Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 33 - CHANGE?

I thought of how for some people I knew the settings for their most cherished memories had been bull-dozed for K-Marts and condominiums. Not so my part of the White Mountains. People from long, long ago, even of my generation, not least Terri in White Wings, not least my twin brother in the Farm House, were still there in ‘86 in the same rarefied places, either looking at the same old views or furious because the state would not let them cut down enough of the forest to preserve the views.

As I drove in 1986 it was as if I were entering an old time movie sound lot where everything had been constructed to look like something from another time. The big old houses. The rocky fields of poor but picturesque farms. The white picket fence village places of the more stable real New Englanders. The ponds where I had fished for sun fish and perch, the small rocky, rushing streams and rivers. And also the Flume and the Aerial Tramway and the Old Man of the Mountains – looking just as they looked in the 1930s when I first saw them.

And what had appeared in the sixties that I saw in 1970 was long gone by ‘86 when I came in the aqua Mustang. The hippy store that had replaced the Aldrich family’s old IGA store in Franconia Village was just a vacant building now. Beside it the Aldriches had erected an actual little supermarket – the only visible change of any size. There were no young stockbrokers-in-training posing as bohemian artists, as their had been at the end of the sixties. Franconia College, one of the more outlandish of the nation’s new little hippy colleges, was gone; the the old hotel it had taken over, Forest Hills, had burned down, and anyway the college had no more been a part of things here than had the hotel when it was functioning, for the hotel had been full of something unacceptable dating back to other eras – rich South Americans. Too much money. Too dark. Too Catholic.

And the college president, Leon Botstein, had moved on to something like greatness. I had met him in ’70 in that sad time at Lovett’s when he was a raw young man in his mid-twenties, maybe younger, a humorless, pallid grad student sort of person. But he had abandoned New Hampshire just in time. He had gone over to Bard, a calm little arts college, in New York state’s pretentious Dutchess County, where he became a demon fund-raiser and an expert on advanced classical music, which he conducted himself, and Bard was doubling and redoubling in size and scope,which was something never done now in the White Mountains.

One evening in 1970 in Lovett’s formal dining room I was approached by a pleasant balding guy who said he was Henry Marshall, though he did not look at all like the Henry Marshall I had known and thought of as a romantic prince of darkness sort. Henry had been a little older than us, and we appreciated the contempt he showed us. He had had a blatantly sexy, angry girlfriend named Michelle who was from a very rich family and wore the shortest shorts ever seen at the Profile Golf Club in this land where grim Bermuda shorts were a fixture of summer. We, who had not yet had sex, had fantasized about the sexual life Henry and Michelle must lead, presumably doing all sorts of things to and with each other of the sort we could only dream of in our part of the 1950s. But now it was over. Now, Henry said, he was a high school English teacher in Westchester County. How sad, I thought, but I did not go so far as to think that there but for the grace of God go I. Henry was a first Cousin of Ellyse. His sister, an invalid who had been married to Rich before Terri, had died young as everyone expected. Rich said Henry should quit teaching and get a manly, moneymaking job. He had said it in the much the same way he had told me that I should take Ellyse away from her husband.

When I still thought of myself as a writer, as I still did recently, I had to battle dyslexia. Looking up a word once did not do it. Each time the word appeared I would have to look it up again, and it was confusing, trying to remember how many m’s and how many t’s to use in commit, committing, committed, commitment.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Aqua Musang 32 - UNWANTED FEELINGS

In that crazed time in 1970 when in such a peculiar way I was finishing the book that I thought would change my life, working on it in just a few months in London and Gran Carnaria, and Frankfurt and Malta and Zermatt – the most crazed part being this stretch now in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Some days in this time I would walk up Three-Mile Hill on the old, pre-Interstate route through Franconia notch that began just past the gleaming white buildings of Lovett's. I would stop in at the base station of the aerial tramway for a hamburger and then, even more profoundly alone, walk back.

