Fare Thee Well
The rooms of the old house with its stale air, yellowed wall-paper, and dusty, threadbare furniture slowly emptied as his father's old friends shuffled out. They came in small groups, ate their share of the modest buffet, paid their respects, maybe shared a story...a remembrance or two, took a final look around the house to digest the memories, and then left. He could see that most of them felt awkward and confused; hell, most of them had attended many a dinner party at the house over the years and that was the only perception they had of it. But that was all before; back when his mother and her endearing personality and good-natured disposition had warmed the house and the guests within.
He could simultaneously talk with everyone in the room, keeping perfect time in each conversation, and actively participate"a gift from his mother. He could see the memories in their distant, old eyes; and the doubt and confusion that accompanied the closing of another chapter of their lives.
And he understood. He too was closing a chapter. His parents were both gone and with them they took his boyhood securities and resentments. And all that remained was an old house, with an overgrown yard bordering on the Creek and the Woods.
The Woods: a wooded lot that, to a boy still young and growing, appeared to be a vast and tangled jungle. No one was really sure who owned the plot. Maybe that's what saved it when everywhere else prefabricated houses and business parks sprang up like horrible weeds of concrete, paint, and glass. The strip mall suburban wasteland.
The Woods was his sanctuary from all the noise of the busy, grownup world...from all the yelling and arguing...and from the angry tears that inevitably followed. His home wasn't a bad home. He wasn't beaten or neglected really. On the surface it appeared to be a happy home, but there were some festering resentments that ate at both his mother and father and reared their ugly heads in otherwise ordinary disagreements. In the Woods though, with its soft, green leaves and cool moist soil he was offered something more.
In the Woods he could be a hero, a champion, and adventurer. He and his friends could defend the Front against the fascists or whatever other enemy to freedom there was that particular day; they could wander through the deepest, darkest paths of the heart of Africa or the Amazon; or they could be pioneers and construct shelters against the elements and attacking native tribesmen.
But mostly they were just together. They were a family unto themselves. When they were all together, each contributing his own uniqueness, a charged creative energy was created that suspended reality and created alternate perceptions that were every bit as real to them as any normal day. Their illusions were engaging and challenging, but were also full of real and always attainable possibilities. The illusions were also always too short.
He found himself walking across his father's back yard, cutting a path through the dense and tall grass. He was approaching the Woods and was all but unaware that he was even doing it. He walked slowly, almost in a daze. The faces came into view of his mind's eye gradually, like glimpses of aged photographs"grainy, distorted, faded. Slowly the visions came into focus and gradually the faces began to assume those of his childhood mates, most of whom he hadn't seen in what seemed a lifetime. At first, all he had were faces, but the names soon followed.
And the Woods became larger as he drew nearer. It seemed that he was still and the Woods were approaching him. The rush of fear that normally would have accompanied such an hallucination never emerged. He felt anxious and disoriented, like a mind suffering from severe fever, but not afraid.
He stepped across the Creek, a mere drainage ditch dug out at the back of his father's yard, that at one time seemed as big as the Nile and as wily as the Amazon. Crunching and cracking the drying foliage and dense undergrowth beneath his shoes, he trudged across the partially cleared field. There weren't any trees, just thin stalked saplings and weeds that were never allowed to mature. Like the wispy hair on a balding man's head, the growth was more there in spirit than in function. There were bike paths cut cleanly down less cleanly cut, but larger foot paths. He followed one of these paths until he stopped; and there he was...on the edge of the Woods.
One more step and, like a lighthouse's single guiding beam, a flood of memories washed across his mind and guided him deeper into his past. The faded mental images stepped from behind the fog of the past, gaining clarity and distinction. Along with the faces and names, he could now hear voices...children's voices...his friends' voices.
There was JJ Gurhstein...the tallest of his friends and also the most susceptible to any and all germs. He had allergies and ailments that left him with a perpetually running nose and a pocket full of medications, inhalers, and tissues. He would have been a great basketball player, but his mother wouldn't let him play for fear of hurting himself. Hell, she barely let him play at all. He used to say that since his daddy "went away", he was all she had left and she wasn't gonna let some gang of juvenile delinquents get her boy sick or in trouble. And that was exactly how she sounded when she scolded him loud enough for all of them to hear after they'd walked him home. He came and played on warm, sunny days but was always home before dark. He never got a chance to play flashlight tag or hunt lightning bugs in the Woods or go camping or even stay out after dark on Halloween. But JJ was JJ and that was good enough for them.
