Autumn in Connecticut
Originally Published in Garbanzo Literary Journal Volume #3, October, 2013
Turning left off the highway, and heading towards the hilly, heavily wooded roads, the wheels of the black sedan kicked up a wake of golden leaves. A light ahead warned yellow from green, and although he could handily clear the light before it changed, he rolled to the stop line and waited. He waited for eight seconds before it changed to red, the car behind him honking.
That fall day, as he drove to his childhood home, he turned left onto Chestnut Road, the name reminding him of all the things he loved about the coming winter, snow and songs about chestnuts. He liked the seasonal smell of smoky heat curling from the radiators in the old colonial, while loose white flakes drifted down in whirls. The Christmas lights of the houses along the hill glitter in the darkness between the barren trees. Winter was beautiful for him, one of his favorite times of year, something about the desolation, endearing. Maybe it was the darkness, the way the sun set in the late afternoon, and the way it rose early over chilly dawns where branches cracked and snapped with the frost and ice. The snow shimmered as if embedded with tiny diamonds as the orange sun burned its way up in the sky.
Today, in early fall, he bore right past fiery foliage onto Summer Hill Road, past a cement bridge over the Hammonasset River. He gripped the wheel tightly with his knuckles, he hadn’t been back to this house, where his mother lived in five years. He’d been avoiding it, because of the pain, surrounding his parents’ divorce ten years prior.
The name Summer Hill reminded him of wading in the river when he was a kid, his shorts rolled up high, he and his mother skipping stones down the shallow bed which twisted its way through the bright ever greenery of the woods alongside the road. He loved the way the warm sun felt on his face. He and his mother would sit on a wide flat rock in the river and eat the sandwiches she had packed, salami and lettuce, the sharp taste always reminding him of summer. Afterward they would wade back through the river, which in some hot years dried to a trickle from the heat. He remembered the cicadas that croaked and echoed and clicked off in the distance, a sound he always thought was the sun.
Today, this autumn day in Connecticut, the road was flanked by either fiery branches of color or agonizingly bare branches clawing at the sky. Leaves had fallen everywhere, and this year they seemed brighter and more golden than ever he remembered. Still the warm colors of the leaves reminded him of the hot summer sun, and their circling downward whirls made him think of the way snowflakes would curl down from the sky.
Today, he came straight from work in Manhattan, from his job as a small business loan analyst at a large bank. That morning, he had gotten a proposal that didn’t fit, the first one in a long time. It was a proposal for a restaurant, obscure menu items that sounded like they could have been interesting, yet, at the same time the applicant worded the cover letter strangely. He wasn’t sure what to do, the idea of being unable to label it, as a pass/fail or a yes/no was puzzling. Then again, the idea of something defying his binary logic was offensive and begged for rejection. The concept was decent by his standards, but he wasn’t sure that this niche restaurant could succeed in the cutthroat New York market. After thinking on it for thirty minutes, an unprecedented amount of time spent reflecting on one proposal, he forwarded it to his supervisor, and picked up the phone to return the call his mother had placed earlier in the week.
He thought about her tone on the phone, audibly excited that her only son would possibly visit home for a weekend. It had been many seasons since he had actually been here, managing to avoid coming back here for holidays, preferring to host her in the city, or meet at a relative’s house on Long Island.
“Would you want to come down here for the weekend?” She sounded almost breathless. He’d been avoiding the house for ages, ignoring its very existence, the shock and pain that came from the decayed marriage echoing through the years, was connected forever to that structure.
He thought for a moment, but remembered he hadn’t been back to the house for almost five years, and saw his mother rarely, but still more frequently than that.
“Yes, of course, sure,” he said quietly.
“You sure you don’t want to think about it, or look at your calendar or something?” She said timidly, giving him an out, to cite business or make an excuse. He could tell she was praying he wouldn’t.
“No. Yes, I’ll be there.” He said quickly before he could find a way to pass.
He removed a hand from the wheel and rubbed his shirtsleeves in the chilly car. He reached over and turned the internal thermostat from the far end of the blue side of the dial, all the way over to the red. Instantly, the vents began exhaling hot moist air, and he shivered slightly again as the car warmed. Twenty minutes ago, he sweat through his shirt and had to put the air conditioning on despite it being autumn in New England.