Across from Lovett’s was something that felt awful, but I could not explain why. Lovett's – this too fancy place where I was staying during the week trying to bring the book in on time – I felt that at almost 36 I was running out of time – driving myself crazy with a typewriter in a motel-like cabin, with dinner at a table for one in a pretentious, formal dining room where I sat uncomfortable in a sport jacket and people of the past kept appearing. Across from this place Lovett’s was the road leading to the intentionally shabby Profile Golf Club where old men from the summer families, old men with green isinglass sun shades and liver spots on their old bald heads, golfed some days with their women, who in the heat of summer wore shapeless woolen sweaters with their long white golfing skirts, did not sweat, had perfect posture, and whose golf clubs in the bags the caddies lugged had their heads covered with fitted wool caps that made the golf clubs seem more stylish than the golfers. At the point where the old road started its climb into the mountain pass called Franconia Notch, across from Lovett’s where this road met the Profile road, there was a swampy triangle in which there was a stream that led in and out of a small muddy pond beside a very small building with rotten shingles and cobwebs, the place looking like it has been deserted since maybe way back when I was a child. Unwanted feelings swept over me – this place, for reasons I could not tap into, seemed so awful – here in this most wonderful part of the world where I had started out, this part of the world that was, I still told myself with weak conviction, right up there with all the best things I had known on other continents. But here were these awful feelings, as if death were very near, feelings I shoved back because I did not want them 1970 – but sought them out in 1986, when I was moving fast in my time machine/Mustang trying to find out what it had really been about, this perfect-place White Mountains thing that by 1986 was tied to so much destitution and death.

Sometimes when I took a walk from Lovett’s I would turn off on a dirt road from Three-mile Hill at a sign that said “Horse and Hound," which was a small, dark inn and drinking place that was near a swimming hole in what looked like a quarry, a swimming hole I frequented from early in childhood until the summer I was turning 14 and began to flirt there with Esther, who did not seem so brittle in a bathing suit and with a tan. We decided to write each other all winter from our boarding schools. Mud and gravel finished off that particular swimming hole and the next summer we all gathered, instead, off to the side of the Profile golf course where we took over another, bigger swimming place, where there was a dam and a sluice way and our summer gang, so different it seemed, from anything imagined by the old guard, came into being with a vengeance – and where I met Ellie – so different from the others here and prettier too – Ellie who felt like someone out of dreams and whom I did write every day, or close to it, in the next winter.

All these places, so full of memories The notch, the aerial tramway, these magical places, Echo Lake and the Flume and profile lake beneath the Old Man of the Mountains, that stern stone face rock formation that was plastered on everything the otherwise laissez-faire New Hampshire government ignored – the harsh face of the old man on the license plates and the old tourist cabin signs, and the signs leading to still more commercial mountain attractions, the caves of Lost River, and at the southern end of the notch, past the Indian Head rock formation, which was a lesser version that we did not recognize of the old Man, the creepy Clark’s Trading Post, still there from my childhood, still staging sled races with mangy dogs on straw, down beneath three high towers up which they drove sad, angry old black bears.

It was clear what was wrong with the bear-baiting attraction. But everywhere I went in this out of context time I kept telling myself all this has to be so much better than it feels.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 31 - FOREIGN GIRL

An alert brunette, clearly a girl just up from New York City – pale skin, tightly wound, pretty in this alien mountain light – appeared in the big dining room at Lovett’s during my weekday writing stint when I was as lonely as I had ever been anywhere, including new cities where I did not speak the language. We should meet, I thought, and a counter-thought came in from out of the past. They, I told myself,they – the people who had been in White Pines, including those who were dead now – they, but not me – were pointing out that she was Jewish, and asking what she was doing here.

Lovett’s Inn did not serve a dining room lunch, only picnic lunches to take out. My routine was to go for lunch to a small diner-style restaurant, the Dutch Treat, which was a few miles away in Franconia Village. The day after I had spotted the girl, she walked into the Dutch Treat briskly. She went to the counter stool beside me. She asked if I knew this region. The pleasant and intelligent voice of a person who would have a New York sense of humor. She told me she was exploring new places and on a whim had driven up through Franconia Notch. It was one of the great surprises in her life, she said, it was so little known yet so grand and mysterious and beautiful. I forgot to ask her anything else about herself.

