A Mountain Or A Molehill? My Response To Billibuc's Writing Challenge
He woke up screaming again, covered in a cold sweat that chilled him to the bone. His screams woke the entire house right down to the dog sleeping on the kitchen floor. His wife was beside him immediately, calming him with her soothing words and presence while the dog ran barking and growling through the house bent on finding the intruder or burglar that must be there to bite. Completing his circuit and finding none, he went to check on the master and found him in the capable hands of Mrs. Master. JD (Just Dog) decided to return to his favorite room in the house, the kitchen. Who knows? Maybe someone dropped a crumb of something yummy on the floor he could find and snack on.
"Honey, it's okay; you're fine, you're fine! Calm down now, take a deep breath. There you go, all's good." She leaned over and kissed his face, knowing her kisses calmed him quicker than anything. "Was it the dream again?" She looked at the doorway to find their children huddled there, scared for their father. A quick smile and shooing motion from her head sent them back to bed with the knowledge all was fine with their parents.
He sat up in bed, pushing back his sweat-soaked hair before saying "Dream? Nightmare's more like it. And yes, it was that same one, the one where I am floundering in snow over my head, way up on that damn mountain alone, always all alone. A storm is blowing snow everywhere, I'm covered in ice freezing to death, I can't find you or the kids and the only thing that is there is my boss hounding me to get it right!" He broke down into tears as she held him tight, expressing her understanding even as she didn't really understand the depth of his dispair.
"Honey, it'll be okay really. You're good at what you do and they know it. They're pushing you because you can do the job better than anyone they've ever had. It's natural they want more..."
"I don't have any more to give them! I go to work before dawn, come home after dark. I never get to help with the kids homework, make dinner or even eat dinner with you when it's hot anymore! God, this mountain setting on my chest feels like a heart attack! I can't breathe right or even sleep anymore!"
He had had that nightmare more nights than he cared to think about recently. The better he did at work and the more he improved his department the more his boss expected, requested, demanded. As he had no college degree this job represented the best he would ever have, the pinnacle of his working history for what remained of his life and he had, he HAD to make sure he kept plugging along until retirement. While that was in the foreseeable future it was farther away that he wanted it to be: another decade at least.
But his health was failing, he knew it. He had not shared his recent heart palpitations with his wife for fear of scaring her. The noontime visits to the doctor, the prescriptions and tests had confirmed that his heart was not what it had once been. The doctor sternly told him time and again that he needed to decompress, whatever the hell that meant. He had time he could take, vacation time built up over the years of working at his job but when could he take it? There was no off season in his line of work, no down time, no slack time. His was a twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week, fifty-two weeks a year kind of non-stop crap job that never took a breath.
But this dream, last night's was different: he felt snowed under, literally. He had been way up on top of some mountain deep in a wilderness and had been struggling through snow so deep there was no end to it. And all the while, his boss was yelling at him, demanding he "get it right" while whipping him relentlessly as the snow turned red with his blood. It was an unending nightmare that continued to a lesser extent every single day at his work.
When he made it home that evening, his wife was there waiting for him like she always was. But this time, something was different: a hint of something glinted about her eyes. "Come on in and slip off your shoes, I've got something for you" she said to him as she took his coat and laptop case.
As he sat down, he noticed she had the television on and a scene from a movie cued up on the DVD player. "Do you remember this old movie?" she asked, pushing play. He looked and saw Billy Crystal. A moment's reflection brought the title to his mind. "City Slickers, isn't it? She laughed and congratulated him for recalling it. "Remember how you used to laugh at this? "
A smile found its way to his face, uncertain but still a real smile. He did remember and it felt good to remember. She continued "Here's the part I like: when his wife tells him to go and find his smile as a present, a gift. Now, I want to give that same gift to you: go and find your smile dear."
A thousand reasons came to his mind on why he couldn't take off work and just as quickly a single reason came to mind on why he better: this lovely woman sitting beside him. If he didn't "decompress" he was going to die, and soon: he knew this as sure as he knew he loved her. And he didn't want to leave her alone in this world, grieving over him and lost time together.
Looking into those magnificent gray-green eyes he said "I love you."
"I know" she smiled.
Knowing her, she already had a plan. "So, what's your plan? Where are we going?" He was shocked when she slowly shook her head and said "Not us: you. You are going to take a break from everything, everyone. No kids, no wife, no work and no boss: you are going to focus on you and you alone. I'll take care of the kids and house, you go find your smile."
