs this spring.”
The 11-year old peered into the birdhouse nailed to an arrow-straight birch by the lakeside.
“Is this the bird house you made last summer?”
Rod hopped off the stump.
“You don’t think I’m anything like Red Chief, do you?”
Porter dropped his plane. “Goodness, Roddy, one thing at a time. You make my head swim. What was it?”
“I’m not like Red Chief, am I?”
The old man thought a moment.
“Goodness, no. Red Chief was a regular Little Lord Fauntleroy compared to you. You’re a genuine hellion!”
The old man went back to his woodwork. The boy walked over with a big grin.
“You don’t fool me, Mr. Porter!”
The old man knitted his brows. His hands were shaking.
“What’s wrong, Mr. Porter?”
He put the plane down and walked over to a log, where he sat down heavily. He mopped his brown with his handkerchief.
“Nothing special, Roddy. Just getting old, I guess.”
The boy sat down next to him.
“I read all the stories in the book. Didn’t understand them all.”
The old man smiled. “I’m not sure I understood them all when I wrote them.”
The boy looked down very thoughtfully. “Do you think I can be a great writer, like you?”
The sun was just dropping behind the nearby hills. Porter rose and walked to the shore, as he gestured for the boy to follow.
“Getting kinda dark,” the old man declaimed. “You’re not afraid of the dark, are you?”
“No, sir!” the boy lied.
“You ever notice how, when it starts to get dark, you start to have trouble seeing things?”
The boy nodded uncertainly.
“Sometimes, because we can’t see clearly, we see what we want to see.” The old man tousled the boy’s dark hair. “Especially when we’re in that time of day between day and night.”
“You mean like now — at twilight?”
“Yes. Look across the lake. See how the far shore blurs in the distance? You can only make out shadows and shapes. In the twilight different people will see different things.”
The boy looked up, with a mildly puzzled expression.
“Oh, heck, I’m just confusing you. It’s really getting dark now. Let’s go back to the cabin.”
He lit an old railroad brakeman’s lamp and they made their way up the hill.
Once inside, Porter went over to a full bookcase and pulled out a square green linen book.
“I’m glad your mom gave you Whirligigs. I just thought of another book I want you to have.”
He held it out and opened it for the boy. “This was the last collection I did before I left New York. It’s called Roads of Destiny.”
He pointed to the table of contents. “I especially want you to read the first story, which is ‘Roads of Destiny’.”
The old man handed him the book.
“It has three different endings, depending on which way the main character takes at a crossroads. Here, the book’s yours.”
The boy opened the book up again, this time to the frontispiece.
“Can you sign it for me, Mr. Porter?”
The old man walked over to the rocking chair by the window and sat down. He picked up a pair of reading glasses from the windowsill.
“To my young friend, Rod Serling.
“May you become a great writer!
“William Sydney Porter — O.(ld) Henry!
“July 12, 1935.”
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Lou Antonelli