She seemed no older than in her twenties, ten years younger than me, she looked that fresh. I wanted to tell her (1) I knew this area better than I knew any area anywhere, and (2) This was not really my area, though it was a family place. And as I spoke I knew ghostly anti-Semites from the past were here at the luncheon counter. I found myself strangely – or worse, maybe not so strangely – frozen here with this girl. She was almost certainly inviting me to make a move – we two being single persons in a resort where the category hardly existed. And I thought of my times in the city, and found her appealing after all.

But I did nothing to welcome her. I told her nothing about myself except that I was a writer working on deadline on a novel – I did have to impress her – but nothing about roots here and what this place really was and really meant, and I made no effort to meet up with her later, lonely as I was. I had not tried to explain to her that this novel that was supposed to bring my life to new heights was taken straight out of the exciting life I had been leading 10,000 miles away. And I said nothing about previous writing either, my small-time guide to Bangkok, my soft-core Bangkok After Dark and my overly genteel The First Book of Thailand, which was aimed at school libraries that suddenly had new Defense Department money, something about education being needed if America was to remain the bully at the top.

In spite of myself, I did not rise to what I thought should be a happy occasion, this meeting with this girl, who really was appealing. I wanted to explain that it was only on weekdays that I was a lonely single person at a resort. But it would be a chore to tell her I spent these weekends at White Wings, where I had spent the first summers of my life. Or how there was so little connection between the world of the White Mountains and much bigger worlds.

How could I explain that Rich and Terri were Republicans, and that Terri had spoken recently of how only insiders could understand our world – her big evidence being the unfortunate fact that the a current best seller called The Preppy Handbook had been written not by one of "us" but by a woman with a Jewish name?

This summer Terri was reading and rereading Erich Segle’s wildly sentimental novel Love Story, which I had tried to like as I read it at my single table. She had asked all her friends to sign her copy. And she was a fan of the poet Rod McKuen, who I found even more cornball than Segle. Rich, who could be determined and entitled, had tracked down McKuen’s home number to find out what was next. And this act was appealing to me, while these writers were not.

My tie to my old friend Terri. My tie to bright days of the past, this past which right now was more powerful than all the things I admired most in the world.

And so I did not tell this New York girl about the version of me in the White Mountains much less explain to her that that version was not really me. I did not say anything about the wild and deep life outside Waspdom that I had created for myself. I did not bring up my books about Taiwan and Singapore and Malaysia and Indonesia, of which I was not really so proud anyway – for they were nothing like this novel I was finishing, which was meant to be right up there with the many novels of my Grandfather, who when he was old was still a celebrity up here, as he had once been in the world at large.

I did not tell her about my life out in the world any more than I told her of by past in the White Mountains.

And I could see that my strange reticence did not sit well with her. She stood up, and lied that she had to be somewhere else.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 30 – THE SIXTIES FROM AFAR

In 1970, when I am back from abroad to finish my novel, Terri and her pleasant, new Social Register husband Rich, and Rich’s two teenage sons, long hair and bellbottoms, are singing the songs from the new Moody Blues album, just out now this summer. The singing is on the walkway between the two wings of White Wings, looking out over a field, the dirt road that is now called The Birches but is really Davis Road, out over the forest my grandparents had once owned, and out further to the mountains, which never change. Behind us is a forest-fragrant pile of neatly stacked wood such as has always lined the walkway. Along with us is Rich’s Cocker Spaniel, whom he takes around to dog show competitions. Rich is between assignments but on the payroll at IBM, and so has time on his hands.

They can all sing. Rich, Terri and the boys seem to have all been singing always, including in boarding school glee clubs and choirs, which was something I was told I could not do. And they seem happy to be in the swing of psychodelic music that would seem so subversive to their world.

