Part Two: Fall
Rick had at last noticed the wedding band, and felt a bit at his own sophomoric behavior. What was I thinking?
A painful divorce and other misadventures behind him in the recent past, he treasured this new little secret he carried with him. Ever since that day in late summer, when he’d stopped for gas at Tony’s station along the parkway, and had that burst of sunshine eye-contact with the beautiful, kind of somber young librarian, he’d felt like a changed man inside.
When he had noticed the gold band, he moderated his approach. The library had become a sort of sanctuary in itself, a promise about a new future for him. He had always loved reading, bookstores, and libraries, but now, with his busy schedule, keeping up was like physical exercise. He had now decided to read a classic novel every month for the good of his soul. He’d started with a shorter one, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and planned to tackle Moby Dick by Herman Melville and other ambitious reading projects in the months to come. Although he could never have her, he thanked the beautiful, dark-haired young librarian from his heartand hoped to meet a woman like her one day soon, and make that womanwhoever, wherever she might be--the focus and center of his life.
Ever since he’d finished his tour in the Army, soon to be a decade ago, he’d kept up with his fitness and diet disciplinebut without the rigorous urgency of basic training. It was important for him to make a good impression, so he kept weight off and his muscles toned. It made him feel bettermore energy, quicker thinking. There was nobody in his life, aside from casual dates and flings. The nasty turn with Cindy had been like a car wreck, leaving his emotions cratered. It would be a long time before he stuck his neck out again and made a commitment. He was used to having beautiful women wrap themselves around him with gestures, words, and alluring looksand because it came easily, he thought nothing of it. There must be someone very special for him to open his heart once again.
But the language of books and libraries he understood. It was fun to stop in Emery, get gas, eat a slice of pizza at Papa’s, and stop in the library to savor the atmosphere of books. The library had a timeless quality that he found refreshing. You could step into its unique aira mix of paper, binding glue, fading fragrances, and faintly machine-oily dustand lose yourself.
Many days, he did not have time to stop by, but he might take the exit and drive slowly along the frontage road. He’d cruise by the library, which glowed in the early dusk like a row of lanterns. He’d see the tireless librarians bent over their tasks, as if time flowed at a different pace inside there. He almost envied them their leisurely tempothough he was sure they worked hard. He wondered if these women ever looked up and saw the cars flowing past on the sunken highway and the surface roads outside, and wonder about the many people flying in their cars among the cities.
He’d think about the beautiful young librarian with the sad eyes, and wonder what sort of man she was married to. Could he be such a man, and could he find such a woman? Sometimes, discouraged, he would just drive by rather than stop in on the pretense of wanting a book or making a copy on their dime copier.
* * * *
One day, Rick Moyer was on his way back from another business trip to Manhattan. This time, he’d taken with him one of the older sales staff, Geoff Beaton. There was a change happening in the family firm. Dad was making faint noises about retiring. Rick, as the only son, and only child, would of course inherit everything. Sometimes he thought about leaving, to make his own fortune, on his own terms, rather than as heir to a multi-generational financial firm that had its own traditions and rules, which were as much out of Dad’s control as they were out of Rick’s.
Geoff Beaton was 55, a retired U.S. Navy commander, and a successful sales strategist. Rick’s dad had brought Geoff on board recently, with the hope that Geoff would start taking Rick’s place at the New York City meetings. There was a vague promise in this that Rick would thus be promoted to become his father’s shadow and protégé for five or ten years before taking over the firm.
Rick’s great-grandfather, Richard Moyer Sr., had founded Moyer LX Holdings in the early 1900s. Rick’s father had inherited the shop decades ago after his own tour as a Navy commander during the Gulf War years. The firm grossed over $100 million recently in gross annual sales, and stood to double that in another two years with successful mergers and acquisitions. Rick Senior was giving himself another ten years at the helm, which meant his son had a decade in which to acquire the same Yale educated, U.S. Army disciplined combination of skills, talents, and dedication.
