Before the wildfire some years back, Grandpa George’s summer place was an ageing cabin, a relic from a time when the mountain resort was a novelty to city dwellers, a picturesque place to get away an hour’s drive from downtown. The cabin could sleep only 4, had no air conditioning & no washing machine. There was 1 tiny shower stall, 1 lonely electrical socket in the whole place. When the fire ripped through the valley, its savage winds taking down power lines, sparks bursting into flames, the little cabin was devoured along with all the rest on Red Rose Drive, a gravel road overlooking a vast pine forest believed until modern times to be sacred. The forest has renewed itself since the fire. Red Rose Drive has been improved & rebuilt.
Deciding whether to sell Grandpa’s land after the fire & divide the profits or use the insurance payout to put things back together, Anne’s family had been split.
“Grandpa would have wanted us to keep the old place,” Uncle John had pointed out.
“Grandpa is dead,” Anne’s mother, Carol, had said, “What does it matter to him?” After a family vote that could have gone either way, a contractor & architect had been hired. The house had been remade, not as a rustic cabin but as a proper summer home with 3 bedrooms, a modern kitchen & several bathrooms. Neighboring plots were similarly improved; nobody wanted a cabin anymore. It had taken considerably more than the insurance money for Anne’s family to finish the project.
“I told you,” Carol had said, bills & bank statements in hand.
Scaffolding surrounds the place rising on the neighboring plot. Mrs. Taylor, a resident on Red Rose Drive for 35 years & the 1st to rebuild, has met the new residents out with their building firm, blueprints rustling in the breeze.
“That place will have 5 bedrooms,” Mrs. Taylor tells Carol when they arrive for 4th of July weekend, “Can you believe that? It was Bob Graham’s fishing cabin. It had an outhouse!”
“I know,” says Carol, holding her nose.
Many of the closest neighbors, most of them family friends for decades, haven’t kept their places. “It’s not the same without the Harrisons up here,” Uncle John remarks, coming in with his 2 boys, “No one made a better cherry pie than Mrs. Harrison.”
“We should have sold the place before we sank so much money into it,” Carol gripes from the kitchen table which she is dusting.
Anne winces as she sweeps cobwebs down from the light fixtures, dust falling in her eyes. “Come on, Mom,” she says.
“It sits empty all year,” Carol answers, “And it takes 3 hours to get up here these days. It’s not worth it anymore.” Uncle John shakes his head & takes the suitcases downstairs.
By dinner time, Uncle John’s wife, Molly, has called to say she will not drive up after all; a problem with the car, it seems. That means Anne’s brother, Jake, & his girlfriend will also be absent, having planned to carpool. Carol has made a fresh green salad. Uncle John has grilled burgers & hot dogs. His teenage sons, Will & Joshua, devour a mountain of food then disappear to play video games in their bedroom downstairs.
“Sure is different up here than it used to be,” Carol remarks as she loads the dishwasher. Anne takes a pack of cigarettes from her purse & opens the sliding glass doors onto the deck. “You still smoking?” Carol says with a reproving look. Anne stops & turns to her mother. “You smoked when you were my age,” she says.
“But I quit,” says Carol, “And you should, too.”
“Yeah,” says Anne & goes out.
She looks out at the black, black mountainsides, the sky above with its field of stars. It’s just us, she thinks. She imagines her dad as he was in her childhood, long before the divorce, out on the back-porch smoking with Grandpa George before he died. Now they’re both dead, she thinks. She remembers Dad & Grandpa talking baseball through the afternoon & into the night.
“You think your boys from Chicago can beat the Home Team this year?” Dad asks. “Home Team, my foot,” Grandpa answers back, “I don’t know how you can root for those bums. I’m a Chicagoan ‘til the day I die.” They lament the surrounding mountains which block out the radio broadcast. “But it’s paradise up here,” Grandpa says, “Simply paradise.
“Yeah,” Anne’s dad agrees. They fall silent. Anne is alone again on the deck, her cigarette burning. Before it’s quite finished, she uses it to light another.