At one end of the walkway is the formal wing that Terri’s parents had kept as a museum honoring my grandfather, the writer Ernest Poole, containing not just his books but the living room and dining room furniture from the past, even the old, yellowing wallpaper with Chinese pagodas on it, and the old screen porch and the kitchen that looked and had the comforting odors of kitchens from earliest times.

Peter and I had slept upstairs in a room over the walkway, where Gaga created a bedtime game that entailed hurling our stuffed animals across the room while shouting “Throw the baby!” In daytime downstairs Nana had sat at the piano singing songs to us from a French songbook that had pictures of people being decapitated in the French Revolution. This time with Nana was the most comforting time in my life as a baby.

Looking round this museum-like living room now in 1970, before it was put off bounds, I saw Terri still looking so pretty, and I felt it was is as if we were back in the distant past again, though the Old Guard people had noticed without enthusiasm how her parents had made subtle changes, improving the heating system, even, of all things, putting electric blankets in the bedrooms.

The other wing, where my grandfather had had his study, a place people had approached on tiptoe for fear of disturbing the writer, had been transformed by Terri’s parents into a bright white play place for her and her little brother. It was where Peter and I, when moving out of childhood, used to go in our attempts to get the attention of Terri, who was so smoothly tanned and so happily bright and flirtatious.

That was now years ago. And here I was in 1970 in this place of the past, a past that still overrode whatever was in the present.

The Moody Blues here in this actual present, one of the many music groups I had missed while I was away. So much of what I did know of the chronologically just-passed sixties had been from a distance. There were the literal minded journalists and the retrograde spies and whoring Vietnam War soldiers, who, like me, came face to face with what was happening at home by way of the erotic bars of Bangkok, where in the year I arrived many of the girls were putting aside their skin-tight gold lamé gowns in favor of mini-skirts. They still, in slow times, read pulp romances written in Thai Sanskrit, and you would still sometimes hear the singers in the bars do a phonetic version of the nice-nice "A doe, a doe, a female dear..." But everything was changing in this interlude between the old semi-professional if not amateur bar girl world oriented to foreigners, so appealing to G.I.’s over from Vietnam, changing already in the direction of more hard-edged commercial trade in sex. Also, some of the bars had light shows and most of them had the new Thai rock bands called shadow bands. And up in Laos, where many of us went periodically to get our Thai visas renewed, you could get all the marijuana you could carry away from the market for about eighty cents.

The foreigners in Bangkok, the crooks and spies, the lotus eaters and the marauders, getting the news of what was happening at home most graphically from the bars.

The night worlds of Bangkok and Manila and Singapore and Taipei, the places where I got my most direct news of the 60s and now I was getting it in places in the White Mountains that otherwise seemed farther away from the sixties than were the flesh pots of the Far East.

These unlikely places to experience the sixties: erotic, Boom-town Bangkok, huge new nightclubs filled with slinky-gowned girls wearing numbers who sat, looking seductive, behind one-way class waiting to be picked, and also huge new quasi-brothel massage parlors with similar viewing rooms, and slick new rich people’s hotels going up as fast as the nightclubs and massage parlors. As unlikely a place to experience the sixties as the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where nothing ever changed – this world of old formal summer people’s houses, and also the white picket fence year-round people’s places, and big old hotels with their wrap-around porches where genteel ladies from the South came in hay fever season. What I saw now in 1970 was precisely what I saw in childhood, and what I knew I would have seen if I had been here in the second half of the 19th century.

And it was nearly as true now in 1986 when I came in the aqua Mustang. White Wings from the outside, and in one wing from the inside, looked not very different from what it was, though now on the premises there were various farm animals Terri had rescued, including a stately old cow, a happy seeming lamb and a little pig who followed her around. Also, she had a dozen dogs of all sizes and combinations in residence in the wing that had at first been my grandfather’s workplace, and later was a play space for Terri and her brother.