Rick had gotten off to a shakier start in life, dropping in and out of college, screwing up ROTC and ending up enlisting as a private in the Army. The service, he liked to think, had forced him to get his act together and start appreciating the opportunity his old man had waiting for his only son. The only daughter, Lindy, Rick’s sister, two years Rick’s senior, had finished with a nursing degree at a small liberal arts college, married into minor money, and was happily situated in life with two nice kids and a decent husbandbut Lindy was not at all corporate material. She was a bit estranged, living in Chicago and involved in an entirely new life there. Rick could not blame her. Dad and the Moyers were a hard act to follow.
Like Lindy, Rick had never thought of himself as corporate either, until his casual air and excellent manner with people proved to be a winning combination. It was enough of a formula, however unorthodox, that made Rick Senior make proud and happy noises about his son, and looked like a good fit for the future of Moyer LX Holdings.
Geoff Beaton was a big man given to fancy but tasteful clothing. He and Rick Jr kept up a nice banter on the way home. "You think that was a good meeting?" Geoff asked the younger man.
Rick felt comfortable with Geoff, and good about their day on Fifth Avenue. They had sat at a conference table in a dusky meeting room, high above the city, with third-party consulting executives from a devolving firm (Schmidt ZZ Konix, Inc.) which had already let most of its own executives go and was on the ropes. "It is usually a rescue operation," Rick said while Geoff drove. In the rarified, luxurious air of Geoff’s expensive Lincoln Navigator SUV, a light heater fan was barely audible. The atmosphere smelled of leather, accounting printouts, and expensive clothing. "If anything, we can suck up their bottom line and double it in a year with our resources."
Geoff nodded. "They are pretty skinny." He meant that the caretakers of Schmidt were desperate to place the assets with a strong acquiring firm and pay off the board members and stock holders with a suitable closing dividend and other compensation.
"It’s a buyer’s market," Rick agreed. "Say, do you travel this way much?"
Geoff shrugged. "Once in a while. I was working in Boston for some years after retiring, so I spent more time in Montreal than in the Big Apple."
"Good stuff," Rick said. "My favorite city. Montreal. A touch of Europe."
Geoff, who stuffed a long-sleeved, pin-striped shirt quite well, and ornamented himself with gold cufflinks and gold rings, nodded. "I’m from New Orleans myself, so I appreciate the French touches. No beignets though."
"But the croissants are superb." Rick loosened his tie and kicked back, putting one stockinged foot up on the dashboard. Geoff, by contrast, kept his jacket on and his tie firmly knotted. Must be the old Navy officer in him, Rick guessed. Having grown up with a West Point dad, against whom he’d rebelled almost as much as he loved him, he knew the type. "How long have you been married?" he asked Geoff casually.
"Try years, son."
"Try humor, Geoff."
"Touché. Oh, you’ll keep me on my toes all right."
"Love sparring with you, dude."
"Let me win once in a while."
"You manage to hold your own."
Rick thought they got along all right, if one counted their manly head to head as friendship. He’d seen guys loosen up after beating the stuffing out of each other on a karate or judo mat. It took that to get guys to put the antlers away and come out shaking hands.
"Forty years," Rick said. "I can’t imagine."
"You still have time. You’re young enough."
Rick felt like changing the subject suddenly, since the conversation was veering in the direction of his failed marriage and successful divorce. Make that semi-successful, since Cindy had cleaned out the Moyers for a healthy piece of change. Rick’s own parents had been married for as far back as he could remember, without divorce or separationjust years of bickering. Rick kept a comfortable distance from his nattering parents, but saw Dad most days at work and Mom at least three or four times a week. Mom was happy as long as he got along well with dad, showed up for work every day, and joined them for one of her pot roast dinners at least once a week, usually on Friday evenings to celebrate another solid week at the company. And she drank a bit too much, usually Chablis, sometimes scotch. Dad didn’t drink, and wouldn’t kiss her when she had liquor on her breathwhich meant they had pretty much virginal lips.