He was shell-shocked. He never did anything without her, hadn't for years. But here she was telling him to go, to find something that could make him smile and allow him to bear the coming years in a manner that would keep him healthy. What? What could he do? Where could he go? She surprised him again.
"Rhode Island. You are going to Rhode Island."
"What? Why? How..." he stammered as she continued. "You are going in search of your ancestors. I've booked you a compartment on a train from Kansas City to Providence leaving next week. I've already spoken with your boss and told him he has a choice: give you two weeks off or lose you. He tried to bluff me but I knew better: he caved quicker than I thought he would. It's all set, paid for including a room and rental car. I have even contacted a historian there who will be helping you on finding your first born on this continent ancestor, Shubael Painter."
How many times had she done things like this over the years? Finding the solution to a problem he was unable to find, then wrapping it up in a neat package for him; she never failed to amaze him and once more he found himself falling in love with her all over again. Finally, he managed to say "Thank you, Love." A smile was his answer.
She waved goodbye to him as he drove away, heading towards K.C. It was the matter of a few hours of driving, time well spent listening to old CD's filled with his favorites, favorites he never had time or inclination to listen to anymore. How many things had he forgotten or lost over the years while slaving away at this job? He shook his head and thought about the adventure to come. Two weeks of train travel, research and finding his roots! How exciting!
After parking his car on a long term lot he made his way to the ticket counter and picked up his tickets. The train would be along shortly so he made himself comfortable and got out his notes. He wanted to have the facts firmly in mind before his arrival on the East Coast.
Then he was on board the eastbound train, rocking and rolling along, listening to the clackety-clack of the rails as he sat in his little compartment. He stared out the window with unfocused eyes, marveling at the countryside as it flew along. It wasn't long before he was out of his home state and entering new ones. He looked intently at the barns he saw, standing in fields long forgotten by owners who themselves were far too often forgotten as well. Life had changed over his lifetime, changed not for the better but worse. These old barns had always fascinated him, telling tales of a time long gone, of a people who relied upon them for a way of life that no longer seemed to exist. He loved walking into these wonderful edifices and placing his hands upon the hand-hewn timbers that had supported them far better and longer than any produced in the mills today. There had even been a time when he had thought to take a trip with his wife, searching out those lonely bastions of a time long gone away simply to take pictures of them before they decayed into oblivion. His reason? Nothing more than to make a calendar full of pictures for himself.
As he entered New England he began to see small towns that had been forgotten by time as well. Here and there he noticed old tracks leading off to who knows where, overgrown with weeds and even small trees at times. Dilapidated railroad cars stood in disrepair, their paint peeling and metal rusting away to nothingness. It saddened him even as his excitement grew with each passing mile. He was on the homestretch to his past!
Once in Providence he secured his rental car and headed south towards Westerly, Rhode Island which was roughly an hour south of Providence. Westerly is a small town of just over 20,000 that could trace its roots back over 400 years. It was here that he sought to find his own roots with the help of a research assistant engaged by his wife and worked for the Westerly Downtown Historic District, a gentleman named Wilbur Sage. In his mind he pictured a professor-like personage of advanced age, snow white hair topping a ruddy face filled with lines and sporting a pair of wire rimmed glasses, looking for all the world like the film character Professor Henry Jones played by that marvelous actor Sir Sean Connery. He was to meet him in the lobby of the little bed and breakfast she had booked him in named the Langworthy Farm. Built in 1875 and home to a former Governor, it was now a wonderful little location for one who was trying to "get away from it all".
Most times people do not look like what you expect them to. Today, Wilbur Sage looked exactly like he thought he would look, right down to the glasses. Oh, perhaps he didn't look exactly like Connery but he was close enough for government work.
"Mr. Sage! How nice to meet you! My name is Raymond Michaels and I take it you are expecting me?" he said as he extended his hand.
"Please, call me Will if you would, and I shall call you Ray if that is acceptable." Will was a pleasant man with a somewhat gravely voice, as if unused to speaking aloud to anyone other than himself. "Would you care for a glass of wine? They have a wonderful cellar here filled with some vintage wines as well as some of their own from their Vinifera grapes, planted and produced right here."