The animals apparently were what caused the break-up with Rich, who liked formal rooms, not the sort of rooms Terri was preparing. She now, when I made my second summer trip over from Vermont, had a dog door leading out to a dog run. The walls now were bare, old, splintery wood, and there was a pot belly stove. Also the young handyman whom Terri had rescued from a bare bones farm.

As for the other wing, the formal, museum-like wing,her mother was now in constant touch by phone from Grosse Point with the Sugar Hill police, a basically one-man force, to make sure Terri would be arrested if she tried to get into it. It was in Terri's more comfortable wing that I stayed in the summer of ’86 on my second trip over from Vermont.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 29 – DINING ON RELATIVES

Before we went to dinner in Littleton that night in 1986, my first time over to New Hampshire in my Vermont summer, Cousin Carolyn and her husband Thor stopped by briefly.Thor was living proof since I was very young of how wrong that family could be. Carolyn always so level-headed, my parents and grandparents had said – so unusually effective for a woman in business. They said it silently clicking their tongues and tutt-tutting through pursed lips. So solid, they said, until that long ago vacation in Norway. Can you imagine it? Someone from our family marrying a young ski instructor?

And right now, like people way in the past, Aunt Betsy and Lawrence and Maya were being jovially disapproving of Carolyn just after she left. They were tutting about her and at the same time, right in front of me, about me because what had been so outrageous just now was her admiration for a very small and light piece of my writing. She and Thor had seen it in one day in an Airline magazine in the Far East. It was one of the big days of her life, Carolyn said. Lawrence now repeated the words in an impersonation of Carolyn.

With Carolyn and Thor gone, Lawrence and Maya and Aunt Alice and I went to dinner at Littleton’s newest restaurant which had the unlikely, in the far north, name the Clam Box. Lauryn’s son, who was staying with his grandmother, was working as a bus boy there.

Right at our cramped table – one of those family scenes I had been so good at avoiding for so many years – cousins and an aunt of whom I was suspicious – here up near Canada and about as far as you could get from any sea – right in our face at the table there was an aquarium tank filled with slimy monsters – a banded water snake, a sort of squid thing, small catfish sucking up something nasty at the bottom of the tank – a very slippery eel – all right here at the table where we were supposed to eat their close relatives.

And I was flashing on my last visit to New Hampshire, which seemed now to be years ago but was actually less than a year back. I had gone straight up here from a dismal travel writing trip to the Bahamas with a very blonde blonde. The reason for that rare visit last year was the celebration of my mother’s 75th birthday. She stayed in Sugar Hill with my brother, who had the last of the real family houses. The party was at my aunt's place in this mill town. There were my brother and his wife, whose English accent had come from being born English, and white, as an Indian Army officer's daughter in the colony of Malaya – and the people on the guest list did not get any more real than that. My aunt’s English accent came from the times she had spent in England, where she had gone to live at the end of the war in which her husband, an RAF man, had died at the beginning. And some new friends of my Aunt’s, a local guy who had gone to work abroad in the oil business, and was now retired and back in Littleton, and his wife, whose accent was thickly English, learned in Australia, and who talked in what seemed a little girl’s voice about the happiest days of her life, which were in boarding school in Melbourne.

And as everyone except me drank, my mother and brother were looking more and more pleased with the event, and they sounded to me to be adopting English attitudes and accents too. And then all of them were talking, as if I were not there, I whose own family, severed in a divorce the previous year, had been from the Philippines – all talking now in British accents that were mostly fake about how blacks and Asians were ruining what they called “our London.”

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 28 - STRANGE FANTASY

That year I did the book deal, 1969, I had started out in Manila, moved on to the old private Brit states in the north of Borneo, climbed, Kinabalu, a 14,000-foot stand-alone, much worshipped mountain, moved down to Djakarta, gotten into this absurd venture with all sorts of suspicious people – CIA, Indonesian army, Javanese academics – gone upriver hundreds of miles in Indonesian Borneo, Kalimantan, the largest island in the world if you did not count New Guinea – Conrad territory, complete with Dyack headhunters, the sort of place I had wanted to sink into since I was 15 reading Conrad in a freezing dormitory in northern New England.

