Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Tombstone


Ruth and Noel and Joe and I went to Moscow Idaho one Autumn weekend. If you read Screen Saver you know that Ruth was my first wife and Noel and Joe were our sons. If you didn’t read Screen Saver, Ruth was nonetheless my first wife, and Noel and Joe were our two sons.

We went one time to Moscow to visit Jack and Ted. Again from Screen Saver, Jack was a close friend whom I had met in high school and who remained a close friend for a significant portion of the rest of my life; Ted was his roommate for awhile during their time in law school; Ted is still my friend.
We went to visit the site of their being roommates, a beautifully finished daylight basement apartment on Moscow Mountain, not far out of Moscow; Moscow is the home of the University of Idaho and the law school that Jack and Ted were attending.

The daylight basement apartment where they lived was the lower level of a recently built house belonging to Doctor Tenny, a professor in the English Department at the University. Doctor – inevitably he was called behind his back “Doc” – lived in the upper rest of the house with his wife.

The day we arrived we met the Doctor before we had found Jack and Ted. It was late mid-afternoon on a beautiful blue and gold shimmering October day. Doc Tenny was in the rather large driveway terminus that doubled as a parking pad directly in front of the windows of Jack and Ted’s apartment. Doc Tenny greeted us with almost courtly welcoming courtesy. The majority of that attention and courtesy seemed to be directed to Ruth, but that didn’t particularly surprise me. Ruth was thought by many people to look like Ingrid Bergman – I wasn’t one of them – and I assumed that the Doctor, a man in his seventies, didn’t often have attractive young blonde women as his guest. I quickly felt as if I were a hindrance to something, but that was a fleeting impression. One of the things I learned before leaving was that Ruth was certainly not of a scarce or unusual genre at the Doctor’s abode. He conducted an honors upper division literature class consisting mostly of young women not much different from Ruth, and part of the potential advanced credit curriculum involved visits to the Doctor at his domicile on the Mountain for in-depth literary analysis.

As a part of the welcoming pleasantries the Doctor gestured vaguely in the direction of what appeared to be an automobile. It must have been a 1957 Dodge, but it was somewhat hard to ascertain its exact lineage because where there once had been fins and fenders and lights there were dents and holes and bumps and roundness. Not long in the future from that October day the snows would come and, being on a mountain, the ice would follow. The garage and driveway during that time of the year became a place requiring caution, and caution was a thing that the Doctor, it seemed, lacked. Old Overholt apparently made a bad time of the year for driving not seem so bad at all; apparently due to that spiritual influence, the Doctor’s car had gradually become a shapeless lump of dented and rounded sheet metal. Jack and Ted said watching him get the vehicle out of the garage and launched out of the parking apron, down the mountain-trail-like driveway to the main highway was an experience not to be missed; the return, they said was equally exciting. The essence of the fins could still be perceived, which is how I knew that it was a Dodge; it was a well used vehicle.

The gesture to the lump-like automobile was accompanied by a running dialogue in something resembling drunken Elizabethan (or at least not contemporary American) English. “Behold yonder stands the noblest of steeds. She carries me unto battle and victory over the stanchions of evil.”
Noel and Joe were beginning to pay attention. Ruth didn’t know what to say. Nor did I. With murmurs from the two boys – murmurs of something between admiration and caution – and silence from Ruth and me, he continued. “I gainsay those who call her a cheval qui a la coeur bris√©. She is merely reaching her threshold of greatness.”
With that he lurched toward the steps leading to his portion of the domicile. “Join me, children, in the curtilage for an imbibement. “ And up and in he went.

We were just looking at one another, wondering what to do next and wondering where our friends and hosts were when they appeared.

“We saw you coming and saw him out there and decided the only proper entrance for you – since such an opportunity was available – was for you folks to get a shot of the Doc unfiltered. You would have thought we were making it up otherwise,” said Ted. He was something of a poet. “He invited us in, and that isn’t an invitation to be taken lightly,” said Jack.

“What dost thou desire, fair damsel?” boomed across the large great room-with-massive-fireplace. Ruth being the only damsel present, I assumed the Doctor was addressing her. “Gin and tonic?” she asked. “Your every wish shall be granted,” rejoined Doc Tenny. And he set about making one.

As we all sat around talking, and drinking - Jack and Ted and I had helped ourselves to beer from the refrigerator, and the Doctor had poured a large tumbler of Irish without ice – time just seemed to pass. In spite of the awkwardly surreal nature of the encounter to that point, I had to admit, and I assumed the others had had to as well, that the Doctor was a good host and terribly entertaining.

After some time and some drinks he began to speak in a more contemporary manner. “ I have a treasure in the trunk of my car that I rarely share with others, but for this august group, I would like to make an exception.” Ted and Jack just looked at one another. I saw a flash of something pass between them, but I had no idea what it might be. “Yes, after our next re-fill we must go out; we must go out before darkness settles upon us, and I will show you my treasure.” And then we did another round.

Once out on the twilit parking apron, the Doctor moved to what must have been the rear of the amorphous mound of metal that was his automobile, and with a flourish withdrew a key, shakily thrust it in the direction of what was most probably the trunk and a piece of flattish metal popped up at a forty five degree angle.

In the waning light one could see a mass of things, but there was one thing of note. It was the biggest thing in the cavity: it was about three feet in length, eighteen inches in width, was curved on one end and was flat on the other end. It appeared to be made of stone. It was a tombstone.

“I found this in the woods several years ago, and I want it to adorn my grave when I’m gone. It sums me up better than I could have ever contemplated doing myself. I doubt even if Marian would have done as well.” And he, with grimaces and grunts – it was, indeed made of stone – horsed the thing out of the trunk and leaned it against his leg so that all could see. In the rapidly waning light it was still possible to read the chiseled words: “He Was A Good Woodsman”.
Thinking about this story and then telling it as I just have completed, from the vantage point of all of those intervening years has caused me to ponder what might be my exit line, my epitaph. And, I think I have it:

He Nearly Accomplished Quite A Number Of Things

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