WHO AM I? And how, I wonder, will this story end?
The sun has come up and I am sitting by a window that is foggy with the breath of a life gone by. I‟m a sight this morning: two shirts, heavy pants, a scarf wrapped twice
around my neck and tucked into a thick sweater knitted by my daughter thirty birthdays ago. The thermostat in my room is set as high as it will go, and a smaller space heater sits directly behind me. II clicks and groans and spews hot air like a fairy-tale dragon, and still my body shivers with a cold that will never go away, a cold that has been eighty years in the making. Eighty years. I wonder if this is how it is for everyone my age. My life? It isn‟t easy to explain. It has not been the rip-roaring spectacular I fancied it
would be, but neither have I burrowed around with the gophers. I suppose it has most resembled a blue-chip stock: fairly stable, more ups than downs, and gradually trending upwards over time. I‟ve learned that not everyone can say this about his life. But do not be misled. I am nothing special, of this I am sure. I am a common man with common thoughts, and I‟ve led a common life. There are no monuments dedicated to me and my name will soon be forgotten, but I‟ve loved another with all my heart and soul, and to
me this has always been enough.
The romantics would call this a love story: the cynics would call it a tragedy. In my mind it‟s a little bit of both, and no matter how you choose to view it in the end, it does
not change the fact that it involves a great deal of my life. I have no complaints about the path I‟ve chosen to follow and the places it has taken me—the path has always been
the right one. I wouldn‟t have had it any other way.
Time, unfortunately doesn‟t make it easy to stay on course. The path is straight as ever, but now it is strewn with the rocks and gravel that accumulate over a lifetime. Until three years ago it would have been easy to ignore, but it‟s impossible now. There is a sickness rolling through my body; I‟m neither strong nor healthy, and my days are spent like an old party balloon: listless, spongy and growing softer over time.
I cough, and through squinted eyes I check my watch. I realize it is time to go. I stand and shuffle across the room; stopping at the desk to pick up the notebook I have read a hundred times. I slip it beneath my arm and continue on my way to the place I must go. I walk on tiled floors, white speckled with grey. Like my hair and the hair of most people here, though I‟m the only one in the hallway this morning. They are in their rooms, alone except for television, but they, like me, are used to it. A person can get used to anything, given enough lime.
I hear the muffled sounds of crying in the distance and know who is making them. The nurses see me and we smile and exchange greetings. I am sure they wonder about me and the things that I go through every day. I listen as they begin to whisper among themselves when I pass.
“There he goes again.” I hear. “I hope it turns out well.” But they say nothing directly to me about it.
A minute later, I reach the room. The door has been propped open for me, as it usually is. There are two nurses in the room, and as I enter they say “Good morning” with cheery voices, and I take a moment to ask about the kids and the schools and upcoming vacations. We talk above the crying for a minute or so. They do not seem to notice: they have become numb to it, but then again, so have I.
Afterwards I sit in the chair that has come to be shaped like me. They are finishing up now; her clothes are on, but she is crying. It will become quieter after they leave. I know. The excitement of the morning always upsets her, and today is no exception. Finally the nurses walk out. Both of them touch me and smile as they walk by.
I sit for just a second and stare at her, but she doesn‟t return the look. I understand, for she doesn‟t know who I am. I‟m a stranger to her. Then, turning away, I how my head and pray silently for the strength I know I will need.
Ready now. On go the glasses, out of my pocket comes a magnifier. I put it on the table for a moment while I open the notebook. It takes two licks on my gnarled finger to get the well-worn cover open to the first page. Then I put the magnifier in place. There is always a moment right before I begin to read the story when my mind churns, and I wonder, will it happen today? I don‟t know, for I never know beforehand and deep down it really doesn‟t matter. It‟s the possibility that keeps me going. And though you
may call me a dreamer or a fool. I believe that anything is possible.
I realize that the odds, and science, are against me. But science is not the total answer. This I know, this I have learned in my lifetime. And that leaves me with the belief that miracles, no matter how inexplicable or unbelievable, are real and can occur without regard to the natural order of things. So once again, just as I do every day, I begin to read the notebook aloud, so that she can hear it, in the hope that the miracle that has come to dominate my life will once again prevail.
