The Things We Cannot Keep – Chapter 3

I watched the big windows in the bedroom light up with the sunrise. The moon had kept the room bright all through the night, but as it receded the dim shimmers of dawn clawed across the Cascade Mountains in the east and then brightened into a swirl of pinks and oranges before the sun crowned the jagged mountains. I tossed and turned in the early morning hoping to find some semblance of sleep before the daylight pulled me from the bed, but I threw in the towel as my mind raced around all of the scenarios that had led us to this point.

I sat up on the edge of the bed sliding the balls of my feet on the cool hardwood floor. All was quiet in the cabin save for the usual creaks of an old house. I stood up and stretched and walked over to the windows still aglow in the soft sunrise. Outside, a glorious September day began to unfold. The sky, clear as far as I could see, seemed to sparkle in the yawning daylight. A cool breeze ducked into the crack of the window and chilled my legs. It felt good, relaxing. For the first time in a long time, I felt good or maybe I just felt different so far removed from my life in San Francisco.

The lake simmered beneath my window, a mist coiled across its surface as if it were a giant cauldron. The Adirondack chairs still sat at the edge of the dock, empty but watching over the peaceful lake. The serenity of it all brought back many good memories from decades ago.

Dad liked to fish off the dock in the early morning. There were many mornings when I spent time here as a kid that I’d wake up and find him sitting on the edge of the dock in one of the chairs with the fishing rod wedged between his knees. He’d have a cup of coffee resting on the arm of the chair that was so hot I could see the steam rising from its mouth. He’d lightly tug the rod and then take a sip of coffee and repeat the movements over and over until a fish grabbed his line. On some mornings he’d catch a fish or two, and on others, his bait would go unnoticed. On those mornings when the fish ignored him, he’d curse his luck as he reeled in his line for the last time. He’d down the last of his coffee or toss the remnants into the lake. Then, he’d lean his rod against the back wall of the porch and slink inside the cabin to take a nap.

Dad never said much while he sat there fishing. Sometimes, I’d tiptoe outside, he hated it when we made too much noise on the dock when he was fishing, and sit on the gray planks next to him. He’d say “good morning,” but not much else. I’d glance at him from time to time, but mostly, I’d stare out over the glassy lake watching his line cut through it like a surgical knife making a precision cut.

He looked so serious when he was fishing as if he were studying the countenance of the lake for clues about where the fish were. In all my childhood memories on the dock at Baker Lake, he was younger than I am now, but I always noticed something about him that suggested time was slipping away from him like the crinkles at the corner of his eyes, the graying hair that flared back from his temples, or the loss of firmness in his chin. I noticed these things. I don’t know why, but they jumped out to me even when I was too young to appreciate their meaning. Of course, as I got older, I learned what troubled him most. Time makes you irrelevant. One day you wake up and you no longer matter.

I heard the door squeak and clank shut beneath me. I looked down from the window and saw Hank shuffling toward the lake. He still wore his t-shirt and pajama bottoms and his feet were bare. His disheveled hair looked like a crashing wave atop his head. He had a beer in his hand and took a sip as he walked toward the chairs. I watched as he plopped down into one of the chairs on the edge and leaned back. He took a long swig of the beer and sat it down on the arm of the chair. He sat motionless looking out over the lake.

I watched him there for a few seconds, stunned by how much he resembled Dad. Replace the beer with a coffee cup and put a fishing rod in his lap, and Hank could be Dad from all those years ago. Nostalgia gnawed at my gut, but I pushed it down with all of the other things that I didn’t want to feel and grabbed my phone to check the time. It was just after seven in the morning. I put on my old Stanford hoodie and hurried down the stairs.

Hank hadn’t bothered to start any coffee. Maybe he didn’t drink it anymore, but more likely, he didn’t think of anyone but himself. I started the coffee maker before I walked out onto the dock to join Hank. He didn’t turn around when the door clanked shut behind me, and I didn’t make any effort to be quiet. My footsteps thumped across the old planks, the wood rough beneath my bare feet.

I sidled into the chair next to him. “Good morning,” I said as I sat down.

He kept his eyes on the lake for a moment longer. Then, he glanced at me and replied, “Good morning.” He took a sip of his beer and returned his focus to the lake.

