Concrete Jungle

The Path on the Water

My grandmother was thirty-eight when her husband Doug was killed in a car accident on a business trip to Vermont. After she returned from the hospital, gathered her three boys, and told them their father was dead, my father, age twelve, had an urgent question: “What about Maine?”

Six years earlier, after two years renting lodging near a ruined fort that had once protected British settlers on the Pemaquid Peninsula from Indians, Frenchmen, and pirates, Grammie and Doug held their breaths and bought a two-bedroom cottage for ten thousand dollars. Every summer, she and the boys said goodbye to their friends in Westborough, MA and spent the summer beside the ocean. My father spent days rowing himself all over John’s Bay and the Pemaquid River. On weekends he went fishing with his father; who arrived late Friday night and left early Monday morning, driving six hours straight to work as an executive at a tap and die factory in Worcester, where he earned the family’s only income.

“Don’t worry David,” my grandmother told my dad. “We’ll always have Maine.”

Grammie had been an occupational therapist for a few months before her marriage, but she had no college degree and no idea how she would support the family when the insurance money ran out. A few months after the funeral, her mother convinced her to take a trip to Hawaii and escape the stress for a few days. A snowstorm was raging when she got back to Westborough, but it didn’t prevent Grammie from dancing into Minuteman Travel Agency in leis and a grass skirt to thank them for planning her trip. The owner offered her a job on the spot. A few years later she helped open an agency in Damariscotta and winterized the summer cottage. After dating a few serious boyfriends, including “Mr. Wonderful” (her un-ironic phrase) whom my Uncle Jim recalls emerging from her bedroom on Christmas morning in a silk bathrobe, cigarette in hand, and who was later discovered to have drawers full of unpaid bills, she married the local surgeon, Alan Zeller.

In 1979, a year before I was born, my grandmother became Bette Teschner Zeller, and the house on John’s Bay, two miles from Pemaquid Point and the open ocean, became TZ Manor. It is the only home I’ve returned to all my life.

We drove up from Virginia every summer. The final hour and a half of the journey, beginning at the B&M Baked Bean factory on the industrial fringe of Portland, was my first lesson in the structure of music, story, sex: anticipation, climax. First came Freeport, where the L.L. Bean store was open twenty-four hours a day, 364 days a year (and served free coffee after midnight, my grandmother always reminded us). Next was Bath, home of the Iron Works: dry docks, destroyers, a forty story crane that Grammie claimed was the tallest in the world for years after that ceased to be true. Wiscasset: with twin shipwrecks in the harbor that in my lifetime lost their masts, then decomposed into wood mulch islands sprouting pine saplings, then disappeared completely. Then familiar Damariscotta where Grammie did her shopping and we could buy G.I. Joe action figures in Reny’s Underground.

Here we turned onto the Bristol Road and headed south down our peninsula, a twenty-minute drive that somehow seemed longer than the trip from Richmond to Boston. After glimpsing salty water at the Damariscotta River, we were inland again, passing boring old farmhouses, empty pastures, forests and swamps. When we finally reached the recycling center where the man threw bottles over his shoulder into color-coded bins without looking (another wonder my grandmother insisted we notice), we were three minutes away. Hanna’s Garage, a glimpse of the bay, the Pemaquid Trail, pine forest, the bay again this time to stay. The flagpole where my grandmother danced at the news of my birth, the sea, the sunset visible through the windows of the dining room, my grandmother: talking long before we open the doors so that we tumble out of the car into the comforting white noise of a voice that would run uninterrupted for one week, two, until we are back in the car, turning in our seats to see her standing in the middle of the street waving and calling goodbye, goodbye until we turn the corner at the forest and begin the long, numbing trip back to Virginia, the weight that had lifted the instant I saw our own rocks and the sea and my grandmother opening the screen door settling in again, heavy at first, then almost forgotten until we returned to Maine and it lifted again.

Growing up, I believed I could only be happy if I lived by the sea. Nothing else would do. The idea of living on an inland body of water wasn’t exactly repugnant to me, but it was no different than the idea of living beside a field of corn, a sub-division, or a forest of new growth pines, ordinary enough to be profoundly depressing. When I tried to explain why I felt this way, I decided it was because I could look at the ocean whenever my life felt claustrophobic and know that it connected to everywhere I’d rather be.

