Category Archives: Double Take

Leaves of Fall

MARKAM AND I stood on an interlocking stone patio overlooking our wheat fields. Stonewalls outlined its borders. As a young man a hundred years ago, our ancestor, great, great grandpa Elias cut the trees, dynamited the stumps, gee-hawed them into huge piles and burned them. The family chronicle said the smoke lingered for days. He cursed acres of stone out of glacier-abandoned fields with horse and sledge, a monumental task suited to a driven man.

In sharp contrast to the fall brilliance, two swaths of never changing spruce forest marched up the windward ridge. The air had a brittle October bite, and fall scents came to us in a potpourri mixture that highlighted the first peaceful moment of the day.

Wheat, now golden and ready for harvest stretched a couple hundred yards north. The swath of land covered ten acres east to west, abruptly ending in a forest of maple, oak, spruce, hickory and ash. October’s brilliant red and gold leaves brought a lump to my throat and it made me think about the ends of things.

Beyond the trees, foothills rose into low mountains blue with distance. North of fields that held our gaze, contoured lands spread out for another mile or more and they rose and fell naturally. On them grew silage corn and hay and beyond that our Holstein herd, specks to the eye, dotted more landscape. Everywhere Grandpa Elias’ stone walls checkered the view.

Dad and Mom owned it, but they died and my brother and I owned it now. Six thousand acres, everything our eyes could see.

“Lot of work here,” Markham said.

“Yeah, lot of work,” I responded, my mind on beauty and not on business.

Then he startled me. He said wistfully, “As the leaves of October fell…” and stopped.

Reflection wasn’t Markham’s strong suite “…and red hues waved in counterpoint…”

He stopped again. It sounded like it should be familiar. I turned from the scene. ‘Wordsworth?”

He looked at me. “No. Rogoszewski.”

“Who?”

“Classmate of mine. Hiram Rogoszewski.” Markham went to Boston University for his degree. He wanted Harvard, but his lazy streak didn’t allow it, and with all of Dad’s money, Harvard did prove its august school stood for more than the ability to pay.

Markham took up Economics, Business Practices and Business Law, got his act together and did well. I went to the University of Minnesota and studied Agriculture and Animal Husbandry. With farming and all our cattle, I wanted to be firmly grounded in the land.

I laughed. “Hiram Rogoszewski? Hiram?”

Markham smiled sadly. “He took a lot of heat for it, but he shined like a brilliant star.”

Not like Markham. I wondered what brought that on, but I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. I looked back at the colored hills.

“He died, too.”

I kept silent. What brought that on? What’s with this sensitive side I never saw before?

As brothers we had been far apart. I didn’t like him. As fraternal twins, I favored mother’s side and he favored our father. Willowy Mom took care of herself, exercised and displayed a gentle soul to the world. Dad had mass, but was well formed and strong. Throughout his working years he insisted on working alongside his workers to keep fit.

Markham stood two inches taller than I. He weighed a hundred pounds more, but the antithesis of Dad. I didn’t like seeing him the way he’d always been. He claimed a glandular deficiency, but I never bought it. He liked food too much. It had been an issue for Mom and I took her side, but Dad ruled and provided and wouldn’t hear of it, so what could we say? I knew I shouldn’t hate someone who shared the same womb, but I did.

During our pre-college years Dad got after us to pick a career, so long as it led back to the estate. Education, he insisted, should motivate us. All things would follow from that. So we picked colleges we wanted, far from each other. What Dad wanted he got, and his two sons worked though four years of college, training to become great and hopefully smart landowners. Once back home, he said, we would work side by side with him and he would finish our education, fine-tuning us in estate management.

It didn’t happen that way. We learned skills we could use in running Dad’s giant enterprise, but only weeks after graduation Dad had a fatal heart attack and ran off the road into a pond while driving Mom to a doctor’s appointment in Ashton. Their truck sank to its roof. Mom drowned.

Now for our dilemma. I would have to work with a brother I didn’t like and who didn’t like me. We’d made inroads on that in the past few days. Tragedy changes everything.

