In April of 2011 I drove south from New York to the Northern Fork in Virginia. Ms. Carolina was recovering from yet-another battle with cancer. Her husband thought my visit might cheer up the blonde beauty. The Potomac River was cold, but I jumped from their dock into the frigid water.
Coming out of the river Ms. Carolina laughed at my shivering and handed me a towel. Her husband called me a crazy Northerner with a smile.
"You're right about that." My affair with Ms. Carolina ended in 1995 after meeting her husband. We remained friends, but only friends. Charles was a complete gentleman, but had a 38 under the seat of his car. We never spoke about the recent past and I said, "I'm just a crazy Yankee."
"And I'm a crazy Reb."
"That you are."
And we toasted the Great State of Maine and the Army of Northern Virginia. Both our people had fought at the Fredericksburg massacre. General Ambrose Burnside had been insane to assault the rebel fortifications on Marye's Hill. The 20th Maine passed the night behind barricades of dead comrades.
Not all of the Union troops were crazy.
That night we watched the rise of the moon and drank whiskey on the dock. The winter night air was giving way to spring. The bourbon freed out tongues and we spoke about our pasts. Our lives went back many years. We had different beliefs. They didn't really matter tonight.
"Do you believe in God?" asked Charles.
"Not since my best friend died in 1960. He drowned in a lake in Maine. Only eight years old. Hearing how God moved in strange ways answered only one question.
Ms. Carolina shook her head. She understood my feelings. They were better kept a secret, except I was never good at lying.
"There is no God."
Charles frowned at this assault on his God. I meant it about all gods. Ms. Carolina wasn't happy with my rejection of the Bible and I added, "But I respect your belief in God."
"I never understood how you people, atheists, lost your faith."
"One of those things that just happened."
"That I understand. Care for some more bourbon."
"Let your unconsciousness be my guide."
Throughout the evening I drank enough to feel like a drunk Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST.
Ms. Carolina laughed at our jokes.
A little after 1 we watched the passage of an orbiting satellite.
"We are not alone." I pointed in the sky.
"And I'm never alone with my lovely wife."
Ten minutes later Ms. Carolina shook me awake and said, "Precious, time for bed."
Charles helped me up the stairs.
"Sweet dreams," wished Ms. Carolina from her bedroom door.
Guided by bourbon I dreamed of old times and a better future.
Some time after midnight I heard someone enter the bedroom and I opened my eyes to a .38
Charles' hand was steady.
He knew everything. I said nothing.
I'm going to miss her."
I nodded in agreement.
"You're not a good man, but you're not a bad man either. Go back to sleep."
I knew better than to argue with an armed man and crashed back into a bourbon coma.
At dawn my wife called from Thailand and asked about Ms. Carolina. She had visited us twice in te Last Babylon.
"Maii dii," I explained Ms. Carolina's condition.
"Kor thot," Nu apologized and said to tell Ms. Carolina that everyone in Ban-Nok was praying for her.
Me too, only not to God.
Later that morning I groggily accompanied Ms. Carolina and Charles to their church, a temple to that Old Time religion, where husband preached the Word of God.
"Never to late to repent."
"Sinners exist to show the good which path not to take."
"That we do."
I didn't step inside the small white church and bid them fare-well. Charles shook my hand.
"Say a prayer for her."
Ms. Carolina missed me on the cheek. She smelled of Chanel # 5.
I didn't know it then, but it would be our last.
I drove up the back roads to Washington, stopping to survey the Potomac from Lee's plantation.
It was a broad river and I called Ms. Carolina from atop the high bluff.
Charles answered and said she was resting.
"Thanks for coming down."
"My pleasure. I'll be down in the fall."
"Charles would like that." You take care, precious."
I got in the car and continued north, listening to country-western music on the radio.
I arrived the Capitol slightly before noon.
I conducted a fifteen drive-by of the White House, Washington Monument, and Capitol before calling my nephew Matt. The capitol of America was empty.
Tourists didn't travel in the winter.
I met my nephew Matt and his girlfriend at the National Gallery. She came from Cleveland. Something about them said they were in love and only one thing happens to people like that.
They get married.
That summer I went out to Thailand to see my kids.
Angie was getting tall.
So were Fenway and Noy.
I hated myself for not living with them and their mothers, but there was no money in Thailand for me.