“A little early for a beer don’t you think?”

He looked at the can as if he were reading the label for the first time. He rolled it around in the palm of his hand. “Aren’t you a little old to be wearing a college sweatshirt?”

I laughed, and Hank did too, but only half-heartedly as if it weren’t really a joke.

“Are you supposed to be drinking alcohol?”

“No one told me I can’t.” Hank seemed aggravated by my suggestion. “Why did you buy it if you thought I couldn’t drink it?”

“I didn’t. That’s Robbie’s beer. He brought it.”

Hank considered this and took another sip from the can. He looked at me defiantly for a moment and then resumed his soliloquy with the lake. The steam continued to evaporate on its surface in the increasing warmth of the sunrise. I watched a bird fly across the lake shuddering its wings above the water.

“Do you want some coffee?” I asked sensing that the coffee maker must be done by now.

Hank considered it. “Actually, would you grab me another beer?”

I shot him a look but he kept his eyes on the lake. I relented. “Sure.”

Hank remained in the same catatonic trance when I returned to the edge of the dock with a cold beer in one hand and a hot coffee in the other. I shoved the beer in front of him and that broke his trance. He thanked me before he popped it open and took a long swig. I sipped my coffee and kept the cup in my lap as I sat back in the chair. A bird whooped on the edge of the lake. I heard a flutter of wings but I couldn’t see anything take flight. A slight breeze rustled my hair. Hank remained silent.

The sky ripened into a deep blue above us. The mist went about its merry way across the surface of the lake receding to the tall grass at the edge. The sun cast a warm, golden glow onto the dock and the back of the cabin. Save for the flap of wings or the erratic call of a bird, the world around us was muted. Normally, I’d relish the silence, a break from my usual hectic days, but here, sitting next to my older brother, an enigma in his own right, I could only anticipate what would or needed to be said next. I formed one-sided conversations in my head, but none seemed a good entry into my brother’s world. Finally, Hank relieved me of my internal anguish.

“I wish things were different,” he said.

I turned to look at him, but he remained focused on the lake. I wasn’t sure how to respond, but my hesitation didn’t discourage him from continuing.

“I wish Dad were here so I could take back my last words to him. I really do. I was angry then. I felt like a disappointment, not just to him, but to myself as well. It put me in a bad place. After all that happened, my biggest regret is what I said to him when they dragged me from the courtroom.”

His words floated across the lake and stared back at us, stark and unflinching. I’d been careful not to mention Dad during the drive up, and I had advised Robbie to do the same. He had reluctantly agreed despite his contention that Hank was a grown man and had to take his lumps. I’d argued that he’d taken his lumps for the past 20 years and that what he needed now was his family, or what was left of it.

“We all make mistakes,” I replied. I tried to think of Hank as one of my patients to keep myself steady and calm, but I could feel the old emotions rising up in my chest like the remnant of a greasy meal. I swallowed the words I wanted to say.

Hank nodded as if he had come to the slow realization that what I said was true. “Some more than others,” he said. He took another sip from his beer and then crushed the can between his thick fingers. He balanced the crumpled can on the arm of the chair.

The door behind us squeaked open and clanked shut. The sound reverberated past us and across the lake. It startled me in the moment, but I shook it off as Robbie’s heavy footsteps approached.

“You guys are up early,” Robbie said as he stepped in front of us and took the chair on the other side of Hank.

“What time is it?” Hank asked.

“8:30-ish,” Robbie replied as he glanced at the screen of his phone. He sat his phone on the arm of the chair and looked at us expectantly. Unlike us, he had combed his hair and changed out of his pajamas.

“That’s not early,” Hank said.

“It is for me,” Robbie said.

Hank laughed. “I can’t believe you’re a grown-up.”

“Why not?” Robbie asked. He made no attempt to hide his irritation. I could see the redness rising in his face like some sort of warning light.

Hank looked at him in mocking disbelief. “Because you’ll always be my baby brother. It’s hard to imagine you as anything but that.”

Robbie took umbrage at his comment. He’d never learned how to keep his emotions in check or how to keep a straight face. He was like our mom in that regard.