Now Markham and I stood together and gazed at autumn’s finery and wondered how to grasp what had been put too soon into our hands. We were twenty-one. We weren’t ripe yet. We knew enough, but with no direction from the patriarch, we would have to do it all ourselves I just didn’t know if we could.

The last of the cars that had come to the big house after the funeral for what we morosely thought of as a celebration of life drove away. We watched it go. My favorites, Uncle Henry and Auntie Leigh came up from South Carolina. I’d asked them to stay. Lord knew we had plenty of guest rooms, but they insisted and after a time I gave up. They had their reasons. I suspected it had to do with my brother. Like me, they never seemed to relate to him, either.

Finally alone and thinking my own thoughts, wondering again about the why of it, I became aware of Markham fidgeting alongside and I turned his way again.

“What?”

“Cancer.”

What?”

“I have cancer.”

“That’s not funny.”

“I’m not laughing.”

“Well, c’mon,” I said.

It came out. Intestinal. Maybe eating the wrong things, blah, blah, who knew? And of course, no exercise; not his way.

I thought, yeah, right. Isn’t this great?

Markham told me he’d had intestinal pain for long enough that he began to worry. He explained that Doctor Reisch, a specialist in Boston did some testing a few weeks before graduation and confirmed it. Markham swore him to secrecy and paid his bill out of his allowance so Mom and Dad wouldn’t find out. After commencement he would deal with it.

“It’s what I wanted,” he said.

“Is it curable?”

“Best guess, sixty-percent.”

“What’s involved?”

“They’ll cut out about seventy percent of my intestines, maybe catch all of it. I’ll lose weight. Look at that, just what Mom and you always wanted.”

“Yeah, but not like this.”

“Choices are out the window. If I make it, I want your help learning how to be what I’m not.”

“You’re my twin brother. What else would I do?”

Our history of agreeing to disagree got in the way of our thinking, but he seemed relieved. And he’d asked for my help. That’s a first.

It’s strange how death or infirmity can change life’s direction. Markham had always been what he wanted to be. Now he would become what I wanted him to be. I took no pride in it, but strangely, it released some internal pressure and my rancorous feelings fled. Maybe we could become the kind of brothers we never were.

Together we’d make it happen.

A Cincinnati Story

Claude’s my boss. This one average morning I showed up at work ready and rarin’, as they say. He walked in and I did a double take. That great drooping mustache that defined him, gone!

He’d cut away all but a pencil-thin vestige of the bushy stash hairs I knew so well. The man wasn’t David Niven or an Italian barber, for crying out loud. He was French Canadian!

We’d learned from Claude’s rousing stories of the great north of Canada that men wore wild and unkempt full-faced beards. Style follows function, right? It did a hell of a job keeping a man’s face from freezing off, so he said. Sure, when he first arrived in our office he’d trimmed it enough to avoid being arrested for vagrancy, but it looked good. Not long after he let the beard go, and then the big brush he cultivated under his nose was him! Now this? C’mon!

Claude came from Hudson’s Bay. Friendly guy, great boss, but we were more than that. We were friends. We loved his stories; his English sported a pronounced French accent that drove me to fits of laughter. I’d make good-natured fun of him – in private, of course.

Twelve years ago North Country Vellum, the paper company we worked for decided he had more than brawn. He had a brain up there, and they’d seen him use it, as in saving the company money, and what was more important than that?

The company up and ups decided to give him a career change. Now he lived in Cincinnati, a qualified, proper transplant. The beard came off and the bush under the nose on his craggy face became his hallmark.

Today he sported this abomination into the office.

“What did you do?” I stared at the space above his lip.

“I wanted a change. Like it?”

“Who are you?”

His brow crinkled and he frowned. He glanced at me and I thought I saw hurt in his eyes. He snorted and moved away. I stood with my mouth open. Maybe I’d said a wrong thing. Others in their cubicles and stragglers who’d barely managed to punch in on time looked him over. Some shrugged, like, what’s the big deal? Worker bees, I thought disparagingly. They didn’t know Claude like I did.

The day had scarcely begun. Pace is very important in our marketing department. That little confrontation threw me off. I went to my cubicle and angrily punched the start button on my computer. Familiar things surrounded me, but because of a hairline mustache on a good friend whom I’d evidently disturbed with an insensitive question, nothing seemed to gel. The familiar took on a foreign quality and damn it, I felt guilty.

