Today’s story comes from guest author Kenneth Margolin. Kenneth is a practicing attorney, father of two daughters, and lives with wife, Judith, in Newton, Massachusetts. He has published articles in professional journals, monographs, a book chapter on Facilitated Communication, and a journalistic essay in Sport Literate Magazine.
When Mark had stood on the crumbling road beside the trestle for the first time, breathing the country air, hearing wind, water, birdsong, and nothing else, he felt a calm so deep it surprised him, and an immense gratitude for his life. He felt a kinship with the trestle, an emotion he once experienced when he chanced upon an ancient oak in the forest. The structure seemed as natural to him as the woods and water. He promised himself that he would return every fall to spend a day in solitary contemplation, as he had on the day that his visit to the trestle saved his marriage.
The trestle spanned 200 feet along a northern Maine backcountry road no one seemed to travel, its x-shaped steel sides rusting peacefully fifty feet above a stream that gurgled over a jumble of boulders. A faint narrow trail led from the road down to an unsteady-looking ladder that rose from the base of the trestle to the top. Evergreens, maples and birch towered over the structure, branches on both sides reaching toward the other, reclaiming the slice of forest canopy gouged out when the trestle was built.
Mark spotted the trestle a decade ago, an hour’s drive north of the Caribou home he shared with his wife, Sandy, during a meandering search for ghost roads in Aroostook County.
He felt like a ghost that day. He’d come home early from his job as manager of a slowly dying paper mill, when Sandy drew him to her in the kitchen.
“I don’t want children,” she said. “I’ve thought about it for a long time, since we bought this home. Please don’t leave me.”
Mark’s stomach knotted at the same time he felt the fabric of his life loosen. The mill
soul-drained him, noxious odors infiltrating the dreary office where he sat all day at his pressboard desk, worried faces of workers eroding his savior complex, and the aura of failure
settled over the plant like the wood dust, more palpable with every shift. He stayed, he told himself, for his love of Sandy, and to save money for the family he imagined in vivid detail, as if their children had already been born, small precious lives filling all emptiness. He ran to his car, and drove with no plan but to escape from Sandy’s words, to erase them with distance so that he could return home to talk about whether they wanted two children or three, boys or girls.
Mark sat beside the trestle into the night, imagining childless life with Sandy.
As the moonless night deepened, his thoughts became spectral, an out of body presence just beyond his vision in the blackness. Sandy, sliding over in their bed each morning at dawn to hold him, Sandy, coming home each evening in her nurse’s uniform, exhausted after her day at the hospital tending to sick infants in the neonatal intensive care unit, Sandy’s habit of turning her head to the side and furrowing her brow while she decided whether to react to an argument with humor or anger, one or the other bursting from her, the familiar starts and urgent endings of their lovemaking, long days together in the woods, mostly silent, their shared pleasure in the infinite delights of nature, unspoken and understood. He would not be a father. Whose life was without disappointments? Mark returned home to find Sandy at the kitchen table crying over a cold cup of cocoa.
“I’ll stay,” he said.
Today was Mark’s tenth pilgrimage to the trestle. When the paper mill shut down, Mark became one of the semi-employed. He earned scant dollars as a free-lance editor for a small local newspaper, and worked a never-ending series of temp jobs consulting to small and mid-sized companies struggling to survive the sputtering northern Maine economy. He had been offered a well-paying job as the Manager of a lumber company in Augusta. The owner wanted his Manager to live in Augusta, to be instantly available for the occasional crisis in the office or at the yard. When Mark told Sandy that they needed the money, she warned him that he would be miserable. Mark never abandoned hope that Sandy might change her mind about children, though Sandy declared her decision final. He awoke some nights panicked by the thought that if he stayed with Sandy, he would die having accomplished little, with no progeny, as if he had never lived. He would stay at the trestle, his private Oracle, until he knew whether to move to Augusta, and once again, whether he should leave Sandy behind.
“I’ll be home late,” he told her. “Don’t wait up for me.”
When he neared the trestle, he followed his ritual, and pulled his car off the road to walk the last half mile, so that the sight of his vehicle would not interfere with his meditation. As he approached the curve in the road and the trestle beyond, he quickened his pace and smiled in anticipation of the tranquil day ahead.
For a moment, he thought he had lulled himself into a walking dream. Sitting atop the trestle at the very edge facing the woods, was a man wearing a dark business suit and black dress shoes. Mark was so stunned by the incongruous sight that it was a full minute before he noticed the man’s car parked at the side of the road a hundred feet beyond the trestle, a red Lamborghini convertible. The man was leaning forward, looking down toward the brook.