There were the Clark twins, Jimmy and Timmy, who were always fighting with one another but could never be found separated from one another. They were a pair of rough and tumble boys who came from a huge family that lived in the biggest and oldest house in the neighborhood. Their daddy had worked in the auto industry and had hurt his back on the job, forcing him to stay at home and collect disability checks. That meant that they, the kids in the neighborhood, spent more time with him than most of the other adults around. He was an alright sort of a guy for a grown-up, a lot like the kids, but he lost his temper all the time. It was during one of his angry fits that he gave Timmy the scar on his forehead that made it easy to distinguish him from his brother.
There was Billy Sheldin who was really the engineer of the group. He could build, dig, or fix just about anything. He was always the one who knew how to do things. He was the one who fabricated the street's only working soap box derby racer. They all knew that it was fast but lacking any real hills, they only had foot power to generate any speed. He figured out how to build the best tree forts any of them had ever imagined, sometimes running rope lines between two platforms in different trees. None of them knew from where he got his ideas, but they were all thankful for his ingenuity and his father's tools.
The memory that was most vivid though was that of Jeremiah Billings. There was something about him that just set him apart from all of them. That same something also made him that much more a part of their group. Something strong and wise. He was always the one with the ideas. He got them from books...that he read! Books without any pictures to speak of and with titles like The Odyssey, The Last of the Mohicans, The Three Musketeers, and Treasure Island.
Jeremiah would get an idea and they would listen like an audience of a great bard of old. He would spin a tale of adventure and daring and they would be off, journeying to far off worlds...right there in the Woods.
He remembered camping just on the edge of the Woods with Jeremiah on one long ago summer night. His mother brought out hot cocoa and marshmallows, despite the warm weather. Sitting just inside the opening to their tent, they talked and talked all through the night and just watched the dark, rural Indiana sky. He couldn't, no matter how hard he tried, remember or even imagine a sky that was so perfectly dark and beautiful as on that night. It revealed a great mosaic of glowing, distant worlds and stars. And Jeremiah showed him all the star constellations and told him the stories of great kings, heroes, and gods from a long ago time that all but defied history. He spoke with such an easy rhythm, like he was singing each and every syllable.
The memory was so full and electric that he all but fell over when it suddenly faded. He felt lost...cast adrift in the deepening forest all around him. Still he continued on, feeling lonely as he walked deeper and deeper. He kept moving forward choosing his steps with care through the tangled underbrush.
Had he really run wildly through there when he was younger? It was a wonder that he hadn't broken his neck.
He walked steadily on until he came to the spot. It was a great pile of earth and huge stones, probably put there centuries ago by the farmer who originally cleared the adjoining field. Jeremiah had called the mound Little Round Top, something he had picked up in a history book about the Civil War.
Little Round Top became their place. It was where they always met. It was sacred and hallowed like an Indian burial ground. They could climb up to the top and lounge about in the sun and talk. Or they could crawl into one of the many burrows that had been dug around the base under Billy's direction. More rocks, fallen trees, and earth were carried up the slopes to construct walls and towers. They also, at one time, built a small cabin on the crest from lumber they pillaged from the numerous construction sites all throughout the rapidly expanding neighborhood. All in all, it was as good of a stronghold as one could want and they had built it. It was something anyone and everyone could look upon. It was real and they were responsible for it. That was a feeling that couldn't be beaten once upon a time.
He could remember one time. It was after a particularly vocal argument at home. He was sent to his room which always meant that he was forgotten for the evening. He snuck away and ran away from the voices rising steadily again. He ran hard and leapt the creek without missing even a beat in his pace. He ran into the woods which were dark and all but impassable to the novice wanderer. He was, however, an experienced woodsman and could find his way along the trails blindfolded. That was his opinion back then anyway. In reality, he had run up and down the paths that he and his friends had cut endlessly for years. He made his way toward safety...toward the stronghold. When he got to Little Round Top, Jeremiah was already there.
He could still see Jeremiah, standing there in his Mickey Mouse t-shirt and blue jeans with knees worn to threads. Jeremiah offered a smile and understanding eyes. And they sat on the top of the mound and didn't say a word. The moment stretched into minutes and minutes threatened an hour. But time had no more place in that moment than did words.
The moment wasn't silent, however. The Woods were speaking...singing, really. It was a language that knew only night. Foreign. Slightly feral but in a domesticated sort of way. There was no real danger around them to speak of; merely the suggestion of it. As enticing to the senses as an amusement park roller coaster.
