The further adventures of Fred and Ike…You can find Chapter One here.
Respite: A Sojourn in Summerland
“Poverty in youth, when it succeeds, has this magnificent property about it, that it turns the whole will towards effort, and the whole soul towards aspiration.” – Victor Hugo
That visit was Wednesday evening; Ike moved in over the weekend. One load in his truck was all it took. Before he walked out of his parents’ house that last time, he’d paced slowly from room to room, taking their measure—in memory; in the present, early evening light; and as architectural spaces. In the kitchen, he checked if there were any cookies in the jar, and helped himself to one. He stood in the middle of the checkerboard floor gazing out the back window to his dad’s manicured lawn and the taut, blue cover on the pool. It had been practically hell learning to groom that lawn to his father’s specifications, but if you’re going to do it you may as well do it right, and he was sort of proud of his ability as a greensman, and half-relished those spring and autumn moments when he and his old man would debate the height to set the reel mower and whether they’d need lime again to keep the grass in tip-top shape.
He was going to miss the pool.
Childhood was over. It wasn’t a maudlin sentiment, just a dead fact. But now that he was feeling it, his teens, maybe even college, had all been one long playground. What was ahead? He was scared to admit he didn’t know. So far, everything had gone the way he’d wanted it to. Of course, he’d sort of pictured a cool, bachelor pad of his own, even knew the furniture he’d buy from Crate & Barrel, and it cost him a gut shot of anxiety at the thought of his rather eccentric choice. Why Casa Hector over the downtown studios he’d toured? They were sleek and modern and every kind of urban cool, but he’d have to tweak his budget hard to manage one of those and… Hell! That Fred’s place was easy, inexpensive and seemed reasonably OK were mere rationalizations for the truth: he’d just felt like it. A whim; curiosity maybe. He hoped he wouldn’t regret it.
Through the front door, he saw his parents talking together by the driveway. Then, hand still on the door knob, he felt a jolt that nearly planted his face into the glass as his kid sister flung herself across the living room at him.
“Why do you have to go again? You just got home,” she said into his shoulder.
He rubbed her back for comfort. “It’s time to get out on my own—“
He may have said it but he wasn’t really feeling it at the moment, so he hugged her harder, hoping she’d be able to feel what was real.
His dad grunted disparagingly in the background.
Ike kissed Angie on the forehead and got in the truck. He waved to his Mom—she was trying not to show her tears—and eased into reverse.
On the Parkway ten minutes later, zooming downhill into town, he dialed Francie, got her chirpy voice mail.
“Francie! I’m out of the house, thank God. Got lots to tell you. Call me.”
He flicked the phone off and laid it on the passenger seat, returning both hands to the wheel. Cars, semis and city buses were careening across lanes, downhill and around the curves at 70 mph, headed for the first tunnel. It was so strange not to have heard from her, from Francie, but what with flying around for interviews and time differences and everything, maybe she was too beat. He knew the feeling. He’d try her again this evening.
A mile from the tunnel, the traffic began to slow and then stack up as on-ramps brought a new load of vehicles. This was the route Ike took to work; he knew what to expect.
Fred was eager to help him get everything inside, though there really wasn’t much: a single bed, clothes, quite a few boxes of books, two portfolios, a trunk and a drawing table. Ike set up his drafting table and stool in the corner by the window. Once he had that assembled it, he sorted through the stacks of books he’d piled beside his bed, extracted a spiral bound booklet, placing it squarely in the center of the white surface of the desk. It looked idyllic there, the little house on the cover watercolored into a rich, green wilderness, everything awash in golden light.
For the first week or so, Ike and Fred did a little dance of meeting and avoidance as their paths crossed; taking turns at the refrigerator, heading to the bathroom at the same time, coming into the house when the other was going out.
“Oh, sorry. Excuse me.”
“No, it’s no trouble,” Fred always said, but for Fred, having lived entirely alone for the last 14 years, it was something to get used to.
The good news for him was that, though of different habits, Ike was a silent man. Busy on his laptop, bent over a sketch in the circle of light that fell on his drafting table at night, or sorting through photos or letters—or something—spread out in a pattern on the floor, he stayed mainly in his room. Once, passing in the hall, he’d seen Ike at the end of his bed, headphones on, gazing out the window at the hazy white air, the dusky light bouncing back enough to set his eyes aglow, though in a strange way, the gaze seemed blind. There was a quality to the reverie that dared not be interrupted. Fred passed on.
On Saturday afternoon, a week after moving in, Ike trudged in after a morning at the office and decided to take a chance by turning on the TV to watch the Bucs game. After giving the screen a thorough dusting and discovering there were only three local channels, one of which came in poorly, he settled into a restful sprawl on the couch. Luckily for him, the best reception was that of the Pittsburgh sports channel. By the time Fred came in from gardening, Ike had fallen asleep. Fred left his shoes at the door and padded quietly upstairs, showered, and returned to make dinner. The game was ending. Settling into his favorite chair, Fred watched the final pitches, a few strikes and a pop fly for the final out.