View Larger Map

I spent my first full summer in Maine when I was twenty-seven and in grad school. For exercise, I started rowing a little rowboat in a loop around John’s Island. The first time it felt like an adventure, but soon it became a routine, though one that never bored me. From the mooring, I rowed northwest past the sand beach toward Knowles Rock, a reef outside the harbor where eider mothers tended dozens of fuzzy black ducklings. At high tide, I could pass a few inches over the rocks, looking down on lifted seaweed and the world below the surface it revealed. Then I rowed south down the west side of John’s Island, where a pair of nesting ospreys carved threatening circles above me. I rowed in the evenings when I could; the light was better and the colors brighter, and when I reached the southern end of the island and angled east, I faced the setting sun.

The deck on TZ Manor faces west across John’s Bay. My grandmother was enthusiastic about a lot of things in the world, nearly everything, (“All the new mammals and species they’re discovering and people just want to kill each other,” she remarked one morning as she read the paper), but I think she loved this sunset more than anything except maybe the moon and stars. When the sun dropped low enough to make a golden path across the bay, she would tell me: “This is when your grandfather Doug used to say, ‘Whaddaya say Dave?’ And your father would grab the rods and they’d go running out to the boat to go fishing for mackerel.”

Rowing east, I’d zone out looking into the layered clouds and lacey contrails until I heard the noise that meant I was near the south point of John’s Island, where the Atlantic Ocean rolled unimpeded from the bay mouth and whooshed and boomed on the long black rocks. I liked to cut it close as I made the turn towards home, rowing where the swells rose on my left as dark, deep water, lifted my boat, then slid away to my right, teal as a tropical sea and opaque like milk, foaming up the rock and returning to the ocean in hissing waterfalls.

I liked to fight the chop on windy days, but I also liked the uncanny calm that could settle over the water. I noticed each drop that fell from the oar blades and made interlocking ripples on the surface of the still, green water. The bronze oarlocks were dull green on the outside, but the oars had polished the insides all the way around. I could look up and see the gray sky sitting on the gray-green bay then sweep my gaze closer until I saw the darkness below the surface mingled with the clouds, then closer still, where the surface disappeared and I could see whatever was below me in that reverse world with a roof of air.

I liked being close to the ocean and the sky the way I like the darkness before sunrise and the slanted light on summer evenings and on long fall afternoons. It’s always soothed me to be between things.

Just a few months after my summer in Maine, I came back again over winter break. This was December, 2008. My Uncle Jim was visiting from his home in France. One day he made a wreath from things growing in the yard, and the next day the four of us drove down to Westborough. We stopped outside the house on O’Neil Drive where Jim and my father grew up, then went on to the cemetery where a stone from John’s Bay marked my grandfather’s grave. We placed the wreath and shouted greetings down to Doug. He’d been dead for forty-four years.

DSCN2211

“All I could think about,” Jim told me later, “was that Ma’s going to be down there with him before too long.”

After that, I started getting ready for Grammie’s death. I did it by imagining a world without her in it. At first it was a thought exercise, like trying to imagine a world without gravity, but finally it became a shadow world that ran for two years in weirdly comforting parallel to the world where she was undiminished. When my father finally called to tell me she’d been diagnosed with untreatable cancer, I was ready to switch the old world out for the new one. Change and loss were natural I told myself, there was no point in grieving the inevitable. I’d just moved to Minneapolis, and I was unemployed. I booked a ticket to come to Maine for two weeks at the end of June.

On that visit I used my camera to record grainy videos of my grandmother doing the things she’d done all my life: going around the living room at the end of the evening, turning off the lights one by one and narrating, as she did every night, why some stayed on and some went off. Or operating the animatronic toys she loved. I realized that although I’d been listening to her my whole life, I could never remember what she actually said. I was constantly interrupting a conversation to grab my journal and write something down. I knew she knew what I was doing, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life telling those terrible stories about how great someone is without being able to offer a single concrete example that differentiates them from the trillions of other people who were loved just as much.

“Well, I don’t think you should live each day because it could be your last,” Grammie said on July 2. “But on the other hand, I do think you should seize the day and enjoy every moment.”