Between the silence and the roar, he felt an odd variety of peace. The air was heavy with the moist green scent of life which beckoned and soothed. He tilted his head back and looked up at the stars trying to remember all the names and stories that his friend had told him. He spotted the three bright stars in a row and had all but remembered "Orion" aloud when Jeremiah broke the silence. He uttered a statement as if it were nothing that, until that moment, he had only heard said by actors at climactic moments in films.
Jeremiah said, never looking away from the stars, "I'm dying."
He shook off the daze, trying to remember that he was an adult again and get his bearings. The sun was much lower on the horizon. How long had he been there? Time was just getting completely away from him.
There was some movement to his left that caught his eye and made him jump. The figure slipped behind a tree and disappeared from sight as quickly as he saw him. Then a face peeked around the mossy trunk; the face of a child with a playful smile. Relieved, he smiled back. The face disappeared again behind the trunk only to reappear from the other side. This time, he could more clearly see the child's eyes. They were not the eyes of a child. They were strong and wise and vaguely familiar.
And then the child stepped from behind the tree and motioned for him to come over. Despite any of his misgivings, he complied and made his way to him. At first, he wasn't sure what he was seeing...maybe he was just wanting to be seeing...it couldn't possibly be. The boy was wearing a worn grey Mickey Mouse t-shirt and old blue jeans with thread bare knees. And the eyes were familiar because he had seen them long ago.
The boy wearing the Mickey Mouse shirt and jeans pulled away a sizeable patch of moss from the trunk and exposed its wood torso. Upon this torso, the boys who had built the stronghold all tattooed their names long ago and there the names remained. He looked at the names and then looked at the boy. He couldn't contain his emotion any more than he could deny what he was seeing.
This vision of Jeremiah, long gone and until then, all but forgotten, was there and it was real. Tears pooled in the corners of the man's eyes and threatened to spill down his cheeks. He touched his fingertips to the carved names. His fingers glided across the letters of his name, finding the grooves of the H-E-N-R-Y. And just below his name, in fact the last name on the list was Jeremiah's.
His memories then were random and scattered, with no coherence. He was struggling to grasp any definite images following Jeremiah's revelation but there was nothing...at first. He did, however, feel a bitter, rising resentment that had been buried deep within himself for so long that it actually hurt when it burst forth. Back then, he sat on the edge of secrets that were never fully hidden nor ever fully revealed. He was left with unknown questions and unwanted answers. In the end, all he could remember was the painful memory of the loss of a dear friend and the strides through which his parents had gone to distance him from the ordeal.
On that day long ago, he and Jeremiah talked for a long while. Jeremiah told him that he was the only one, besides his parents and the doctor, that knew. He was sick and they couldn't figure out what was wrong.
And the funny thing was that the voice that he heard in his memory was calm, almost serene. Henry had not detected even a hint of fear from his friend. It was a cancer...in his blood, he said.
And then there was nothing in his memory of Jeremiah. His parents had isolated him away from Jeremiah, as did the other kids' parents.
They'd stand around at one of his mother's dinner parties and say things like, "Oh, it's just terrible about that boy...Oh, that's why I don't let little Billy see him anymore...It's just too risky...I hope they find a cure, until then, JJ isn't going to take any chances. He's all I've got left."
The stamina of children's easily distracted attentions was really to blame for Jeremiah's ultimate disappearance. Their parents distracted them with clubs, sports, outings, and the general chaos that overactive parents create for their children who would be just as happy playing out back...in the Woods...on Little Round Top. But Jeremiah was buried long before he was ever dead. His friends and companions on adventures in the Woods, with the exception of a passing thought about a friend they hadn't see in a long time, had forgotten him.
Jeremiah died at home in his room in his bed about a year later. Henry's mother didn't tell him until more than a week afterward...well after the funeral. She wanted to spare him the pain.
Jeremiah spoke, jolting him back again. He looked directly into Henry's eyes and said, "She didn't know. She thought it was for the best. Nobody really knew. Not back then. There was only fear and unknown. It was hard for everyone."
"Jeremiah, is that really you? I mean...am I just imagining...? I...I..."
"Yeah, it's me. I'm glad you came. I've missed you."
The voice was the alto of a child but it carried a resonance that vibrated with wisdom, like the primal chant of a shaman. But then, Jeremiah was always that way. He never really spoke like any of the other kids and never thought like an adult. He talked and acted like that poet that he had dragged all of the guys to see with him in the park one summer afternoon.
"You know something, Jeremiah? As weird as it is for me to say it, I can actually say that it's good to see you too.
"Am I sleeping? I was just thinking...well, remembering something. I don't know. Maybe I was trying to remember what it was to be happy and I remembered you. Are you a dream?"