In Djakarta I knew foreign drifters and journalists, crooks and spooks, from the various circuits I had been on for four years now in Southeast Asia. A bright spot was the presence of Jack Jones, who had a job searching for UNICF vehicles the previous Indonesian government had expropriated. Jack had gone to Bangkok after being in jail in China and he had written the best book – a novel though it was all about what had really happened – ever written about that city. A lifeline to the world I really wanted.

But most of the time I felt myself in darkness, alone, wondering if there was, after all, any good ending.

At once point way upriver in Kalimantan I had shown Dyack children that I could juggle three pieces of fruit. I had thought it would make me an admired figure, but it seemed such ordinary magic to them. Nothing all like – I had this sudden flashback – juggling to impress this smooth girl Terri when I was 14 in the White Mountains.

At that time in Kalimantan the Dyacks had just slaughtered thousands of Chinese traders in the coastal towns, slit their throats and eaten their livers

And there hadn’t been great rays of light in Djakarta, though in a near deserted old hotel, a vestige from colonial days, in the mountains east of Djakarta I had begun the novel. Djakarta itself was a whirl of street girls and marijuana and cheap liquor, scenes late at night with girls and their pimps around bonfires behind the market stalls. Then I had gone back to Manila, where often this year it had seemed life was over. I packed up, moved to Singapore, where I had friends and suddenly a new girlfriend I might marry, a Chinese girl who worked in advertising, and where I got involved in a movie, and plunged into my slim manuscript, and believed my life was finally on track, not least because I at last had a clearly publishable novel in the works that, I thought in innocence, would get me glory forever.

Terri acted like it was a hero’s return to the White Mountains. Could this one event, the book, wipe out all that has been less than clear, arbitrary and confused? And could this place, the White Mountains, where I had come so rarely as an adult, be the place I was meant to be at the start?

One night now up in the White Mountains at Terri’s I started talking about Maddie, how she was the prettiest and most wonderful girl I ever saw that day we met, me almost 16, she younger, at the swimming hole near the rustic old
Profile Golf Club. The next day Terri said “Oh God, you are still in love with Maddie.” I denied it. Someone else said I should go after her. None of this made sense to me sober. And anyway, she was married to someone on the other side of a great divide, an Air Force officer who rode the airplanes that were bombing Vietnam.

I talked and talked and we drank and drank and Terri, her new husband and I all thought I as going to make a fortune with this novel. We went one night out the Easton road to look at a man’s Bentleys, one of which I would buy, I said, when the money came in. I feared commitment, realized I always had, but I was actually talking late one boozy night about buying back White Pines, the main house of my childhood and adolescence, which was now in the hands of a violent, drunken, rich man whose Boston family paid him to live far away in New Hampshire.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Aqua Mustang 27 – HOME MAYBE

I was in London working on this book that was meant to change my life. I had gotten the contract and what seemed a sufficient advance almost instantly after my last time back in New York from Asia. I had come back with 60 pages of which I was proud.

I got together the first night home with old friends on the Upper West Side, people who had been in a Hampton's summer house next door to a high powered agent. I called the agent, showed him the 60 pages, and he said he thought he could do something with it and by no means should I add a proposal because he thought an editor would be so on the edge of his chair after these 60 pages that he would want to get his hands on whatever came next. And a couple of days later I had a deal with Harper’s Magazine Press – the sort of thing that never happens, according to the How-to-Write Industry – and in fact practically never does.

I went to London, which was filled with old friends from Asian days. I took an apartment with my overvalued Harper’s dollars on Cheyne Walk. I flew down to Los Palmas in the Canary Islands, a place full of English tourists of the sort who mark the levels on their wine bottles so that woggish hotel staff will not sneak drinks of their cheap Spanish red. The sort of pallid English people who click their tongues over their budgets during meals and keep starting sentences with “As it were...”