How could I know the day would get stranger yet?

I chided myself. I couldn’t worry about it. I needed to get to work. I had quota calls to make and my job depended on it. I swallowed hard, flexed my fingers like I was about to run a glissando on the hall piano and when the screen came up I logged in and tried to get going. I set up my work from the previous day. I tried to be mechanical about it, but I was fooling myself. The usual fire had gone out and I couldn’t get it back.

I turned to my graphics program. No indexing or charts this time. I did this sometimes to calm myself while waiting for inspiration. Before long I’d programmed Claude’s face. I put his mustache back. It looked right! I studied his somber, somewhat homely face. I removed the hairy bush I remembered and replaced it with a hairline mustache. Then I removed the mustache altogether. Better, but not Claude. Surprising how different a person looks when you remove the image that’s burned in your mind.

I brooded. I couldn’t figure why he’d been hurt by my comment, but I had to solve the mystery. I knew the man. We’d partied together, had cookouts, our wives were great friends; we’d even gone on vacations together. Normally, I didn’t see Claude as a sensitive person. Something must be going on I’d overlooked, some small thing. Maybe…

I laughed at myself. Who was getting sensitive? But it troubled me. I waited until a little before lunch and then I walked to his office. His closed door meant he had a client with him. I retired to the water cooler where I could see his office door. I drew a cup of cold water. I stood around until other people began to notice me and make cracks, then I went back to my cubicle. Who could be in there with Claude so long?

I tried but I couldn’t concentrate, so after ten minutes I went back to the water cooler and got another drink. Standing behind the tall machine made me virtually invisible to Claude’s office, and I almost hit the floor when the door opened and out came my wife. She smiled at Claude, looked this way and that, and then walked away. My wife?

Something in what I saw made me pause. Instead of confronting her as Claude led her out, his hand on her elbow, I ducked a little further to be sure I hadn’t been seen. Once behind the nearer cubicles, I hot-footed it back to my place and waited for Joanne to arrive.

She didn’t. With two exits, a person could leave the office without my seeing them and that’s what she did. I’d get with her tonight; see what was up. It changed my mind about barging in on Claude. I like a little mystery, but this felt real close and personal.

The next stage in the mystery involved my call to Joanne at home. Okay, I couldn’t wait until evening. One thing I knew, she had left two hours before and should have been long home. No answer.

At lunch I had no appetite, so I went for a walk along West Street. Cincinnati Citicorp Plaza shined with newness. The granite slab construction imbued the building with a sense of authority and in an architectural setting of glass and stone created a beautiful backdrop for the city that, down as I was, I could still appreciate.

The rest of the day was a disaster. I missed my quota and Claude didn’t do his daily walk-through, highly unusual. I learned about mid-afternoon that he had already left the office and wouldn’t be back for the rest of the day. Also strange! Claude had earned his promotion by being in earliest and leaving latest, a regular workaholic.

Troubled by thoughts I didn’t want to think, I drove home. Joanne would have some answers, no doubt, and I couldn’t wait to hear them. Claude and Lisa were friends, the best, you know. So what stuck in my craw? Left out? Betrayed? I shouldn’t think those thoughts, but there they were.

I arrived home in the Andale suburb of Cincinnati and my house was dark. Oh man! More stomach acid. I touched my garage opener and the door lifted. My wife’s car wasn’t in the garage. Crazy bad feelings crept into my chest. Demoralized, I parked and went into the house through the kitchen. Silence greeted me, a charged silence, the pin drop kind. My stomach rolled.

I walked into the living room and flipped on the light and, “SURPRISE!”

Noise, commotion, smiling faces and a big banner across the top of the room from one end to the other said, “Happy Birthday!”
And there was Claude, ridiculous mustache and all, Lisa in arm. And there were many of our friends and neighbors with party hats and they’d all had a few and they were bursting to shake my hand and congratulate me.

Omigod, I totally forgot!

Joanne came over with the brightest smile, kissed me roundly, handed me a Scotch and soda and said, “Happy 40, George. Gotcha!”

My wife’s tilted sense of humor. Gotta love it.