And maybe, just maybe, it will.
It was early October 1946, and Noah Calhoun watched the fading sun sink lower from the porch of his plantation-style home. He liked to sit here in the evenings, especially after working hard all day, and let his thoughts wander. It was how he relaxed, a routine he‟d learned from his father.
He especially liked to look at the trees and their reflections in the river. North Carolina trees are beautiful in deep autumn: greens, yellows, reds, oranges, every shade in between, their dazzling colours glowing with the sun.
The house was built in 1772, making it one of the oldest, as well as largest, homes in New Bern. Originally it was the main house on a working plantation, and he had bought it right after the war ended and had spent the last eleven months and a small fortune repairing it. The reporter from the Raleigh paper had done an article on it a few weeks ago and said it was one of the finest restorations he‟d ever seen. At least the house was.
The rest of the property was another story, and that was where Noah had spent most of the day.
The home sat on twelve acres adjacent to Brices Creek, and he‟d worked on the wooden fence that lined the other three sides of the property; checking for dry rot or termites, replacing posts where he had to. He still had more work to do on the west side, and as he‟d put the tools away earlier he‟d made a mental note to call and have some more timber delivered. He‟d gone into the house, drunk a glass of sweet tea, then showered, the water washing away dirt and fatigue.
Afterwards he‟d combed his hair back, put on some faded jeans and a long-sleeved
blue shirt, poured himself another glass of tea and gone to the porch, where he sat every day at this time.
He reached for his guitar, remembering his father as he did so, thinking how much he missed him. Noah strummed once, adjusted the tension on two strings, then strummed again, soft, quiet music. He hummed at first, then began to sing as night came down around him.
It was a little after seven when he stopped and settled back into his rocking chair. By habit, he looked upwards and saw Orion, the Big Dipper and the Pole Star, twinkling in the autumn sky.
He started to run the numbers in his head, then stopped. He knew he‟d spent almost his entire savings on the house and would have to find a job again soon, but he pushed the thought away and decided to enjoy the remaining months of restoration without worrying about it. It would work out for him, he knew: it always did.
Cem, his hound dog, came up to him then and nuzzled his hand before lying down at his feet. Hey girl, how‟re you doing?” he asked as he patted her head, and she whined softly, her soft round eyes peering upwards. A car accident had taken one of her legs, but she still moved well enough and kept him company on nights like these.
He was thirty-one now, not too old, but old enough to be lonely. He hadn‟t dated since he‟d been back here, hadn‟t met anyone who remotely interested him, It was his
own fault, he knew. There was something that kept a distance between him and any woman who started to get close, something he wasn‟t sure he could change even if he tried. And sometimes, in the moments before sleep, he wondered if he was destined to be alone for ever.
The evening passed, staying warm, nice. Noah listened to the crickets and the rustling leaves, thinking that the sound of nature was more real and aroused more emotion than things like cars and planes. Natural things gave back more than they took, and their sounds always brought him back to the way man was supposed to he. There were times during the war, especially after a major engagement, when he had often thought about these simple sounds. “It‟ll keep you from going crazy,” his father had told him the day he‟d shipped out. “It‟s God‟s music and it‟ll take you home.”
He finished his tea, went inside, found a book, then turned on the porch light on his way back out. After sitting down again, he looked at the book. It was old, the cover was torn, and the pages were stained with mud and water. It was Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, and he had carried it with him throughout the war. He let the book open randomly and read the words in front of him:
This is thy hour, 0 Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from hooks, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes
thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
He smiled to himself. For some reason Whitman always reminded him of New Bern, and he was glad he‟d come back. Though he‟d been away for fourteen years, this was home and he knew a lot of people here, most of them from his youth. It wasn‟t surprising. Like so many southern towns, the people who lived here never changed, they just grew a bit older.
His best friend these days was Gus, a seventy-year-old black man who lived down the road. They had met a couple of weeks after Noah bought the house, when Gus had shown up with some homemade liquor and Brunswick stew, and the two had spent their first evening together getting drunk and telling stories.
Now Gus showed up a couple of nights a week, usually around eight. With four kids and eleven grandchildren in the house, he needed to get out now and then, and Noah couldn‟t blame him. Usually Gus would bring his harmonica and, after talking for a little while, they‟d play a few songs together.