Uncle John takes the boys down to the lake for a day of fishing off the boat. They invite Anne to join but she declines. Carol says she wants to spend the day reading. She has an inspirational guide to spirituality waiting on the coffee table. Anne sits on a barstool at the counter which divides the open-plan kitchen from the living room. Is that a million trees? she thinks gazing through a plate-glass window, Does anybody count trees?
“You planning to sit there the rest of the day staring out the window?” asks Carol, bustling in, “I’m taking my book out to the deck.”
“I’ll come out,” says Anne. She smokes a cigarette using Grandpa George’s favorite ashtray. It’s one of the few things to survive the fire.
“We are not keeping that,” Carol had said with disgust.
“But everything else burned up,” John had insisted, “How can we throw out the only thing that’s left?”
“Fine,” Carol had grudgingly conceded, “Have it your way.”
“Why don’t you take a walk up the trail behind the Thompson’s place,” Carol suggests with a sideways look, “It’s beautiful. I went up before breakfast. If you’d been awake, you could’ve come with me.”
I hate walks, Anne thinks not knowing what to say, Just the word ‘walk’ & already I’m tired.
“It’s better than sitting here smoking ½ a pack of cigarettes,” her mother says, turning back to her book, “I came up here for the fresh air, you know.”
“I’ll go,” Anne says.
“Good,” says Carol, “And if you’re not too worn out, you can come with me after dinner tonight, too. Gotta’ get my steps in.” Anne nods & goes inside to put on walking shoes.
Anne comes into the meadow at the top of the trail. There’s a stream that comes down along the far side with shade trees. Who was the 1st human to walk in this meadow, she wonders, 10,000 years ago? Longer? Anne knows which tree she likes. She finds it waiting for her. The dirt is hard & dry; the tree roots decide what shape the ground will be. Anne settles herself in. The branches above are in full leaf. The birds & insects go about their business. Anne leans her head back & hears a nearby radio playing. She looks around but sees nothing. The wind blows & she thinks, They must be playing music down at the Thompson place. Her eyelids are heavy. The mountain air is fresh & cool.
“I thought you’d never wake up,” says a voice.
Anne finds she’s opening her eyes & turning to look. Dad? she thinks.
“You must’ve been asleep awhile,” he says.
It’s not Dad, she thinks though she’s not sure. He’s sitting in a folding chair with a cooler & a portable radio playing static beside him. He smokes a cigarette casually. She notices a pile of butts on the bare ground stacked as neatly as firewood. He’ll take those with him when he goes, Anne thinks, just like Dad.
“You okay?” the man asks.
“I didn’t realize I’d gone to sleep,” Anne says, rubbing her eyes. “You look like my dad,” she says wonderingly. “But, of course, he’s dead.”
The man gives her a wry grin. “I’m not your dad,” he says, “And I’m not dead.”
The breeze changes, the radio static clears & Anne can hear it’s tuned to a ballgame. “My dad used to listen to games up here sometimes,” Anne says, “He claimed you could get a signal if you tuned in the AM radio just right.”
“It gets patchy,” says the man, shrugging his shoulders, “Some days, I can’t hear a thing. But look at the view.”
“Yeah,” says Anne. She feels dizzy. “Did you buy the old Thompson place?”
“No,” says the man, reaching toward the cooler, “Can I offer a lady an ice-cold beer?”
“No, thanks,” says Anne.
“Suit yourself,” he says.
“You up here for the 4th?” Anne asks.
“Looks like it,” he says. She waits for him to say more but he’s listening for the baseball scores. Anne hears the woods & the meadow, a mix static & baseball commentary coming through on the radio.
“Who’s your team?” she asks idly.
“I always root for the Home Team,” he says.
Of course, she thinks, her mind drifting.
“I have a daughter,” the man says after a while.
Anne nods, feigning interest. “That’s nice,” she says.
“My daughter is something else,” the man says.
“Yeah?” says Anne.
“Yeah,” he says, nodding, “Just like me when I was young.” He’s the spitting image of Dad, biting his lip & looking far into the distance. “It all goes by so fast,” he says.
A loud bang comes from the somewhere beyond the meadow in the direction of Red Rose Drive. Anne wakes, her heart racing as the popping of firecrackers & smell of BBQ take her by surprise. She’s alone on the bank of the stream, the rippling of leaves above her sounding like quiet static on a small radio.