"What about yourself?" Geoff asked without hesitation.
"Um," Rick started to say, and bit his tongue. Geoff wasn’t letting him change the subject gracefully. Moyer policy was to make its few executives as close as family. It was still a smaller, closely held corporation, and not big enough for a lot of Byzantine shenanigans or back stabbing. Rick’s only discomfort zone with Geoff was not so much the older man’s twenty years on him, nor his educationRick was Yale, while Geoff was Annapolisbut that certain steady state, gyro-compass personality while Rick Jr tended to be a little bit all over the map with his personal life.
Geoff laughed out loud. "I’m sorry I asked." He sobered immediately. "I know you had a run of bad luck there a few years back."
Rick did not flinch. He was done with it, finally. "I made a mistake. Yup. I must have been a real yoyo in a past life, and I had to pay my dues for it."
"No kids," Geoff said. It was a question.
"No kids," Rick said. It was his only real regret. "I don’t mind the divorce and the ugliness. I was asking for trouble when I chased around the only daughter of a man who made his millions as a California fitness guru, and her mother was the horoscope queen of the carotene tan salon set." Indeed, his five year Odyssey with Cynthia Miller-Stone had been a wild ride. He was glad his father had not yet invested him in the company at that point, or she and her Mongolian horde of lawyers would have gone after every nickel. "I just regret the lost time."
"You mean kids and all?"
"Yep. Well, no at all. It’s not like I lost time paying on a mortgage. But you cannot buy back lost time." It choked him up, to be honest. If he’d married sensibly and properly, he could be the father ofwhy do I torture myself? he asked himself. It was a calculation he did every so often. He’d married Cindy eight years ago. They could have children in grammar school. As it was, they’d not seen each other since the final shouting and slamming of doors at their Westchester mansion two years ago, and Rick was determined never again to make a mistake like that. It was burned into his brain and into his soul. His mother made sympathetic clucking noises, but her eyes radiated that mom-guilt which said I told you so. Dad tended to more clubbyget over it, champ, just don’t screw up your life again because my heart cannot take the wild ride, okay? The old man had actually said that to him one day as they sat on adjacent exercise bicycles at the Fitness Club. Rick had not flinched at that either. Fair is fair, he thought.
"What do you like in a woman?" Geoff asked to make conversation. He was a big, almost fat, comfortable, chummy, self-confident sort of man. He’d overseen, led, and officered thousands of men and women as a staff chief on one of the largest logistics commands in San Diego, and it appearedthis was one of the things Rick liked about himhe’d seen everything, and just about nothing rattled Geoff.
"What do I like?" Rick sat back and thought about that. Nothing solid passed through his thoughts. Except, maybe, an image of the library in Emery, which was a few miles away at the moment and closing in fast. He felt a ball of anticipation in the pit of his stomachan excited, dangerous, happy, scary, like I could be crazy and lose control again, but she is probably married and unreachable kind of tension.
"You can be honest," Geoff said.
"You go first."
"I’ve got mine at home. You’ve met her."
"You’re still happy after all these years?"
"A happy dinosaur," Geoff said.
Rick remembered how he had moderately tormented that upchuck librarian in Emery. "Did you know that modern chickens are actually tiny dinosaurs, Geoff?"
"I have read something to that effect. Or maybe I saw it on TV." Big gorgeous trees flew past. Traffic was moderate on the turnpike at this time of day. The evening rush hour had not yet set in. They were an hour from home base. "I like entertaining myself with a little light information about evolution, nuclear physics, and organic chemistry."
"Sure is beautiful countryside out here," Geoff said.
"When you retired, Geoff, did you ever think about moving to a small town like this?"
"Oh, just for example, take this one coming up. It’s called Emery. I have been stopping there for gas and pizza every time I go through here lately."