He‟d come to regard Gus as family. There really wasn‟t anyone else, at least not since his father died last year. He was an only child and his mother had died of influenza when he was two. And though he had wanted to at one time, he had never married. But he had been in love once, that he knew. Once and only once, and a long time ago. And it had changed him forever. Perfect love did that to a person, and this had been perfect.
Coastal clouds slowly began to roll across the evening sky, turning silver with the reflection of the moon. As they thickened, he leaned his head back against the rocking
chair. His legs moved automatically, keeping a steady rhythm, and he felt his mind drifting back to a warm evening like this fourteen years ago.
It was just after graduation 1932, the opening night of the Neuse River Festival. The town was out in full, enjoying barbecues and games of chance. It was humid that
for some reason he remembered that clearly. He arrived alone, and as he strolled night—
through the crowd, looking for friends, he saw Fin and Sarah, two people he‟d grown up with, talking to a girl he‟d never seen before. She was pretty, he remembered
thinking, and when he finally joined them, she looked his way with a pair of hazy eyes. “Hi,” she‟d said simply as she offered her hand. “Finley‟s told me a lot about you.”
An ordinary beginning, something that would have been forgotten had it been anyone but her. But as he shook her hand and met those striking emerald eyes, he knew before he‟d taken his next breath that she was the one he could spend the rest of his life looking
for but never find again. She seemed that good, that perfect.
From there, it went like a tornado wind. Fin told him she was spending the summer in New Bern with her family, because her father worked for a tobacco firm, and though he only nodded, the way she was looking at him made his silence seem okay. Fin laughed then, because he knew what was happening, and Sarah suggested they get some cherry cokes, and the four of them stayed at the festival until the crowds were thin and everything closed up for the night.
They met the following day, and the day after that, and they soon became inseparable. Every morning but Sunday, when he had to go to church, he would finish his chores as quickly as possible, then make a straight line to Fort Totten Park, where she‟d be waiting for him. Because she was a newcomer and hadn‟t lived in a small town before, they spent their days doing things that were completely new to her. He taught her how to bait a line and fish the shallows for largemouth bass and took her exploring through the backwoods of the Croatan Forest. They rode in canoes and watched summer thunderstorms, and it seemed as though they‟d always known each other.
But he learned things as well. At the town dance in the tobacco barn, it was she who taught him how to waltz and do the Charleston, and though they stumbled through the first few songs, her patience with him eventually paid off, and they danced together until the music ended. He walked her home afterwards, and when they paused on the porch after saying good night, he kissed her for the first time and wondered why he had waited as long as he had.
Later in the summer he brought her to this house, looked past the decay, and told her that one day he was going to own it and fix it up. They spent hours together talking about their dreams—his of seeing the world, hers of being an artist—and on a humid
night in August. They both lost their virginity. When she left three weeks later, she took a piece of him and the rest of summer with her. He watched her leave town on an early rainy morning, watched through eyes that hadn‟t slept the night before, then went home and packed a hag. He spent the next week alone on Harkers Island.
Noah checked his watch. Eight twelve. He got up and walked to the front of the house and looked up the road. Gus wasn‟t in sight, and Noah figured he wouldn‟t be coming. He went back to his rocker and sat again.
He remembered talking to Gus about her. The first time he mentioned her. Gus started
to shake his head and laugh. “So that‟s the ghost you been running from.” When asked what he meant. Gus said. “You know, the ghost, the memory. I been watchin‟ you workin‟ day and night, slavin‟ so hard you barely have time to catch your breath. People do that for three reasons. Either they crazy, or stupid, or tryin‟ to forget. And with you,
I knew you was tryin‟ to forget. I just didn‟t know what.”
Gus was right, of course. New Bern was haunted now. Haunted by the ghost of her memory. He saw her in Fort Totten Park, their place, every time he walked by. When he sat on the porch at night with his guitar, he saw her beside him, listening as he played the music of his childhood. Everywhere he looked, he saw things that brought her back to life.
