The Power of “Not”
by Morris Marshall
It was almost eight in the evening when I pulled my car into the narrow bush-draped driveway and killed the engine. The setting June sun winked through the trees, casting long shadows on the ground. I scanned the top of the hill for my dad’s old cottage, but couldn’t see it. Everything else seemed the same.
I opened my car door, stepped into the long grass and took a deep breath. What a difference from Toronto. I could actually breathe without choking on smog. The sound of the door shutting reverberated like a rifle shot through the fresh Muskoka country air.
Chipmunks skittered into the bushes as I fought my way through the grass toward our neighbor’s old cottage. A white birch tree had crushed the roof and the wooden door was open slightly. “Hello?” I called out. “Anybody here?”
A musty smell greeted me as I walked inside. The wooden floorboards had warped and moss spotted the walls. Yellowed photos of Barry Beeson from his university days in the 1940’s hung on the walls. In one of them, he stood beside a canoe, hoisting a large gold trophy.
“There hasn’t been anybody there for twenty years,” a familiar voice said.
I turned around. “Dean! It’s great to see you!”
“You, too, Paul. I was down at the dock when I heard your car pull in. You’re still wearing your shirt and tie.”
“I came up right after work. Friday rush hour traffic is crazy.”
“It must be a shock seeing Barry’s cottage that way,” Dean said.
“What happened to him?” I asked. “He used to be here every weekend, canoeing on the lake.”
“He died of a heart attack while water skiing.”
Barry’s son, Tom, was also a good friend and as athletic as his dad. When I was twelve and a weak swimmer, he carried me across the lake on his back.
“Tom’s married now,” Dean said, anticipating my next question. “He lives in St. Catharine’s, but never comes up anymore. I tried to get him to sell me his land but he wasn’t interested.”
Dean looked almost the same as when we were kids: dark curly hair and eyes, stocky build, easygoing smile. He’d always been concerned about his appearance, but now his hair was messy, his eyes red and puffy and a baggy grey sweatshirt spilled over the top of his blue jeans. A gold chain with a turquoise infinity sign hung around his neck.
When we were teenagers, Dean was the best water-skier on Doe Lake. He made it look so easy. I tried waterskiing several times, but never managed to keep my legs straight enough to stand up once the boat began moving.
“It was a shock when I saw your friend request on Facebook,” I said. “How long has it been?”
“Twenty-five years,” Dean said. “A math professor, eh? You were always good at academics.”
I smiled. “That’s kind of you, but I teach pretty basic stuff. How are things with you?”
Dean shrugged. “I can’t complain.”
We began walking up the hill, following the outline of the path that had overgrown with weeds and grass. “What happened to my dad’s cottage?” I asked.
“Some guy from Toronto tore it down. He planned to build something but never did.”
I stared at the empty lot. “So many memories here. When I was eleven, I saw Prince Charles and Diana get married on the old black-and-white TV my dad hooked up. I caught my first bass in this lake.”
Dean’s cottage had neighboured ours and looked the same as in the early eighties. It was a two-story place with four bedrooms, central air conditioning, running water and an indoor washroom. Waves lapped against a small fishing boat tied to the dock, a 20-horsepower motor attached to its rear. When we were kids, Dean’s dad had nailed a wooden carving of a big-nosed old woman to an oak tree by the driveway. A sign in her hand proclaimed: “The Gaddettes.”
“So, how are your parents?” Dean asked.
“They’re both dead,” I replied. “Dad died in ’96 of heart failure and Mom, seven years later in a nursing home. At least she lived long enough to see me become a professor and meet my wife, Andrea.”
“My mom’s still alive. She’s almost eighty,” Dean said, firing up the barbecue. Smoke drifted into the air as he threw two strip loins on the grill. He reached into a cooler, pulled out a frosted beer and passed it to me. I’d been craving one ever since leaving Toronto.
“What line of work are you in?” I asked, swatting a buzzing mosquito away from my face.
“I’m a chef for a gourmet restaurant in Brampton. It’s a good gig. I graduated with a certificate from City College.”
Dean turned the steaks over and brushed them with barbecue sauce. When they were done, he put them on a tray, slid open the screen door and went inside. I followed him to the dining room table and sat down.
“Nothing much has changed up here, has it, Paul?”
I looked at my friend. “I don’t think you called me all this way just to reminisce about our childhood. Is everything okay?”
Dean picked up his glass of beer and took a drink. He set it down on the table, removed his infinity necklace and passed it to me. “Have you ever seen the movie Pay it Forward?”
“The one with the kid from Sixth Sense?”