I thought I would go over to Africa, not far away. I was thinking of past days of danger in the Sudan, the Chad and Angola. In a travel agency on the walk above the long beach I ordered a plane ticket, but forgot to pick it up in the course of getting drunk in the many bars where unhappy Spanish men drank to oblivion and sang long, hopelessly sad songs. Here I was again, alone in a place with which I had no connection.

I woke up in jail, deeply aware that this was not the first time – and even though my jailers wore the Fascist Guardia Civil uniform, this was mild compared to what had happened a year and a half ago in a smuggler’s town on the Thai-Malaysia border.

Out of jail, I switched, in a reform move, to the other side of Gran Canaria, and went darkly crazy, despite good food and fair wine, in an isolated, empty resort. I stared at blank paper in my small Smith-Corona portable. Finally, I went back to London, and drank and caroused among the war zone journalists who had turned up there, and I had a sort of girlfriend, and I found it as impossible to write overlooking The Thames as overlooking the South Atlantic. So I went to Malta, mainly because people I knew were there and there was one particular prostitute they praised. I twisted my ankle leaving her house, got medication in London, moved on to Zermatt which was filled with hearty hikers. I got there from Geneva on a train that passed romantic lakes that seemed out of some life I should have lived.

I drank, then stopped drinking, worried that it would be hard on my family to find out I was not drinking. I spent my mornings outdoors, taking cog railways and cable cars up high into the Alps and then walking down, just like the healthy hikers around me except that I did not have to climb. And I was really writing. Then I went back to London with the book nearly done – 300 pages of what was mostly reality, though veiled in fiction. I stopped on the way in Frankfurt to visit old friends from ten years back in Greece who were hosting a hot young American writer, Anne, Moody, who had done a brilliant and celebrated memoir about growing up in Mississippi. One of my new peers!

Back in London, I thought it would be a fine idea to finally finish the book in the most perfect place I had ever known, which was far from the war zones in which I had been living. It seemed fitting in this time when my life should turn around due to my status as an about to be lionized young (though 36 did feel old) new novelist. I called my twin brother in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. My grandmother had died while I was away and he had gotten possession of the remaining family house, the first one, The Farm House, set up by my great grandmother. He said I couldn’t come. I wasn’t welcome. He and his colonial English wife were redoing the bathrooms, so they did not want me underfoot. I was surprised at how quickly I went from calm to rage. I called my old friend gorgeous Terri who was in a new marriage and spending much of the summer at the house her parents had bought from my grandparents years back, White Wings, the place where I had spent the first summers of my life. “Wonderful! You have to come stay with us!” She was in a new marriage and sounded happy with her life and happy that I would return.

I flew back first class so as to be able to spread out and work on the novel. I knew this was tax-deductible, a trip to see my agent and my editor – though my father said I could just as easily have reached them on the phone and so maybe this meant I was in trouble with the government. Previously, he had advised me to refuse the publisher’s advance until I had done the work.

But I was alive still. And flying to America with an actual manuscript of a commissioned novel just about done. Some more crazy travel that would probably go into another book, but here I was. Despite warnings from home that none of this was possible. My life – maybe – coming to the point where it was meant to be.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 26 – IT’S OVER

As I drove in the New Hampshire present, 34 years later, I had this increasing sense of danger – like in the woods in Hobbema paintings that could put me in a trance at the Frick or the Met. I understood what art historians, who saw these 17th century Dutch paintings as nice pictures of nice summer days, could not see, and so could not understand why the artist had fled his art. I knew in this time of internal and external investigation how dangerous the Hobbema woods were, how close he came to being lost in horror.

But I also remembered how in bright days in the White Mountains I had become a popular figure. Moving with ease among these kids, some new and some I had known all of my life, kids so much like the boarding school kids of winter who despised me, and would ostracize me if we had met in a context other than a White Mountains summer.