Noah shook his head, and when her image began to fade he returned to Whitman. He read for an hour, looking up every now and then to see raccoons and possums scurrying near the creek. At nine thirty he closed the book, went upstairs to the bedroom and wrote in his journal. Forty minutes later he was sleeping. Clem wandered up the stairs, sniffed him as he slept, and then paced in circles before finally curling up at the foot of his bed.
EARLIER THAT evening and a hundred miles away, she sat alone on the porch swing of her parents‟ home, one leg tucked beneath her, wondering if she‟d made the
right decision. She‟d struggled with it for days—and had struggled some more this
evening—but in the end she knew she would never forgive herself if she let the oppor-tunity slip away.
Lon didn‟t know the real reason she left the following morning. The week before,
she‟d hinted to him that she might want to visit some antique shops near the coast. “It‟s just a couple of days,” she said, “and besides, I need a break from planning the wedding.” She felt bad about the lie, but knew there was no way she could tell him the
truth. Her leaving had nothing to do with him, and it wouldn‟t he fair of her to ask him to understand.
It was an easy drive from Raleigh, slightly more than two hours, and she arrived a little before eleven. She checked into a small inn downtown, went to her room and unpacked her suitcase, hanging her dresses in the closet and putting everything else in the drawers. She had a quick lunch, asked the waitress for directions to the nearest antique stores, then spent the next few hours shopping. By four thirty she was back in her room.
She sat on the edge of the bed, picked up the phone and called Lon. He couldn‟t speak long, but before they hung up she gave him the phone number where she was staying and promised to call the following day. Good, she thought while hanging up the phone. Routine conversation, nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to make him suspicious.
She‟d known him almost four years now, it was 1942 when they met, the world at war and America one year in. Everyone was doing their part and she was volunteering at the hospital downtown. The first waves of wounded young soldiers were coming home, and she spent her days with broken men and shattered bodies. When Lon, with his easy charm, introduced himself at a party, she saw in him exactly what she needed: someone with confidence about the future and a sense of humour that drove all her fears
He was handsome, intelligent and driven, a successful lawyer eight years older than she, and he pursued his job with passion, not only winning cases but also making a name for himself. She understood his vigorous pursuit of success, for her father and most of the men she met in her social circle were the same way. Like them, he‟d been raised that way, and, in the caste system of the South, family name and accomplishments were often the most important consideration in marriage. In some cases they were the only consideration.
Though she had quietly rebelled against this idea since childhood and had dated a few men best described as reckless, she found herself drawn to Lon‟s easy ways and had
gradually come to love him. Despite the long hours he worked, he was good to her. He was a gentleman, mature and responsible, and during those terrible periods of the war when she needed someone to hold her, he never once turned her away. She felt secure with him and knew he loved her as well and that was why she had accepted his proposal.
Thinking these things made her feel guilty about being here, and she knew she should pack her things and leave before she changed her mind. She picked up her handbag, hesitated and almost made it to the door. But coincidence had pushed her here, and she put the bag down, again realizing that if she quit now she would always wonder what would have happened. She couldn‟t live with that
She went to the bathroom and started a bath. After checking the temperature she walked to the chest of drawers in the bedroom, taking off her gold earrings as she crossed the room. She found her sponge bag, opened it and pulled out a razor and a bar of soap, then undressed in front of the chest of drawers. She looked at herself in the mirror. Her body was firm and well proportioned, breasts softly rounded, stomach flat, legs slim. She‟d inherited her mother‟s high cheekbones, smooth skin and blonde hair,
but her best feature was her own. She had “eyes like ocean waves”, as Lon liked to say.
Taking the razor and soap, she went to the bathroom again, turned off the tap, set a towel where she could reach it and stepped gingerly into the bath.
She liked the way a bath relaxed her, and she slipped lower in the water. The day had been long and her back was tense, but she was pleased she had finished shopping so quickly. She had to go hack to Raleigh with something tangible, and the things she had picked out would work fine. She made a mental note to find the names of some other stores in the Beaufort area, then suddenly doubted she would need to. Lon wasn‟t the type to check up on her.
She reached for the soap, lathered up and began to shave her legs. As she did, she thought about her parents and what they would think of her behaviour. No doubt they would disapprove, especially her mother. Her mother had never really accepted what had happened the summer they‟d spent here and wouldn‟t accept it now; no matter what
reason she gave.