I rowed alone that first week in Maine. I set out with my thoughts buzzing and heaving, but the rhythms of my shoulder blades turning the oars, and the steady rhythms of the sea, both large and small, worked out the knots until my thoughts ran smooth. There were summers when I never saw a harbor seal, but that summer I saw them every day. Fat, flippered dogs, they basked on Knowles Rock and slipped into the sea when I came close, surfacing a minute later behind my boat, inquisitive and impassive.

I thought of what they must see: a wavering path on the surface of the water, a double row of bubbling little vortices spaced evenly apart. Usually, all I could see was the calm, complex weaving on the metallic skin of the water. Sometimes I could see into the green and blue, a still world that started at the surface on which my small boat sat. Sometimes a seal followed me around the island.

The question that occurred to me as I rowed my teardrop loop was whether there was truly something particular to this place: the sea a vast, dead breathing thing, the salt mist of the open water mingled with the sweet, loamy smell of the pine forest, everything in motion, the sound of breaking surf and lapping waves, gull scream, the wing-whack of ducks taking flight. Can I feel this way anywhere else, was what I wondered.

I rowed over the waves at the tip of John’s Island, feeling them suck me toward the rocks but never taking me with them. They were strongest, best, most frightening, when the tide was incoming. And that was when it felt like I was flying home on the last leg of the journey, across the deepest water, with nothing at my back except my grandmother’s house.

I went around the island nearly every day, and every day Grammie greeted me, nearly shouting, as was her wont, “My God! You were so fast! Gramps and I were flabbergasted! We watched through the binocs until you disappeared behind John’s Island and we waited and waited and then you came around the other side and we were so excited.” Her wonder so great, as if I’d crossed into death and out the other side: my disappearing/ reappearing act.

Grammie and Gramps were worried about the eiders. There should have been flotillas of little black puffballs in front of the house by now, swimming tight together behind their mothers. It was never easy to be an eider duckling. Black back gulls were always grabbing stragglers. But this summer it seemed like something had gone terribly wrong. It was the Summer of Recovery, of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. Once when I walked up behind my grandmother and put my hand on her narrow shoulder, she guided it down her back until I was touching a knobby purple melanoma the size of my hand and hard like a bone.

When Liz arrived the second week, I rowed with her. This was not as soothing or as wholesome, but good in a different way. I got to look at her, sitting in the stern. She was beautiful, and her happiness made her more beautiful, and I knew the happiness came from being with me. We went for a long row after lunch on Friday, earlier than usual because Grammie and Gramps were gone for the day. They’d gone down to the cancer clinic in Boston. It was a clear, hot afternoon. The sky was pale blue scattered with good, white cumulus clouds, and the sea was dark blue and spangled by sunlight. We planned to row all the way to the Point, but when we came around some rocks expecting to see the lighthouse and instead saw only more shore, we decided we’d gone far enough.

When Liz got queasy and lay in the bottom of the boat to doze, I was alone. It was odd to row across the open water, with only the perfect line of the horizon beyond. I saw a dolphin traveling the same direction we were, towards the Thread of Life. We came home along the west bank of John’s Bay. The houses, inlets and rocks were unfamiliar to me and I was surprised to realize there could be so much here I didn’t know. Things changed after we got back. The doctors in Boston told Grammie and Gramps about some experimental trials, and they were already making plans to ride the bus every other week for treatment. In hindsight, I don’t think I ever really believed Grammie would get better, not for much longer anyway, but the small hope meant that for the rest of week I could stop saying goodbye to everything all the time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At the end of the second week Liz left for the airport on an early bus. I had six hours before Grammie drove me to Portland so I went for one last row after lunch. Alone again, I had the teeming, monkey-chatter thoughts I always had when I set out. But this time they were worse than normal, mean-spirited, calculating, and speculative. They were about what would happen to Grammie’s estate. It was something I’d told my brother it was foolish to worry about. But now I could not clear my head, not as I passed Knowles Rock looking for eider ducklings, not as I whistled at the curious seals, not as I passed the north point of John’s Island.

The world seemed a seething, bitter, unjust place, and I seemed naïve not to have recognized this sooner. I wondered why my row was exacerbating these thoughts, rather than dissolving them as it always had before. I decided it was the time of day: mid-day. The sunlight fell clear and dull, flattening colors. It was a time in the center, a non-time, neither coming nor going. It was a bad time to be alone, to be traveling in a circle. It was the time of day when so often in the last two years, I’d finish writing and become aware of the emptiness of my house.