It was the smell of bacon that roused Ike from his heavy slumber, alone in the twilit room, the TV silenced; all light and sound streaming from the kitchen. The old man in the business suit glared at him from the wall with those creepily accusatory eyes. “Fuck you,” he muttered and got up.
A grunt announced Ike’s arrival. He blinked in the orange dazzle.
“Good nap?” Fred asked without turning, flipping the sizzling bacon for the last time. Steam rattled a lid on the back burner.
Ike nodded, running his hands roughly over his scalp. “Did you see the score?”
“Oh, nice,” the dazed voice answered. “That smells great.”
Fred allowed himself a private smile. “There will be food in abundance—if you care to join me.”
He turned as he made the offer, to gauge its reception. His face was flushed from a day in the sun, and his glasses were spotted and slightly steamed from his work over the stove.
“Elixir, then?” Ike asked, headed for the basement.
It was the first time that they’d eaten together; most of the preceding evenings, Ike had either gotten home late from the office or ordered in pizza, drinking his way through the case of beer he’d brought when he moved in. With elixir in hand, Fred directed Ike to the mismatched plates, silverware, and a pile of colorful cloth napkins, while he finished assembling the fresh salad of mixed greens, bean sprouts, spring onions, cherry tomatoes and orange nasturtium blossoms.
The salad and cold elixir slowly revived Ike’s metabolism. After the second mouthful of the spicy red beans and rice, he lifted his head, pointing his spoon at the yellow bowl before him. “This is really good.”
“Cheap, easy and wholesome; a staple of the Third World. I am heartened that you relish it.”
“What were you up to outside all day?”
“Weeding, mostly. Cut the salad greens, found a few tomatoes.”
“Let me know what I can do,” Ike offered. He meant it.
Fred blinked, considering. “What I could use next weekend is a hand when the mulch is delivered.”
Ike shrugged easily in acceptance. Both men, without speaking of it, felt suddenly, uniquely, at home.
By mid-August, Ike knew enough about organic gardening to help with the harvest. When their work was completed and evening was settling over them with its blue notes, they often retired to the cushioned glider chairs on the lower porch to enjoy the reward of ice cold elixir. Occasionally, Ike would tune a radio to the Bucs game, softly, not to disturb Fred, who much preferred reading and conversation to what he called spectacular entertainment. Though the Bucs were not spectacular by any standard, not this year anyway, according to Fred, anything in which one did not actively participate was part of the Spectacle, and apparently, therefore, quite negative. As it was, sitting with nothing more to do of an evening than to listen to the Bucs game—well, Ike could not remember ever having had the pleasure. And there were always moments, even the worst teams had moments, when the drama and skill sent a thrilling shot through the nervous system, and for Ike, a lonely ache as well. But it was an ache he half-pursued, tuning that radio; retracing, step by step, the long road, lost to conscious memory, that led to the wreckage that every day he took shaky breaths around.
Wreckage was not a word that would have sprung up in Ike’s consciousness, however; instead, he basked in the long stretch of summer’s heat and light, wallowed in sleep, food and the comparatively gentle routine of the office work. It was in his nature to smile benignly at life, even when it failed to offer him his deepest desires, because without exception, it always offered him something. This was his natural in-born lassitude, surfacing in full force at last, as other drives ground to a halt.
No longer did he go to the gym, as he had done every day at school, even with his heavy load of class work, and though many of his FKRS colleagues fit in a workout at lunch, before or after work, he didn’t bother. Fred was a good cook, and between the heaping bowls of beans and the large jars of elixir, Ike noticed his clothes growing snug. He didn’t care—unless he thought of Francie, which now raised a frown, because he began to doubt, day by day, that he’d hear from her any time soon. His heart squeezed into his throat if he thought too much about it. After two months, he’d run out of excuses; something was definitely wrong. Phone calls and messages unanswered, texts and emails ignored. Had she read them? He even sent a card, the gushy kind she liked.
Ike had high expectations for that pink card. Reckoning the days—so many to get there, if she called or if she wrote back the same day, or maybe two, and then back again—tomorrow, definitely. After all his waiting and suffering, tomorrow wasn’t so far off, especially with work all day to pass the hours.
But there was no letter on Wednesday. He checked the box twice, dumbfounded, feeling into the corners. Still, she’d write in two or three days, for sure, she couldn’t leave that letter unanswered; he’d poured his heart into it, said everything he’d always meant to say. Maybe she was sick or something. But her mother would have called, right? Maybe she couldn’t find the number…It scared him. Was Francie all right? He hesitated about an hour, then called her parents’ house in Coudersport.
Mrs. Pike answered the phone. “Dear,” she said, “Francie’s fine; I’ll tell her you called. It’s lovely to hear from you, Ike. Take care of yourself.”
He almost felt her there, standing beside her mother, listening at the receiver, shaking her head No. It was a fantasy, and sadly, practically the only kind he had anymore.
And so summer waxed hot, its days stretched out into individual eternities, and into these eternities Ike dropped the habits of a lifetime, slowed down, trudging through the first signs of debris, the fragments of metal, fiberglass and rubber that remained of the high-powered vehicle he had once tried to be, a machine he did not realize existed no more.
Next chapter here.