She soaked a while longer in the bath before finally getting out and towelling off. She went to the closet and looked for a dress, finally choosing a long yellow one that dipped slightly in the front, the kind that was common in the South. She slipped it on and looked in the mirror, turning from side to side. It fitted her well, but she eventually
decided against it and put it back on the hanger. Instead she found a more casual, less revealing dress and put that on. Light blue with a touch of lace, it buttoned up at the front, and though it didn‟t look quite as nice as the first one, it conveyed an image she thought would be more appropriate.
She wore little make-up, just a touch of eye shadow and mascara to accent her eyes. Perfume next, not too much. She found a pair of small hooped earrings, put those on, then slipped on the tan, low-heeled sandals she had been wearing earlier. She brushed her blonde hair, pinned it up and looked in the mirror. No, it was too much, she thought, and she let it back down. Better.
When she was finished she stepped back and evaluated herself. She looked good: not too dressy, not too casual. She didn‟t want to overdo it. After all, she didn‟t know what to expect. It had been a long time—probably too long—and many different things could
have happened, even things she didn‟t want to consider.
She looked down and saw her hands were shaking, and she laughed to herself. It was strange; she wasn‟t normally this nervous.
She found her handbag and car keys, then picked up the room key. She turned it over in her hand a couple of times, thinking - You‟ve come this far, don‟t give up now. She
nearly left then, but instead sat on the bed again. She checked her watch. Almost six o‟clock. She knew she had to leave in a few minutes—she didn‟t want to arrive after
dark—but she needed a little more time.
“Damn,” she whispered. “What am I doing here? I shouldn‟t be here. There‟s no reason for it.” But once she said it she knew it wasn‟t true. If nothing else, she would
have her answer.
She opened her handbag and thumbed through it until she came to a folded-up piece of newspaper. After taking it out slowly, almost reverently, she unfolded it and stared at it for a while. “This is why,” she finally said to herself, “this is what it‟s all about.”
NOAH GOT UP at five and kayaked for an hour up Brices Creek, as he usually did. When he finished he changed into his work clothes, warmed some bread rolls from the day before, grabbed a couple of apples and washed his breakfast down with two cups of coffee.
He worked on the fencing again, repairing the posts. It was an Indian summer, the temperature over eighty degrees, and by lunchtime he was hot and tired and glad of the break.
He ate at the creek because the mullets were jumping. He liked to watch them jump three or four limes and glide through the air before vanishing into the brackish water. For some reason he had always been pleased by the fact that their instinct hadn‟t changed for thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of years.
Sometimes he wondered if man‟s instincts had changed in that lime and always concluded that they hadn‟t. At least in the basic, most primal ways. As far as he could tell, man had always been aggressive, always striving to dominate, trying to control the world and everything in it. The war in Europe and Japan proved that.
He stopped working a little after three and walked to a small shed that sat near his dock. He went in, found his fishing pole, a couple of lures and some live crickets he
kept on hand, then walked out to the dock, baited his hook and cast his line. Fishing always made him reflect on his life, and he did so now. After his mother died he could remember spending his days in a dozen different homes. For one reason or another, he stuttered badly as a child and was teased for it. He began to speak less and less, and by the age of five he wouldn‟t speak at all. When he started classes, his teachers thought he was retarded and recommended that he be pulled out of school. Instead, his father took matters into his own hands. He kept him in school and afterwards made him come to the timber yard where he worked, to haul and stack wood. “It‟s good that we spend some time together,” he would say as they worked side-by-side, “just like my daddy and I did.”
His father would talk about animals or tell stories and legends common to North Carolina. Within a few months Noah was speaking again, though not well, and his father decided to teach him to read with books of poetry. “Learn to read this aloud and you‟ll be able to say anything you want to.” His father had been right again, and by the following year Noah had lost his stutter. But he continued to go to the timber yard every day simply because his father was there, and in the evenings he would read the works of Whitman and Tennyson aloud as his father rocked beside him. He had been reading poetry ever since.