When he pulled in the gray gravel driveway, he parked his car in the same way he always used to, beside hers. He shut the engine off and got out. Before he headed to the door, he stood for a moment outside glaring at the two sedans, one black, one silver. He hated silver cars, or cars of other colors for that matter. Nothing looked as pristine to him as white or black. Other blended colors felt like cheap knockoffs to him. They felt foreign, like those strange mutated fruit at the supermarket, where they inject and color the two species of fruit combined to get an entirely foreign object with an asinine name, like a ‘grapple’ or a ‘banange.’
He had almost forgotten the crunch of the gravel underfoot, the sharp cold of the chilly air, the woody smell of someone nearby burning leaves. It was late November, after Thanksgiving, but well before Christmas. The weather had just turned, the trees were on their last throes of color before their final descent into bare branches in the sky. He was glad inside, as to him, the sooner Fall could be over, the better. Winter was coming and with it, relief and consistency.
The front door opened with a creak and his mother looked out over the yard and the stone wall, the green lawn diminished to a gray color scattered with leaves, from the stoop. She waved excitedly, but took her time descending the steps, clutching the black painted iron railing. She was getting older, he thought, as she came over to him, her little figure pulling him into a hug. He bent slightly to meet her for the hug. She still smelled as she always did, of rose, and he could see her hair had gotten grayer, her face thinner than before. When she released, she held him out with her arms, as if to look at him. As he scanned her tired face, he noticed something strange above her left eye. It was a tiny set of black narrow stitches, smaller than a centimeter. She had covered it up with pasty makeup, the concealer an effort to conceal it. There was a second pair also, up near her hairline, hidden under her bangs, black against the paleness of her skin.
“How was the drive?”
“Not bad, a little bit of traffic through New Haven, but otherwise, it wasn’t so bad.”
She rubbed her sleeves in the cold.
“Come on in, I just put on a pot of coffee.”
He followed her inside, where a classic Dave Brubeck Quartet song wafted through the door and past the creaky staircase, through the stooped doorways. When he was younger, he always joked that colonial people must’ve been smaller because of how stooped the frames were.
The music was coming from a small boom box on the counter under a cabinet. She always used to do that, play jazz while she went about her day. Things hadn’t changed.
He sat at the scrubbed wooden table and shirked his coat off and she did the same, draping hers on the back of her chair. She sat down and placed a chipped mug of coffee in front of him.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said and she reached over and squeezed his hand. He noticed there was another inch of little black stitches here too, on the top of her wrist under her sweater.
“Mom, what’s, uh, what’s all this?” he asked slowly gesturing at her wrist.
She pulled her sleeve down quickly.
“It’s nothing. It’s no big deal. The doctor found a few spots that looked strange so he took them off. No big deal. Didn’t even hurt.”
“What do you mean spots? What were they?”
“He doesn’t know yet, when they come back from the lab we’ll know.” Her smile faltered for a second, but she reinforced it, and patted his hand.
“How’s work? Any funny loan proposals? Is the guy with the specialty sardine shop coming back…” but he was bothered. What were those spots, and why were there were so many?
“What does your doctor think they are?”
“Hmm?” she said, and he noticed one more little row of stitches, on her chin, but this one, was dabbed with makeup too.
“All these stitches, Mom, what’s it all about?”
“He just wants to be thorough, you know, at my age, you can’t be too sure.”
“Mom, can you just tell me? What are you waiting to find out?” Her eyes quivered for a second, and she looked at her hands, spread on the table.
“He’s wants to see if it’s melanoma or not.”
The saxophone crooned on, but she said nothing more.
After a moment she looked up at him and smiled, her eyes watery.
“I’m just so glad you’re here,” she said with a sniff. She peered out the window and stood, pulling her jacket from the chair.
“It’s beautiful out there. I was just about to go for a little walk, you know, look at the leaves. Want to come?”
He nodded, noncommittally, unable to respond, sort of a nod, he was feeling numb all over, she headed for the door, and he followed. She had the possibility of having cancer? This was overwhelming, and we walked along behind her, numb.
She pulled the heavy wooden door shut with a slam. Again, slowly down the front steps she came and they started down the curved driveway. The gravel crunched with each step from their shoes, and they turned left at the road, around the copse of three pine trees that had been there since he was a child.
They walked in silence down the curvy road, the trees forming a canopy of colors, bright oranges, yellows and reds, their colored embers scattered over the ground like bright wrapping paper torn asunder. They followed the gray stone wall that ran the length of the yard, the white shaker colonial with the gray roof set back from the road. The yard was wide and framed in an apron of brown leaves, the green of the lawn popping out from under the grays, reds, and yellows.
