Heartbreak at Hogback 3

January 21, 2016  |  Fantasy  |  Share

On paper, she was building an impressive resume. Yet there were fault lines in her career trajectory. Those who worked with Carole found that she was often closed off and introspective while doing an extrovert’s job of communication. Her manager was frustrated at some offers she turned down without any seeming rationale. One October while in New York, she received a letter through her agency; Carole was finishing a book co-authored with a well-known psychologist on grief management, and finding the process unexpectedly stressful.

The letter was from Everett Muncie. He was bringing his two nieces to the city on a promised high school graduation excursion. He wanted to know if Carole was available one day to sightsee with them. This small piece of a life she’d left behind dug at her resolution. She waited until the day specified and then called Everett’s cell phone. He answered right away and she agreed to meet him and the girls at a fashionable lower Manhattan restaurant. Her manager made the reservation.

The dinner was a disaster right from the start. The restaurant was one with serious pretensions to being trendy, with snobbish staff and well-to-do diners. There was a glorious view out of the windows to the Statue of Liberty, but everything else conspired to make her guests uncomfortable. There were no prices on the menu. The waiter sneered when no one ordered any alcoholic drinks, and Everett’s nieces kept looking around with worried expressions at the mannerisms of the people at adjoining tables. Everett kept up a hearty dialogue aimed at both Carole and the girls.

Carole was embarrassed. She couldn’t have engineered a more uncomfortable setting than the one they occupied that moment. Nor could she come down from her introverted mindset; the business of the book was tugging at her concentration. In total, she was letting Everett down, and instead of trying to overcome her innate remoteness, she grew more tongue-tied as the meal progressed. She was also very uncomfortable on a personal level; Everett appeared more mature and attractive than when she’d last seen him, and her crushing sense of dislocation made her unable to respond to his pleasant overtures. His nieces appeared in awe of her. For one wild moment, Carole wondered if she’d simply outgrown the people she knew from a New Mexico life. This thought was followed by one of deep shame.

The final misery came when the check failed to arrive. Carole’s manager had secured the reservation with a credit card and approved an advanced charge to that card. Everett, however, operating from the normal laws of modern social responsibility, wanted to pay the bill. He had no desire to appear like a country yokel, kinfolk in tow, who was too in awe of his hostess to not accept her charity. When Carole refused his offer of payment, endorsed by the waiter with a gratuitous sniff, he became flushed and angry. The dinner party split up on the street outside the restaurant, with Carole hastily hailing a taxi to escape further confrontation. Everett took the girls to an ice cream parlor near their hotel, and refused to discuss any aspect of their meal with Carole.

Needless to say, Carole heard no further from Everett, and attempts on her part to phone him with an apology were answered by voice mail. He never called her back. Mentally, Carole labeled this incident as a bruise on an untouched heart. Outwardly, she moved on, accepting that there were few reasons why she should stay in communication with old neighbors. There was born, however, from then on a desire on her part to escape even further from her hometown. When she found herself the completely shocked recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant, she used some of the money to study abroad.

The place she chose was Iceland. When asked in an interview for The New Yorker why she chose that destination, to her own surprise she argued how the dramatic volcanic landscape reminded her of her home and would therefore stimulate some creative art work. Carole refused to read the resultant article, certain its contents doomed her further in the eyes of those she’d grown up with. She immersed herself in travel, sketching, and painting. She rented a small studio in Reykjavik and socialized sparingly. Driving around the country, she was amazed by how many people knew and spoke English. They were interested in her and her painting with a genuine friendliness.

She stayed a little over a year, and inside something thawed that had been numb ever since the fatal crash. Her identity as a family orphan, survivor and recorder was quietly honored by those she met and talked to. She held no celebrity status, and the naggings from New York could be held at arm’s length. The austere beauty of her surroundings oddly brought memories of Roger closer to her, and softened them with the dignity of time passed. Carole knew it would sound like the biggest cliché, but his physical loss did not diminish her. Somehow, his spirit lived. Perhaps simply because of all the work she’d done in his honor.

Carole finished her part of the book during her first six months abroad. She was pleased with the results. Iceland had served as some sort of abstract healer. Best of all, a longing grew inside her. Every time she viewed a geological monolith that reminded her of Hogback, her heart felt a tug that had vanished completely in the aftermath of her brother’s death. For the first time, she could imagine a return to her home, and a powerful incentive to do so.

Almost six years after that terrible day, Carole boarded a plane for New Mexico. She contacted no one ahead of time. She had no idea of the reception she’d face, but face it she would. The classic cycle of grief and renewal had to end within the shadow of the mountain that had always sustained her. She rented a car in Albuquerque and drove slowly north. She arrived in Farmington and rented a hotel room. With trembling fingers, not knowing what reception she might face, she dialed Everett’s cell phone. He answered, and their conversation was short.

“Everett, this is Carole. The prodigal returns.”

“Where are you?”

“Farmington. At the La Quinta. Want to meet me at Blake’s?”

“I’ll be right over.”

She reached the restaurant only a few minutes before he arrived. She was shaking still, attempting to ease the quivering in her fingers that matched the tingling in her chest. He looked much the same as when she had seen him last time, except he wore an all-out frown. Or was it a grimace? Tears started in her eyes. He hadn’t forgiven her after all. Carole faced his silent scrutiny with chin up, waiting for a sign.

When he seized her in a fierce embrace, she knew many would say she’d come home. But her real homecoming had begun the moment her plane had landed. Now, she was simply living again. The ice-encased persona she’d occupied these past years melted, restoring her to the generous woman she’d always been. Now she accepted love and its inevitability. While tragedy had tempered her soul, her backbone had always been forged from the Hogback itself.


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