Jeremiah cracked a glorious smile and said, "I'm here and so are you and if it's easier for you to think that here is a dream, well so be it. But the important thing is that we're here, now."
Nodding toward the rough hill, he playfully asked, "You wanna climb to the top?" and Jeremiah was off up the hill.
A little surprised at first, Henry quickly found himself storming up the muddy, mossy, and grassy slope to the rocky summit of Little Round Top. The walls had long since crumbled and the wooden cabin had been torn down, a scant few pieces of the tattered planks scattered here and there. He sat down on a rock across from Jeremiah sitting on a tree stump. There was a brief silence between them and then the thoughts and fears and doubts and anger preying on his weary mind finally triumphed and he broke. The tears were hot on his cheeks and the sobs, which he had successfully controlled when his father had been laid to rest earlier that day, were unstoppable. His chest was hot and tight, restricting his breathing to quick, shallow breaths.
He fell to his knees and pleaded, "I'm sorry Jeremiah! I couldn't...they wouldn't let me...I just...I!!!!"
He stood up, the anger overwhelming him, and shouted to the waning sun, "Why did you do that???? He was my only friend and you took him from me!!!! Damn you!!!" He fell back on his knees and got close to Jeremiah's face, "My parents, they wouldn't let me see you. They said that I might get sick too. So, I got afraid too or that's what I thought. What I was really afraid of was losing you and your friendship but that happened anyway. I could've run away. I should've. Why didn't I do anything?"
Jeremiah shook his head with such patience and care. "You were only a kid. And your parents thought they were doing what was best for you. How could they have known? It was all so new and scary then. Besides, all isn't lost. We're here, now. We have this moment for ourselves, to get to know one another again. We're here for a reason. I can feel that. Let's not squander an opportunity."
Henry wiped the sorrow from his brow with the soiled white shirt sleeve. He asked, "So now what?"
The talking came easy as it turned out. He told Jeremiah of his life, of growing up, of working, and loving women. He felt young again; rejuvenated and fit. He felt better than he had in years. It was so comfortable and natural. They found themselves sliding neatly into their groove again.
The minutes crept into hours quietly and ate away at the evening. The Woods became alive again with the chorus of the night as it had on that night so many years before. Cicada, frogs, ground squirrels, and birds all sang to the full moon and the dark night sky.
He was vaguely aware of the passing of time, but it was only a fleeting knowledge like when he was a child. It was great. Such freedom.
The moment was pure and vibrant, teeming with life in much the same way as the Woods. And as they talked, his thoughts and words changed focus toward his parents, especially his father. The tears came again, but this time they were welcome and refreshing, like a cleansing rain.
Jeremiah was standing again, in a fairly awkward manner. Cocking his head to one side, he breathed deeply and then said, "It's almost time. I think we need to say good-bye."
Jeremiah's words crashed in on his thoughts and brought glimpses of approaching anxiety, "What do ya mean it's almost time to say good-bye. It's only been a few hours."
"No, it's been a lifetime and I thank you for it. I've lived today an entire and very full life and all because of you. You've given to me what no one else possibly could have. And now it's time to say good-bye."
"But we can't."
Jeremiah said apologetically while shaking his head, "We must. All things must pass but hold on to the moments. It's in the moment where you'll always find me...where I'll endure. But this...this moment is what it is and it's about saying good-bye."
Surrendering his protests, Henry answered Jeremiah's embrace and the two of them hugged one another tightly, almost to the point of pain, but Henry held on. Maybe if he could hold on to Jeremiah, then he wouldn't have to be alone and the moment wouldn't pass. But he could feel Jeremiah's form almost shrink as he faded and then was gone. And he stood there with his arms across his chest, hugging himself, and for just a second, the night observed a reverent moment of silence and the only sound was a warm breeze that rustled through the trees away from Little Round Top and up to the purple night sky.
He spent the rest of the night out on Little Round Top, spending most of the night somewhere between consciousness and sleep. His thoughts were peaceful and comforting, but lacked any real direction. He thought about his father quite a bit, but the old familiar bitterness was gone. Instead, he remembered Labor Day picnics at the park, the drive-in movies in the back of the van, and being carried in to the house after getting back late from a trip to Grandma's. He remembered only the smiles for a change and finally felt ready to bid his Father a fond farewell.
He locked his Father's house at dawn. He felt different as he stood outside the door. He had decided to sell the house and already had an agent working for him from Century 21. As he stood there though on the porch in front of the old house, he wasn't so sure as to what he was going to do anymore. After all, he was kind of hesitant about parting with something that meant so much to him and was filled with such warm memories of his youth.