One day in the course of hiking the Presidential Range our summer gang had stopped for the night at the Lake of the Clouds Appalachian Mountain Club building called a “hut” at the timberline two-thirds of the way up Mt. Washington – happily rustic dormitories, a happily rustic central room with a pot belly stove next to a rustic kitchen with another wood burning stove for cooking robust meals made from goods carried all the way up here by college boys, Ivy League if they were smart enough and often when they weren’t. This hut, one in a chain through the ranges of the White Mountains, this one up where only foot-high scrub pine could grow, beside the very small, clear Lake of the Clouds. The summit was in sight from the lake. So too was the treeless sweep of the presidential range, which we would traverse tomorrow. Our whole crowd had come up together, meaning I was here with my friends. My friends. This summer crowd. This summer world where no one ever knew how deeply unpopular and despised I so often had been in the winters of my now nearly 16 years.

Before dinner Harry Bowden, who was some sort of cousin, and I pulled off a feat that everyone admired. We raced up from the Lake of the Clouds to the summit, made this hour and a half lap in 45 minutes, nearly running up the steep and jagged rock path. The summit had a radio relay station, a year-round weather station, and also a restaurant and souvenir store for the common tourists who came up by the cog railway or the auto road. Harry and I would not look at them, for we were of the mountaineer part of the scene. Also, we were from families rooted in formidable White Mountains summer places, and we were pulling off this feat. I was usually fascinated by souvenir stores, but would not enter this one. We ran all the way down to the hut carrying a full case of Coca Cola and orange soda. We left the case in the ice-cold, shallow little lake.

A dozen of my close friends, I thought they were my close friends – the gang we had created – were along on this three-day hike, kids and a few intrepid parents. We took up half the space at the long dining table, a huge meal from goods brought up on the college boys’ backs – and we were in awe of one of them Don Grout, older brother of Ruthie, Kitty's closest cousin. Ruthie along and also Ruthie's little sister Janet, old enough for the climb but not quite old enough for full membership in the gang which meant being 15 or 16 – and all the others, Jimmy and Rufus and Esther, once sort of my girlfriend until I found a girl at our sister school from whom I learned how to seriously neck. I, and Alice and George, and Carl, who also went to Holderness, and gorgeous Mickie McKnight, whose family had come all the way from Grosse Point to buy one of our family’s summer houses, and her little brother Donny and my twin brother Peter (who did not seem to dominate these days, though he was always along) and Connie and Darla, Lou and Keen, Ann and Eve – all here just above the timberline (all except Kitty who had gone off with her parents and her brother Louis to Boothbay Harbor) – all here, the gang that I was a part of, the gang that had taken me as its leader. Great platters of beef and carrots and potatoes – tin plates and tin cups like a summer camp but this was the big world, and we washed it all down with the soda Harry and I had bought in the contemptible tourist store at the summit.

It was in the middle of the meal that I had a sense everything was all over. I was back to where I'd been before it began . Maybe there was this marvelous summer gang, but somehow they had caught on and I was no longer the leader, no longer even a real member. Nothing was said, but at dinner I had suddenly felt as sealed off as I had been before this phase of my life had begun. No one had a word to say to me, I was trapped in my hollow head. I could hear and see them talking, to each other but not to me. Whatever I had done or not done – I couldn't think what – it must have been too stupid.

I wandered off alone after dinner. No one said goodbye. I wandered over to a horseshoes pit beside the little lake. I was aware of how huge the sky was up here, saw infinite lesser rocky summits of the Presidential Range, saw steam from the 19th Century engine of the cog railway, saw the complex antennae way up on the summit, breathed thin air that was filled with nostalgia here in the real mountains.

It was getting cold and the sky was going into orange and then gray. I picked up two horseshoes, hardly paying attention, threw them towards the far pit, one right after the other, and both jangled on the stake. Then I went to the pit where they had landed and threw them back to the first pit and missed this time by several inches. I threw them again and again with mixed success, and then I saw little Janet was there at the far pit watching. I threw them. She threw them all the way back even though she was a little girl. We were playing a game of horseshoes. She didn't know it was all over. And although in the scheme of things she was too young to count, she was someone. Maybe the others didn't know it was over either, but at most I could expect a conditional reprieve.