Geoff shrugged. "I figure a man retires when he doesn’t have much fire left in him. I retired from the Navy young, but I expect I’ll have another twenty year career going before I cash in my chips and drag my weary patoot here to what did you call this dive?"
"Like the little nail files."
"Yes. Emerywell, I did some research, to be honest, over in the library a few weeks agoit’s a mineral called corundum or aluminum oxide, mixed up with other substances and crushed up so it becomes an abrasive. It’s also called black sand."
"You do good research, professor."
"I like to inform myself. Anyway, centuries ago they found a hillside full of emery around here and started mining it. That’s how the town came to be. It’s been around for a long time. Someone made a fortune from it long ago. I think the mine is paved over with a parking lot and a strip mall downtown these days."
"Sounds like you are forming an emotional bond with this place."
"Yeah." Rick felt a bit embarrassed to admit he seemed so taken with this place. "I stopped here for gas one day a few months ago. It’s really quite scenic. There is a valley, with a town at the far end, and a lake shimmering in the distance."
"You’re scaring me," Geoff said as his heavy gold cufflinks clicked against the steering wheel. "We need gas."
"Perfect timing. I’ll show you the layout."
"You’re the boss." Geoff said that out loud, strategically, at least once a day to remind himself and Rick as well about the fact of who signed whose pay check.
"So why are you scared?"
"Because you make it sound like that vague dream I have been mooning with Kathy about all these years. My wife. We’ve been stationed all around the world, and now live in New England. We always talk about some imaginary, as yet to be named place we want to buy a little cottage in, have a garden, walk to the corner store for coffee and donuts while the crickets chirp. That kind of thing. I’m not ready yet."
"I’m not either," Rick said. "But I’m done with the wild oats."
Geoff said significantly, no doubt referring to the disaster with the former Mrs. Richard Moyer, "Your oats have been taken to the oat dump."
"My oat farm has been cleaned out thoroughly," Rick said.
"The goats got your oats."
"My wild oats got in boats and sailed away," Rick said ruefully.
"Treasure the pain, for it is learning," said Geoff as Rick pointed to Tony’s gas station and Geoff pulled the heavy SUV in toward the pumps.
"Oh I do. It’s the most expensive tuition I’ll ever pay. And I don’t mean only the alimony I paid."
"She remarried last month. I am a free man."
"Lucky stiff," Geoff said admiringly. "You got away with your life. And your oats."
"No more oats," Rick said. "Please."
Geoff stepped out, and started filling the tank. Tony walked by, wearing gray and white striped overalls, and waved. "You’re getting to be a townie here," Geoff remarked.
Rick stepped up close, doing a little dance to stretch his legs. Compulsively, his eyes turned to the buildings across the street. He came through here at least once a week, and always he slowed down, stopped for gas, or even had a slice of pizza at Papa’s cramped little restaurant.
Geoff had sharp eyes, and didn’t miss much. "That sure is a lovely valley down there," he said to Rick, aiming his chin at the sprawl of bluish-green tree crowns that flowed like a river from the heights, and the highway, down between the thighs of some ancient hills, ending in a jumble of roofs and that lake which shimmered bluish-yellow in the late light. "You ever been down there?"
Rick shook his head. "Not yet."
"Sounds like you plan to."
"In good time. I’m in no rush." She was married and wearing a ring; that had taken the wind out of his sails. Actually, it made him admire her all the more from afarthe ideal woman, if there was such a thing. I am a fool as always, he counseled himself inwardly.
"Sometimes," Geoff said wisely, "It’s best just to look from a distance."
Rick pulled his eyes away, which had focused on the windows across the street, thinking he might catch a glimpse of that wild cloud of dark hair or those greenish-caramel eyes. He was not about to share this secret with Geoff or anyone else. It was something so scary, so delicate, so special, that he felt he must keep it close to his heart as a private secret.
"Yes," Rick said, "sometimes it’s best to look but not touch. I hooked up with old Cynthia Miller-Stone-Moyer and what a nightmare that turned out to be."