They ordered a glass apiece and settled in to talk.
"So, I understand from your wife that you have ancestors who lived near here. Tell me, how much do you know about this part of your family tree?"
"Well, I know some from researching as far as I can go. Can't prove it all but I have suspicions that Shubael Painter was born near here around 1635 or so. His parents came over from England several years before that and I believe there is a family tie in to some famous poem or something."
Will smiled and paused before he spoke again. "Yes, I believe there was a tie between the two and I will share that with you during your visit. Tell me, what are your plans for the next few days?"
Ray shrugged and answered "I'm open. All I really hoped to do was some research, learn more of my family history and maybe, if I'm lucky find something tangible, something I can touch that will allow me to reach back through the centuries."
Will smiled again and said "Oh, I think I can guarantee something along those lines. Shall we head out in the morning, say 9:00 AM?"
They made the arrangements and went their separate ways, intending to meet once more after a good nights sleep.
Will met Ray the next morning and they headed out to a destination unknown for Ray. Mere moments later, they arrived at an old church with a cemetery nestled closely beside it. Getting out of the car, they made their way around the side to a smaller section of the cemetery. There they halted and Will spoke.
"I don't know if you wanted this to happen so soon, but I figured that if I showed this to you now it would leave the rest of your time open to more in depth research. Ray, meet Shubael."
Ray looked at Will with eyes wide open and mouth hanging open as well. His gaze followed Will's outstretched arm towards a tombstone set in the ground nearby. The words were barely legible, having been worn down by centuries of rain and weather but if he looked closely he could just make out the words Shubael Painter and two dates, 1635 and 1677. Next to it was another stone with the name Mercy Painter and 1641 to 1677.
Ray slowly placed his hand upon the stone and could swear he felt heat, some burning fire that bound him together with this stone which had been placed years before in memory of an ancestor he never thought to meet, one who died a full century before this country became a nation. "This is them, this is Shubael and his wife Mercy Lamberton. He was born in this country, my first ancestor born on this continent. Oh, my! And Mercy! She was born here as well, daughter of George who was a ship's captain. He was lost at sea in 1646; that's the story I heard where it had something to do with a poem or something."
Will said slowly and somberly "Yes, Longfellow heard of this sad tale and turned it into his work The Phantom Ship. This was your ancestor Ray; here lies your ancestor and his wife who is herself part of our nation's history." There he paused once more before continuing,
It took a moment for Ray to hear and process this statement before he raised his eyes and looked into the other's. "Yes Ray, Mercy is part of my family as well. Her mother Margaret was the daughter of my many times Great Grandmother Tanke Sage."
Ray thought furiously before he said "I know that name! But I've never been able to find anything on her, anywhere! Only the name! I've wondered about her for years! So you're.. I mean we're.."
"Related. Yes Ray, we are."
The rest of the days flew by as they worked together constantly, neither desiring to waste a minute of their time together. Each had something the other needed and together they fleshed out the bare bones of their combined history. By the final day they had become friends as well as relatives and as Ray drove off to catch his return trip home he left behind not a dusty scholar who was there to help but a tried and true friend, one he would speak with many times over the coming years.
On the train ride home, seeing once more the rusted trains and decrepit barns he knew he was looking at them through a different set of eyes on this trip, one that no longer saw the mountain in his chest as something destined to kill him. No, no longer was he tied to his job in fear, high on that mountain and mired deep in snow, he now knew it for what it was: a molehill in his path. A molehill that was there to be trod upon and demolished back into the dirt from whence it had arisen. Glancing down at his briefcase full of notes and copies of documents he felt at peace for the first time in years and he couldn't wait to share his newfound knowledge with his wife. He also knew that this would help them both bridge the years to his retirement and a new life, one filled with promises of better times yet to come.
As he sat there looking out the window he realized his face hurt in a strange way: from smiling. He had found his smile and this time he was sure it would never be lost again.
He couldn't wait to show his wife and hold her in his arms as he told her how much he loved her.
Thank you Bill and Ann, for getting my creative juices flowing once more. Part of this tale is my own, part fabrication: I'll leave it up to you gentle reader to decide which is which. Of late my job has consumed me and I have felt pangs of pain within my own chest and lost my smile. Now, it is found with the love of my wife and the assistance of dear friends.
A man is never poor when he has friends such as you. My deepest thanks.