Mark backed up as stealthily as he could, cleared his throat and made a couple of phony coughs. The man edged back from the brink and turned partially to look at Mark.
“Hey there,” Mark said.
The man lifted his legs over the narrow edge of the trestle and faced Mark directly. He wore a tie, and his suit looked expensive and well tailored. He’s strong, Mark thought, a trim, hard muscled strength. His hair was thick and deep black, his face broad boned and lean, tapering down to a discordantly narrow chin. He studied Mark, making no effort to hide his head to toe exploration.
“You here for a purpose?” the man asked at last.
“I found this place by accident some time ago,” Mark said. “It’s peaceful, and I come back every year.”
“A chronic returner,” the man said, a small mean smile forming as he nodded slightly.
“I must admit,” Mark said, “that you make me nervous up there so close to the edge.”
“Are you trying to save me?” he said.
The man looked directly at him, and said nothing more, like a negotiator using silence to smoke out his adversary’s next move.
For several minutes, neither said a word. Their silence made the stream almost deafening. At first listen, the stream gave off a steady whoosh, a singular omnipresent sound. With more attention, the stream sounds revealed themselves as complex and constantly changing, trills, burbles, riffs of different tones and intensity. The man lurched forward. At Mark’s gasp, the man pushed himself back under perfect control, and let out a long, loud, self-satisfied laugh.
“Do you see my car down there?” he asked.
“Hard to miss it,” Mark said. “No others like it around here.”
“You know how much it costs?”
“Why should I care?”
“Four hundred seventy-five thousand dollars,” the man said. “That’s five, maybe six single-family homes in the County.”
“So you’re rich,” Mark said. “What of it?”
His neck ached from looking up. The rust on the trestle suddenly looked ugly and out of place.
“If you’re trying to talk me down off this trestle, you should care how I could afford it,” the man said. “I’m what you might call a con man, the best who ever lived. I make Madoff look like an amateur.”
The man hung his head as if trying to recall a scene from the past. He shifted closer to the edge again.
“Old women are my marks, widows and spinsters. I line up a list of those with a lot of money, in rural areas, so they’re isolated. I learn where they were born, family, schooling, marriage, work, all of it, then I call. If the woman talks to me, I befriend her. We never meet. Eventually, I ask for loans or investments for some venture or other. I keep on until her assets are drained, then on to a new target.”
“That’s disgusting. Aren’t you afraid of getting caught?” Mark said, curious despite his revulsion.
“I told you, I’m the best ever at conning. If you taped this conversation and gave it to the authorities, they still couldn’t convict me.”
Mark’s temples throbbed and sent thin lines of pain down the sides of his face.
“You’re the worst kind of criminal,” he said, “You steal dignity.”
“”Listen,” the man said. What I do makes no more or less difference than the man who will cure cancer. We all die. Someday, the universe itself will die, and all will be as never was.
If these old women let me steal their money, they deserve what they get.”
The words spewed from Mark’s mouth before his brain realized he had formed them.
“Jump, you bastard. Jump.”
He flushed and held a deep breath to calm his trembling.
“Not today,” the man said.
He eased himself along the edge of the trestle to the old ladder, and climbed down. Mark wondered whether he was in danger from the man, who walked up the path to the road with long, sure strides. He passed by Mark without pausing, got into the Lamborghini and drove slowly away.
Mark finished his day at the trestle, his life out of rythm. The man who should have jumped would live on. When darkness finally came, Mark walked back to his car to go home. He travelled over rough, narrow roads far from any lights. With his windows opened, Mark breathed the autumn country smells, pine, skunk, leaves decaying in the pure air, a hint of the sharp, thin scent of coming winter. He sank into the emotion he feared most of all, the feeling of being adrift, lost.
Sandy was asleep when Mark quietly entered their home. He went outside and lay back on his lounge chair to see the stars in a now clear, moonless night, dozed, until the deepening chill penetrated his light jacket and woke him. The taint of the man’s malevolence remained.
He would call the police tomorrow. The man wouldn’t be hard to find, and he would have made a mistake along the way, as all villains do.
Mark went inside, undressed, and slipped beside Sandy, who lay curled up with her back toward his side of the bed, her knees bent toward her chest, hand under her cheek. In the morning, he would tell her that he could never move to the city, that they would get by together. When he rested his hand gently on her hip bone, she made a small sleep noise and slid away from him, curled further into her own space.
“Please,” he whispered.
Sandy must have heard him. She inched back toward Mark, almost touching. He pressed against her. When she made no protest, he kissed his wife on the back of her neck, felt her long, fine hair brush his face, draped his arm over her and drew her toward him, closing the distance between them, held on as tightly as he dared, as if to let go would be to put to sea without anchor.