Certainly not in rural Ban-nok and I returned to New York, scheduling on my next trip for after the New Year's.
Nearing October Ms. Carolina called from a Richmond Hospital. Her voice was weak and I asked if she wanted me to come down.
"No, I want you to remember how I was. I know you don't believe in heaven, but we'll each other again."
"I know we will."
In September my father joined my mother in the Here-After.
My best friend in the world was gone, but he didn't go alone.
Right around Thanksgiving Charles called with bad news.
"No." I had expected to see her again.
"She was a fighter, but had no more fight in her."
"You want me to come down for the funeral?"
"She's already in the ground."
"Sorry about that."
We wished each other good luck and life went on without my father and Barbara.
I went through some bad times.
They lasted longer than necessary.
Not for everyone.
Two summers ago my nephew Matt called to tell the news that he had moved with Kristen to Cleveland.
"Cleveland?" No one on any side of our family had ever lived in Ohio. We were New Englanders.
"It's coming back."
"From the dead." The city on Lake Eire had lost 50% of its population since the 1950s.
"Like Dracula and what about you." Matt had heard of my troubles from my sister.
"Not bad. I'm working in a metal shop six days a week."
"That must be tough at your age."
"Yeah, but it won't kill me." It was tough work for a man of 61, but my kids were getting older. "Good luck in Cleveland."
Matt and I spoke regularly.
I knew him all his life.
He liked Cleveland and loved Kristen.
I was happy for them.
Two winters I received the phone call from Matt. What he had to say came as no surprise.
"We're getting married and I need to get a diamond engagement ring. Something over one-carat in a platinum halo setting."
"Your wish is my command and congratulations."
I had worked in the diamond industry and arranged the purchase of a diamond to be set in the platinum mounting of Kristin's desire. She was happy and the only better than making a woman happy was making her happier.
I figured that the ring would buy him two years.
I was wrong and Matt called this Spring to say, "Kristin and I are getting married on Halloween."
"This Halloween? What's the theme?"
"Tuxedos. No costumes. Only masks."
"Only masks? No way."
At the age of five I had fallen off my next-door neighbor's stairs wearing a Halloween skull and learned not to ever wear a mask again for any reason. "I'll wear my tuxedo. Only one problem. It was in Luxembourg at the British Residence."
"I'm sure you'll find a way to get it."
"Me too. By the way congratulations."
I really meant it.
I had worn the monkey suit to the RAF ball and danced with the ambassador. We had a good night.
The next day I phoned the ambassador to have her send my tux over to New York.
"No way." Alice was a longtime friend. "You come over and get it. I'm leaving the embassy for Africa in the New Year."
"Okay." October was six months away from April.
Like Matt said I would find a way.
April turned to May. I visited my big family in Thailand. I wished I could have stayed. I loved being with my children and wives, but I needed money to support them and there was none to be had in the Land of Smiles.
Summer came fast. I went to the beach.
Matt called in late July to ask another favor.
"I need you to become an online minister to sign the marriage documents for the state of Ohio."
"Aren't you getting married by a priest?" His fiancee was Catholic by baptism.
"No." Matt had been raised by my sister. She was a devote Old Religionist, but understood his apostasy. There were more than one atheist in our family.
"As long as I can give a sermon."
My mother always wanted me to be a priest. My apostasy had hurt her and this was my chance to make her happy in heaven. Not that I believe in the place.
"Not even on the sanctity of marriage."
""Weren't you involved with a married woman?"
He was talking about Ms. Carolina.
"He who commits adultery lacks sense."
"Proverbs 6:32-35." I hadn't been an atheist all my life.
"Okay." I accepted his condition and wondered how I was going to get my tuxedo at the British Residency in Luxembourg.
I had no money for a flight and checked the online prices for a rented tux.
Powdered blue polyester cost $49.99 and it could second as a Halloween costume.
Sadly I wasn't able to exercise that option.
My bad luck ran worse.
My boss closed her jewelry store in mid-September. I was hoping to last until Xmas. She didn't pay my salary or commissions, which was a really uncool thing to do to a father of five kids, however the rich are well-known for their shabby treatment of the poor and almost everyone in New York was poor now, except for the rich.