"You can’t go through life being afraid to get burned," Geoff said as he finished tanking and hung the nozzle back on its pump rack. "A wise man wears oven mitts, but is not afraid to bake."
"Burned is learned," Rick said. "Other than that, I’m not afraid of much of anything." He meant it. He scared himself sometimes by his audacity. It was how you made millions, or stepped in deep doo-doo.
"That’s the spirit." Geoff screwed the gas cap of his SUV back down.
Rick took a deep breath and stared down into the valley.
Geoff followed suit, with a lock of white hair blowing in the fresh lake breeze that always seemed to waft up from down there.
"You hungry?" Rick asked, almost hopefully. He welcomed any excuse to prolong his visits here.
Geoff pulled up a heavy shirt cuff and looked at his watch. "It’s getting late, and Kathy will probably want me to take her out for dinner. I think it’s Chinese night. I’m getting good with those chopsticks."
As they pulled back out into traffic to head deeper into New England, Rick sat in the passenger seat and stared hard at the pizzeria, and at the passing library building. It was just about time for the start of the school year, and the windows had been cleared of their green Fourth of July cards. They looked blank as a fresh slate for a new start, a new school year, new little people starting another leg in their journey through life. What would it be like to be that little again? It was something you got to experience only once. With adult life, there were some chances to start over. Not many, but they were there. Not always. He had known one or two fellow soldiers who had not made it home alive, or who had come back minus a leg or a piece of their future. He’d been lucky, and simply returned with some hard memories that made him wake up screaming or choking in the middle of his sleep every few months. He stared at the library, and the grammar school beyond it, and the bus stop with its puddles of wan yellowish light in the first shades of dusk.
Nobody in sight therejust reflections of traffic outside. In a matter of days, the windows would become papered over with orangey sorts of Hallow E’en decorations--as the days grew shorter, leaves all around grew brown, and that fragrant, lightly smoky autumn air would linger among these quiet streets and buildings. As the SUV pulled into traffic, Rick felt a powerful longing to come back here and walk around alone, exploring, and maybe check out a bookit didn’t matter about what. Dinosaurs, chickens, who cared.
In its unchanging, timeless manner, the old building was a lantern in the growing dusk. He could make out the forms of one or two womenno idea whobending over at their tasks, presumably amid the heads of children doing homework as they waited to be picked up by their parents after school. He felt a certain yearning to be part of that culture, but he had no idea how. He was a stranger to Emery and its lives. It occurred to him that he could certainly buy some property herebut his life was in Greater Hartford. His parents, his work, his clubs, his friends, his connections... He was a city fellow, and these were country folks.
"We’ll be home in less than half an hour," Geoff said.
They each slipped into a reverie of personal thoughts.
What kind of woman? Geoff had asked.
A perfect, untouchable, distant one, Rick thought. One you can adore from a distance, like the sun, without getting burned. He wondered what she’d been thinking when she’d noticed him. He’d spotted her half a dozen times now. She always looked so thoroughly shocked and rattled. Is there so obviously a rain cloud over my head? he asked himself. He, who possessed confidence, money, poise, even a touch of boyish arrogancecould she see through him and know what a lousy choice he had made, and how Cindy had cleaned his clock from A to Z? He’d flirted with a married woman, and felt like a fool, but it was okay. It was good.
She was perfect, Miss or Mrs. Kiddie Book in that forbidding fortress of a building, with that terrifying T-Rex woman with the fake hair do and the yellow teeth. She represented a type. She stood for a different breed of woman he’d newly discovered. She might be unavailable and spoken for, but she held a lantern for his life. He had a feeling now for the type of woman he wanted to have dinner and go to bed with every night for the rest of his life. It was someone very much like Miss Bookstool.