“I’m almost 40 years old. I’m hardly a baby. At least I’m – “

“He’s here to celebrate your freedom, Hank,” I interrupted. I knew where Robbie was going, and I had to cut him off before he inflamed old wounds. Our long weekend was just starting and to have him and Hank already fighting would make for a miserable experience. There had been moments on the drive up when I thought the trip would unravel before it even began, but I had managed to keep Robbie at bay while giving Hank room to venture out into the world he’d but shut off from for so long even if his part of that world had been taken away.

The Hill at the End

On Sunday, I ran a marathon in the rolling hills of West Virginia at the home of West Virginia University in Morgantown. I see why the WVU mascot is called the Mountaineers. The further east you go on the main thoroughfare through the town the more it drops off a cliff. That same street happens to be the last mile of the Morgantown Marathon. I’m sure the guy who set up this race had the best intentions (the net proceeds from the race go to benefit U.S. veterans) but he also has a sadistic streak because who puts a steep hill at the end of a marathon?

To be fair, it would be impossible to run a race through Morgantown and not have a hill on the course. The town is wedged into an outcrop of the Appalachian mountains, which are not as beautiful and dramatically rugged as the Rockies but they certainly aren’t lacking in steepness. This particular course featured 2,000 feet of elevation gain over the 26 miles. It was enough to make even the most experienced runner quiver in his sweaty running shoes.

Going into this race, I knew it’d be a challenge. In addition to the hills, the weather didn’t look too favorable. The “low” temperature was predicted to be 69 degrees Fahrenheit, while the high was forecast near 80 degrees with mostly sunny skies. Such temperatures may be ideal for a run-of-the-mill day out on a Sunday, but for running a race, these temps were closer to dangerous than favorable. I had never been more thankful for cloud cover than I was when I walked out of my hotel on Sunday morning. It was slightly cooler than expected, and those clouds stayed around for most of the race. It was still hot for running, but not as bad as I had expected.

Before the race I had reviewed the elevation map of the course in disbelief. I didn’t see how I was going to run the whole race and still finish. Hills chew through a lot of energy, something that must be managed carefully over a race the length of a marathon if you hope to finish. If you’re not careful, you’ll hit the proverbial wall sooner than later on such a course. I was prepared to walk, if necessary, when I encountered the biggest hills. It’d be better to recover than run out of gas before I finished the race.

Early in the race, I felt particularly strong. I settled into third place behind two stronger runners and held that pace until I hit the biggest hill on the course. At that point, when I looked at the long climb ahead, I pulled up and began to walk. I used the time to consume some food and pounded my way up the hill at a good walking pace. Only a couple of runners passed me. Before I crested the hill, I began to run again feeling refreshed and reinvigorated after my brief respite.

After that big hill, all of the others seemed illegitimate as if their status as hills had been revoked. I cruised through the next few miles and even managed to catch one of the runners who had passed me. The race was going extremely well. The stretch of miles 23 and 24 were along a river trail and were as flat as could be. I felt great despite having crossed the 20-mile point. At mile 25 I grabbed some water as I ran by the mile marker and turned the corner in the last stretch of the race. That’s when I saw the obstacle that stood between me and the finish – the hill from hell.

Almost the entire final mile of the race was up hill. Not only was it a steep climb, but it was completely exposed to the sun as there were no trees on either side of the road. By this time in the race, most of the clouds had burned off and the temperature hovered in the 70s. Seeing and feeling this felt like being squashed under a giant boot. I pulled up and began walking again. The finish line would have to wait.

Before I crested the hill at mile 26, I began running again. The finish was slightly downhill, so I let gravity give me a hand. My time was still a respectable 3:17 despite the walking. Having conquered the course, I felt good. This wasn’t a course for personal bests.

That hill at the end was a real bummer even though I knew it was there before the race started. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the race and writing. There seems to always be a big hill at the end when it comes to finishing a novel, and I don’t mean completing the novel itself. The hill is perfecting it or getting it to the point where it’s ready to go beyond the draft phase. It seems insurmountable, but it requires focus even if that means slowing down and taking much longer than I’d prefer. That walk to the finish can be maddening, but it’s worth it when you cross the finish line.