Thankfully a wealthy business associate needed to meet an artist in London. I knew Dave Tidball well. His paintings was accelerating into high orbit of the art world. My price for arranging a secondary-market purchase was 1% of the sale, plus an all-expenses paid trip to the Continent.
The ambassador was happy to see me.
She was sad to see me go.
I was too.
Luxembourg was a comfortable city.
London was fun.
I saw my friends.
Tidball asked about Ms. Carolina. They had met in New York and he had stayed at her river house on the Potomac.
"She's gone four years now."
"Sorry to hear that. She was a good lady."
"That she was."
I told Tidball about my well-heeled friend wanting a painting.
He wasn't willing to sell his paintings behind his dealer's back and my business associate was disappointed by this refusal. He left London without saying good-bye. Rich people are like that. Right before I left for Heathrow, Tidball gave me a drawing.
"Don't sell it. It might be worth a lot one day."
I wanted to stay, but I had to get back to the States.
My tux still fit and my nephew expected me in Cleveland within two weeks.
Back in New York my nephew called about the rings.
I said that I was picking them up in the Diamond District the next day.
I didn't know how since I still owed $300 for them.
Not having a job was becoming a drag.
I showed Tidball's drawing to my business associate.
He knew my situation and lowballed an offer.
I had rent to pay in Brooklyn and feed in Thailand.
I had enough to pay for the rings and booked a hotel in Cleveland through my business associate for $50 a night.
That week my nephew called from the West.
"I need you there Friday night."
"I'll be there."
"How you getting here?"
"Not sure yet."
"The Sotnicks are driving from New Jersey."
"Alan and Barbara?" I had not seen the couple in years. They were best friends with my sister and her husband.
"Yes, give them a call. I'll text you the number."
He did so and I called them a few minutes later expecting them not to remember me. Barbara answered the phone. She was happy to hear from me and offered to drive me to Cleveland.
"Alan will do all the driving."
"Great." My sister had one time said Alan drove fast.
We made plans to meet in Northern New Jersey. I would sleep at their house and we'd leave early Friday morning. It was a seven-hour drive. I was going to the Sixth City.
I had been there once in 1972. My friend's family had owned a junkyard by the Cuyahoga River, which had infamously burned in 1969. We had drank at the Harbor Inn. I recalled someone pulling out a shotgun. He had shot at someone. We left the bar the following second and I departed from Cleveland in the morning.
I wracked my brain for memorable events in Cleveland.
The great Jim Brown played nine record-breaking seasons for the Browns from from 1957 to 1965. The bruising fullback had told a college football coach, "Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts."
Cleveland loved him, because Cleveland is that kind of town.
On June 4, 1974 the Cleveland Indians staged a dime beer night to get fans into the stadium for a game versus the Texas Rangers. The crowd drank to their hearts' delight and then spurred on by an eighth inning brawl and a fan's attempt top steal the first baseman's hat the hometown attendees stormed onto the field in the ninth inning in the thousands.
NBC newscaster Tim Russert, then a student at the Cleveland–Marshall College of Law, attended the game. "I went with $2 in my pocket. You do the math."
Lastly the Dead Boys were from Cleveland. They were a mainstay at CBGBs. I loved them, because like Devo and Pere Ubu they would never be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I consider that omission a badge of honor for the Young, Loud and Snotty.
Otherwise I drew a blank, which didn't matter.
I was going to Cleveland no matter what.
An actor friend called that week. He was making a film in Cleveland. Bill and I went back to the East Village. We arranged to meet in Cleveland. A wedding and a dinner with Old Bill made Cleveland sound like fun.
Thursday I packed my tux into a bag and caught a 4:16 train to Ridgewood NJ from Penn Station. It was a glorious Indian Summer afternoon to travel through the Meadowlands, even knowing that by 2050 most of marshlands would be underwater.
Except for Snake Hill.
The igneous rock intrusion had been the home the Hudson County's infamous Lunatic Asylum from 1873 - 1939. I hated institutions like that, having grown up across the inlet from Portland's notorious School for the Deaf. Bad things happened in these places and I was glad to be away from it, until the train pulled into Newark.
I had missed the train connection at Secaucus Junction.
Newark was filled with commuters heading home.
None of them knew which way was New York City.
I wanted to get out of there fast.
The next train to Secaucus came ten minutes later.