It was good. There had to be laws. There had to be terror. The world could not be in free fall. Surely Miss Kiddie Books was the most perfect of women, dwelling in some exalted sphere of perfection. A guy like Rick could only look in the bakery window and see the cookies, smell the cookies, but not eat them. He wondered what kind of man would be so lucky to have a goddess like Miss Kiddie Books fall in love with him.
"You got a good one," Rick told Geoff as night fell and the traffic flowed around them. "Kathy," he explained.
Geoff seemed to read his mind. "It isn’t always easy, but it’s the best ride a man can have. We don’t do so well on our own. Once you get rid of the wild oats and you get that through your skull, you really grow up and make someone a decent husband. They tame us."
Rick sighed. What to say? "I guess I am about as ready as I will ever be."
"Who is she?"
"Mr. Moyer, I thought you were going to fall out of the window back there, staring at that library building. Unless you are a fanatic about dog-eared books and old glue pots or whatever."
"Married woman," Rick said. "I had a passing crush before I saw the ring."
Geoff said nothing more. Probably figured anything further he said would fall into dangerous territory with his future boss. He said lightly: "There is a book for you somewhere, trust me. You just have to be patient."
Rick knew he was going to stop in that library yet again. Instinct told him that, somehow, the book of his life was in that building; or at least the path to the book went through there. I want to go back and check out that book. I have no idea what it is. Maybe it’s a love story. Or maybe it’s a whole load of more grief. Or a horror novel. Who knows?
Geoff said: "I met Kathy when I was at Annapolis. They keep you pretty busy there, and I had no time for wild oats or any other kind of grains or cereals. They also set you up with these teas and coffees and what not. Teach you how to hold finger foods, and how to wear a sword, and all that guffaw blah blah. I saw Kathy and fell in love. You’d think it was love at first sight. Ha. That’s only in love stories. I had to chase her around half the world, fight my way through lion-infested jungles, hop over crocodiles in rivers, to get her to even talk with me. She graduated from Bryn Mawr and was just visiting a girlfriend in Maryland when she came to this tea thingie. Later she admitted she was in love with me but knew well enough to make my life hell so I’d appreciate her when she finally said ‘I might’. I know your old man and I have compared notes, and he went through pretty much the same thing. That’s how we used to do it in the old days. I don’t know how you do it today, but I wish you luck."
"Thanks a lot."
Their road switched them onto Interstate 91.
Soon they drove into the suburbs of the Hartford.
Geoff jabbed him in the ribs. "Want to stop for a beer on the way home?"
"I could use one." Right at the moment, the thought of a cold, foamy brew in a dark, throbbing tavern full of relaxed people seemed like the best thing on earth. He wondered what sort of strategy to use to visit the library in Emery again. He’d better forget about that and start looking for a librarian in West Hartford. Or a cute lady bar tender without a scheme or an agenda. He grinned to himself as a whole imaginary saga came into being. He’d disguise himself with one of those black mustache-eyeglasses-fake nose things. He’d wear rumpled suits and pass himself off as a college professor who’d been out of work for several years. Then againthat was all too much workwhat he wanted was a cold beer in a dark and anonymous tavern, and then a movie and another beer before bed. What a life. In the old days, he’d always managed to find a woman on the spur of the moment. He was good looking, wealthy, and had a certain air of piracy about him. That was the old days. He could still go out and latch up with a beautiful woman this eveningthat was never a problembut his heart wasn’t in it.
Thank you for reading the first half (free, what I call the Bookstore Metaphor). If you love it, you can (easily and safely at Amazon) buy the whole e-book for the painless price of a cup of coffeealso known as Read-a-Latte (hours of reading enjoyment; the coffee is gone in minutes, but the book stays with you forever). You can also get those many hours of happy reading from the print edition for the price of a sandwich (no, I don't have a metaphor for that, like a 'sandwich metaphor?'). To help the author, please recommend this book your friends, and also post a favorable (five star!) review at Amazon, Good Reads, and similar online reader resources. Thank you (JTC).