As I made the turn around the island, I thought of how my father used to row around the bay when he was a boy. Rowing made me feel right, and I realized I’d inherited that the way he’d inherited his love of fishing. As I fought the waves at the tip of the island, my thoughts turned to high school wrestling, the singular experience of facing down another man in the ring, of trying to physically dominate or be dominated. My great fear was of being seen, of others knowing more about me than I knew of myself. As I rowed home with my back to Grammie’s house, over the deepest water, I thought of how I’d seen her that morning. We’d walked to a neighbor’s to deliver some cookies and found a little girl alone on the porch. The girl stood there frozen, looking mildly terrified, as my grinning, incoherently exclaiming grandmother bore down on her in the patriotically sequined stovepipe hat she’d been wearing all summer.

I realized Grammie was like one of those enormous ships I’d seen under construction in the Bath boatyards, loaded with goodwill and moving at full steam. I’d been sailing aboard the SS Bette for so long, I’d long ago stopped to consider just how great she was, how much dark water she displaced.

Six months later, she was dead.

A few weeks ago, Liz and I went up to Maine for our third summer without Grammie. Gramps is still “hanging in there” to use his phrase. He’s grown a handsome beard and keeps well through hot tub skinny dips, afternoon rides on his exercise bikes, and rum cocktails. He’s stopped building his famous makeshift docks across the rocks, so it’s hard to get the rowboat into the water. Last year my brother helped me haul it over the seaweed once or twice. This year, it stayed on the lawn. I still love chilling with Gramps, still love TZ Manor, but when we pull into the driveway, I can feel the weight not lifting the way it used to, and for the rest of the week it feels all the heavier for that. There are always moments, conversations on the rocks at sunset, a perfect cocktail hour on the deck, but TZ Manor has become more and more like the rest of the world.

The strange thing is that I’ve started to notice the places I used to overlook: the in-between places on the car trips, the old farmhouses with their fields ending in forests and no view of the water, the places that look like a lot like Northern Minnesota. It started on our last night in Maine on that summer of lasts, when Grammie and Gramps went to a birthday party and Liz and I borrowed the car to drive to Damariscotta for dinner.

It was dusk, and the Bristol Road was as idyllic as anything I’d ever seen: cozy houses with fruit trees and green lawns. Liz and I were talking about change. I was arguing that loss and pain are inevitable: to depend on anything is foolish and to grieve is unnecessary. We passed an old farmhouse with rows of gnarled grape vines growing in the yard, and a sentence came into my head unbidden: “This is the kind of place you want to hold on to forever.” Suddenly I felt overwhelmingly sad. Time was passing, this perfect place and perfect moment, perfect evening, perfect life, was ending as we lived it.

The sadness was sweet. It was a feeling that couldn’t be called pleasure or pain, like the unbearable anticipation I’d felt on my way to Maine as a boy. But unlike that feeling, this sadness released tension instead of cranking it up. It was the feeling I’d had two weeks before at the beginning of my visit, after Grammie, and Gramps, and I had cocktails on the porch, then drove to Round Pond for lobsters and oysters and clams on the wharf. Grammie had drunk more than we realized and the car was swerving on the narrow road as she tried to figure out her high beams while singing along to the CD of big band music that had come as a gift from the Paralyzed Veterans of America. Just as we pulled safely into the driveway, the first notes of “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” Grammie’s favorite song, began to play. Gramps and I hopped out, but she stayed in the car with the engine running, listening. As a joke, Gramps raised his arms to pull down the garage door and leave her in there for the night. But he stopped with both hands raised above his head.

It was past nine o’clock. The sun was down; the water shimmered pink and silver and black. The moon was up, and the evening star. The sunsets were everyone’s, but the bay at night, the moon and the Milky Way, were something Grammie and I had shared since I was little boy. The night before she’d called me out see the unbelievable silver brightness of the moonlight on the water. We’d stood in the dark together, listening to the invisible waves. Now I was alone on the lawn in the dusk. Gramps was in the driveway, illuminated by the taillights, his arms still raised above his head until he finally let them drop and we both just stood there, listening, as the minutes passed and the stars came out and the shimmer bled from the sea, as one song ended and a new one began, as Grammie sat in the dark garage, not yet ready to turn the ignition and end the music. It was June 21, the summer solstice, the shortest night of the year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.