“Sure,” I said. “I liked the idea of someone passing on a good deed to a complete stranger.”
Dean nodded. “A month ago, I was contacted by a guy we went to high school with back in the eighties. Do you remember Rick Macy?”
“Rick was a lumbering moose of a guy and a real jerk back then. He’d walk down the hall after school and push me out of the way. One evening, after a volleyball game, he locked me in my locker when no one else was around. I didn’t get out until the next morning when a janitor found me.”
“Nice,” I said, taking a swig of beer. “What does this have to do with the necklace?”
“Rick gave it to me. He felt bad about everything he’d done,” Dean said. “He asked my forgiveness and said he was looking for reconciliation.”
I stared at Dean blankly.
He touched the infinity charm. “Paul, this necklace has... a power. I’ve been reading a lot of psychology lately. Did you know that it’s often a lot easier to do something than not to do it?”
“To do what?” I asked.
“When I tell you not to think about flying pink elephants, what’s the first thing you think about?”
“Flying pink elephants.”
“Exactly. It’s almost impossible not to think about them. Let’s take another example. Many people are addicted to alcohol. Oh, sure, they say they can quit anytime, but can they?”
I looked at the beer in my hand and quickly put it down on the table. “I don’t have a drinking problem.”
“Don’t get defensive, Paul. I was just speaking in generalities. How many times have we all wished there were things in our lives we had the power to stop? Smoking, drinking, swearing, lying...”
This could be interesting, I thought. I have a plethora of nasty habits and idiosyncrasies. As I cradled the necklace in my hands, light from the chandelier glinted off the gold. The turquoise infinity sign resembled a pair of lips that almost seemed to move, saying: “Take me and see what I can do for you.”
Dean leaned forward. “Rick told me that wearing the infinity necklace gives you the ability not to do something. Think of any three things you want to stop doing: habits, obsessions, whatever. The only conditions are that it has to be an internal behavior, and you only get to keep the necklace for a month.
“After that, you have to pass it on to someone else, someone you wronged in the past or who wronged you. There has to be a sincere attempt at reconciliation. Without this last step, whatever you stopped doing will reappear, and the power will be broken for all eternity.”
The ticking of the cuckoo clock across the room had suddenly become louder. I turned the turquoise infinity charm over in my hand and stared across Doe Lake at the red granite rocks and pine trees on the far shore. The Esso sign was still visible where Whittaker’s Variety and Gas had been years ago.
As a kid, while waiting for my dad to come in from fishing with his drinking buddies, I’d get out of bed, part the curtains and stare at the light emanating from Whittaker’s across the lake, the only light visible on the shoreline at night.
“Look, Mom, it’s a lighthouse,” I’d said as a six-year-old, pointing out the bedroom window.
“Daddy needs that light to guide him home,” she’d always respond, before tucking me back in bed. Not long after, he’d stagger into the house, reeking of alcohol. I’d wake up when he knocked things over and he and Mom fought. If only he’d had a necklace like this, I thought, then maybe he could have stopped drinking.
“So you’re passing it on to me?” I asked. “I’m pretty happy with my life, you know.”
“We can all make improvements,” Dean said. “I got my necklace a month ago and I’m at the reconciliation stage. That’s really why I called you up here: to ask your forgiveness.”
“For what?” I asked. “We haven’t even seen each other for 25 years.”
“Remember how crazy you were about Debbie Smith back in grade nine?” Dean asked. “How long did you two date, anyway?”
“Two years. We had a date for the year-end dance and, out of the blue, she just canceled on me. I never found out why.”
Dean looked at the ground. “I asked her out to the dance after you and was with her when she called you to cancel. We slept together that night, Paul. I’m sorry. I just couldn’t tell you back then.”
My stomach plunged. I pushed the chair back and got up from the dining room table. “So that’s why she broke up with me. It took me months to recover.”
“Can you forgive me?” Dean asked.
That’s a big request, I thought. I’m not sure I can. At least not yet. “It was a long time ago,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Dean exhaled. “It feels good to finally get that off my chest.”
I tried to return the infinity necklace, but he put up his hand. “It’s yours now. You’ll see how well it works. There’s something else. Don’t lose it. If someone else finds it before you’ve received all your wishes, they’ll steal whatever wishes you have left.”
“I should be getting back to Toronto,” I said. “It’s a good three-hour drive.”
“Are you sure you’re okay to drive, Paul? You’ve had a few beers. You could stay here tonight if you’d like.”
I shook my head. “I’m fine. I’ve only had two beers and I’ve been eating. Thanks for dinner and the necklace.”
Copyright © 2015 by Morris Marshall