“So I wanted to talk to you,” she said after a while as they walked down the street through the leaf piles that gathered in the edge of the road.
“About the doctor? Mom, I wish you’d said something,” he blurted before she could say anything. She brushed him off with a wave of her hand. Why didn’t she say anything before this? He began to feel like a great drain was sucking him down, his mother had cancer, and she could die.
“Not about that, it’s nothing to worry about.”
“Is it? We don’t know do we?”
“Just stop it, Sean. I don’t want to talk about this right now. It’s none of your business.”
They walked for a moment without speaking. Why wouldn’t she say anything? He wanted more information, it ached inside him, he wanted to know, it hurt not to know. The unknown was agonizing.
“Anyway,” she said almost casually, “I just wanted to let you know, the other night, I had dinner with your father.”
“That’s nice.” It slipped out sarcastically, frustrated still that she hadn’t told him about the spots.
“Well, we got to talking, and we decided to go on a few dates again.”
“So, what, are you getting remarried?” He bit sharply, in his head he scoffed. Great, he thought, now they can get divorced again.
She stopped in a cloud of her breath.
“I don’t know. We’re just going on a few dates, to see if we can remember why we got married in the first place. We’re going to take it slow.”
“So you’re not,” he snapped.
“I didn’t say that,” she replied. “This is a good way to ease back into seeing if we can make it work again. It all started when we were talking the other day about you, and Christmas, and we realized that neither of us has seen anybody since we got divorced.”
His breath frosted in front of his lips, and he slipped his hands into his pockets. From a distance, the house looked the same as always, postcard perfect, the yard pristine and maintained, even at the end of November. The white wooden shingles of the house, were weathered, but still intact, the windows framed by black shutters, and the little fake lanterns by the door, lit against the gray sky and the fiery trees. He hadn’t been back here since the summer he’d moved to New York, the emptiness of the house without his dad was surreal. Now, he had forgotten how beautiful the house looked, especially as it would in a few weeks, when clean snow frosted it.
He remembered the way his father would tap on the wooden plaque beside the front door, nailed into the siding, the writing, reading “Ira Field House, 1682.” The words were in black lettering like the masthead of the copy of the edition of the New York Times that presently lay crumpled irreverently on the passenger seat of his car like a downed gray bird.
“Built in 1682, still standing,” his father would say proudly whenever he stood at the front door and watched cars whip around the curvy corners of the country road. He remembered in the heat of the summer time, scampering barefoot across the wide lawn, racing his father’s old legs to the stone wall between the yard and the road and back to the porch, where his mother would sit while fireflies sparkled into being in the bushes beside the front door.
“So what am I supposed to think, Mom?” he snapped.
“I don’t know what you’re supposed to think. I just thought you would want to know.”
“Great. Thanks for telling me about this possibility.”
“Sean, you’re thirty-two years old. I just thought you would be interested to know we had a nice dinner and we have another one on the calendar for next week.”
“Am I supposed to hope you get remarried? Should I hope you stay divorced? What’s the deal here?” He demanded.
“Why does everything have to be so polar with you? Why is it always a duality?”
“Because it is. That’s the law of my world. Everything is binary.”
“Where did that come from?” She scanned his eyes as they stood, their breath a fog between them.
Everything in his world contrasted sharply for so long. When his parents called him that March so very long ago to tell him the news, he was a senior in college and happily immersed in internships and life in the city. The conversation on the phone line was absolute, no room for discussion.
“We’re getting divorced, Dad has already moved out.”
Visiting home in Connecticut would never be the same again. How was he supposed to react? The period for acting up in school, slipping grades and drug experimentation was long over, and he was nearly done with undergrad with just a few months left. Still it nagged at him, his parents who had been together for thirty years, in that tacky wedding photo from the late seventies, couldn’t resolve their differences and were separating. He regretted not seeing it, in how he had watched their communication dry up in the years prior, like the river to a trickle in the heat of the summer. He regretted not being aware, or attuned enough to notice the gradual cancerous decay of their relationship as their marriage spiraled away from their grasps. He regretted not seeing all this before that dreadful, painful call.
“You. You and Dad splitting up.”
“What do you mean?”