When he got a little older he spent most of his weekends and vacations alone. He explored the Croatan forest in his first canoe, following Brices Creek for twenty miles until he could go no further, then hiked the remaining miles to the coast. Camping and exploring became his passion, and he spent hours in the forest, whistling quietly and playing his guitar for beavers and geese and wild blue herons. Poets knew that isolation in nature, far from people and things man-made, was good for the soul, and he‟d always
identified with poets.
Although he was quiet, years of heavy lifting at the timber yard helped him excel in sports, and his athletic success led to popularity. He enjoyed the football and track meets, and, though most of his teammates spent their free time together as well, he rarely joined them. He had a few girlfriends in school but none had ever made an impression on him. Except for one. And she came after graduation.
Allie. His Allie.
He remembered talking to Fin about Allie after they left the festival that first night, and Fin had laughed. Then he‟d made two predictions: first that they would fall in love, and second that it wouldn‟t work out.
There was a slight tug at his line and Noah hoped for a large-mouth bass, but the tugging eventually stopped and, after reeling his line in and checking the bait, he cast again.
Fin ended up being right on both counts. Most of the summer she had to make excuses to her parents whenever they wanted to see each other. It wasn‟t that they didn‟t like him—it was that he was from a different class, too poor, and they would never approve if their daughter became serious with someone like him. “I don‟t care what my parents
think, I love you and always will,” she would say. “We‟ll find a way to be together.”
But in the end they couldn‟t. By early September the tobacco had been harvested and she had no choice but to return with her family to Winston-Salem. “Only the summer is
over, Allie, not us,” he‟d said the morning she left. “We‟ll never be over.” But they were. For a reason he didn‟t understand, the letters he wrote went unanswered.
He decided to leave New Bern to help get her off his mind, and also because the Depression made earning a living in New Bern almost impossible. He went first to Norfolk and worked at a shipyard for six months before he was laid off, then moved to New Jersey because he‟d heard the economy wasn‟t so bad there.
He found a job in a scrap yard, separating scrap metal from everything else. The owner, a Jewish man named Morris Goldman, was intent on collecting as much scrap metal as he could, convinced that a war was going to start in Europe and that America would be dragged in again. Noah didn‟t care. He was just happy to have a job.
He worked hard. Not only did it help him keep his mind off Allie during the day, but it was something he felt he had to do. His daddy had always said: “Give a day‟s work for a day‟s pay. Anything less is stealing.” That attitude pleased his boss. “It‟s a shame you aren‟t Jewish,” Goldman would say, “you‟re such a fine boy in so many other ways.” It was the best compliment Goldman could give.
He continued to think about Allie at night. He wrote to her once a month but never received a reply. Eventually he wrote one final letter and forced himself to accept the fact that the summer they‟d spent with one another was the only thing they‟d ever share.
Still, though, she stayed with him. Three years after the last letter, he went to Winston-Salem in the hope of finding her. He went to her house, discovered that she had moved and, after talking to some neighbours, finally called her father‟s firm. The girl who answered was new and didn‟t recognize the name, but she poked around the
personnel files for him. She found out that Allie‟s father had left the company and that no forwarding address was listed. That was the first and last time he ever looked for her. For the next eight years he worked for Goldman. As the years dragged on, the company grew and he was promoted. By 1940 he had mastered the business and was running the entire operation, brokering the deals and managing a staff of thirty. The yard had become the largest scrap-metal dealer on the east coast.
During that time he dated a few different women. He became serious with one, a waitress from the local diner with deep blue eyes and silky black hair. Although they dated for two years and had many good times together, he never came to feel the same way about her as he did about Allie. She was a few years older than he was, and it was she who taught him the ways to please a woman, the places to touch and kiss, the things to whisper.
Towards the end of their relationship she‟d told him once, “I wish I could give you
what you‟re looking for, but I don‟t know what it is. There‟s a part of you that you keep closed off from everyone, including me. It‟s as if your‟ mind is on someone else. It‟s like you keep waiting for her to pop out of thin air to take you away from all this. . .” A
month later she visited him at work and told him she‟d met someone else. He understood. They parted as friends, and the following year he received a postcard from her saying she was married. He hadn‟t heard from her since.
In December 1941, when he was twenty-six, the war began, just as Goldman had predicted. Noah walked into his office the following month and informed Goldman of his intent to enlist, then returned to New Bern to say goodbye to his father. Five weeks