“I just remember it being so final and so cut, so binary.”
“You’ve always been like that, that wasn’t us,” she said. He paused and exhaled a breath.
“Yes it was, it was the divorce, it was the split!”
“Don’t blame this on me, Sean, you’ve always been black and white, up or down, yes or know.”
“I just, when I thought about it, I thought about how I heard the news. Before the phone call, that very morning, to me, because I didn’t know, you had been together, married, and in my mind, happy. After the call, you were split, separated. My relationship with my parents would never be the same.”
“That’s not the case at all,” she said, slipping her hands into her jacket pockets. He ignored her. Why wouldn’t she understand? He continued on.
“I thought about this difference, what this meant, before the call, you were married, after, not. That’s when I began to see the binary nature of everything. I don’t like things that are in between. That phone call was in between. I’d rather everything be one or another.”
She actually laughed. His heart twisted inside. Did she think this was a joke? That he was fooling around?
“Sean, honey, you’ve always been like this, always when you were younger, hell- you didn’t even like your food touching.”
She let out a short smile, and he felt his lips cracked in the chill.
“This has nothing to do with the divorce, it’s okay, it’s how you are.” She said gently. He hated this therapist talk, this softened, delicate language.
“This is why you always had a hard time making friends, it was always all or nothing.” He thought about his life in the city, his late nights at work, always going home to his apartment late, turning on the TV and falling asleep alone. Thinking now, he realized he was alone there, always. Groups of people went out to lunch every day at work, walking by his desk, waving, but never inviting him to join. He felt his insides ablaze and in the chilly air, his face felt hot.
“So how the fuck am I supposed to feel?” It felt good to shout down the logic.
“Just relax, and appreciate the fact that this is a step in a new direction.”
“Just relax? I need to just relax? You’re the one who should relax, trying to rekindle a fucking failed marriage,” he raged.
She stopped, her eyes now watery, for a moment in a cloud of breath, she looked at him her blue eyes so hurt. Instantly he began to panic, why the fuck did I say that, oh my god! I hurt her, he thought. Her eyes now watery, two lone tears running down her cheek, crossing the concealer covered stitches on her chin. His mind swam in the adrenaline, she was sick, she was angry, she had cancer, he had to do something. His thoughts came like the cars of a derailed train, charging through his mind while he tried to catch just one of them, to say something, anything.
“I guess I deserved that,” she said her voice quavering. She looked back, as if she thought about turning around and heading for home, then wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand. She sniffed loudly. He didn’t know what to say, so he looked around at the leaves as they stood there, and after a moment, she spoke.
“The leaves are so bright this year. Farmer’s almanac says it’s going to be a cold winter.”
“I can’t wait for winter to get here.”
“Is Fall too transitional for you?” She shot.
He didn’t answer, seething, shaking, feeling unsure of what to say or what to do
“Ah,” she said knowingly and bowed her head slightly. “I love Fall. I’ve always loved it.”
“It’s just summer becoming winter.” He said under his breath. They started walking on again and he thought hard about memories from autumn, his parents spending all day of a warm Saturday raking a pile of leaves so he could jump in them. He remembered the way they would always get their Christmas tree the Saturday after Thanksgiving, as if to jumpstart the season. He thought about his parents together when they were young and his mother’s hair was light and blonde and not streaked with gray, or when his father had a thick beard instead of shallow gaunt cheeks. He thought about how she used to be when she wasn’t so tired, when she wasn’t dotted with little black crosses from skin cancer biopsies. He thought about what Christmas could be like if they were both there together again, and he wouldn’t have to choose between two families. They were getting older, there was no doubt about that, their summer youth was gone, and their autumn was almost at a close before the cold chill of winter. She still looked away from him, trying to compose herself as they walked, her head turning back, as if to imply the walk should be over. She spoke quietly.
“Fall. I don’t think it’s just an in-between. I think it’s its own thing, a real season that’s important to the year.” She was trying so hard, he had to say something, anything to make it better, to just apologize, just capitulate, just to undo that horrible line. It came to him, it was just something to say, that could start to apologize.
“Fall is like you and Dad. It’s not a before and an after, it’s all one,” he said slowly.
She looked into his eyes, wiping the last tears from her own. She said nothing, and slipped her arm through his.
They walked along under the bright foliage and along the stone wall, while the cold air carried a faint breeze of a fire from off in the distance.
This was autumn in Connecticut.