My name is Nathan Carter. Let me say that even though this story does not concern me - not directly anyway - I feel an obligation to tell it, because it was told to me, and it is the type of story that needs to be told...So begins this powerful tale of love, loss and redemption, drawing us into the small town of Eden, Vermont, and into the complex lives of two very different men. Nathan Carter is a young man in love with falling in love. A serial monogamist, he flits from woman to woman until, as yet another relationship disintegrates, he leaves his busy Boston lifestyle behind him and drives north to the small town of Eden. There he meets Wallace Fiske: a man at the end of his life. A man with a story to tell. And as the surly, gruff Wallace starts to tell Nathan his story - the story of Nora, the woman he loved from the moment he first set eyes on her, the story of the man Wallace used to be - the two men become friends. It's a friendship - and a story - that will change Nathan forever...
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Thomas Christopher Greene was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1968. He graduated from Hobart College and the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. He currently lives and writes in Vermont.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
My name is Nathan Carter. Let me say that even though this story does not concern me -- not directly, anyway -- I feel an obligation to tell it, because it was told to me, and it is the type of story that needs to be told to others, especially now that all the principals are dead. Sometimes in life, as we all know, our experiences collide with another person's in a manner that can only be considered fate: something larger than happenstance, an intermingling of otherwise disparate lives, for a greater purpose. Such was the case, I believe, with my connection to Wallace Fiske, a man whose world should never, under normal circumstances, have come into touch with my own; a man from a different era, from an era that no longer exists in America, except in the small corners and margins of rural life.
It was the summer of 1996, and I had had several seemingly unrelated cathartic experiences in a row, the most notable of which, the death of my father by an untimely heart attack, sent me reeling and scrambling out of Boston, where I had lived for the ten years since I left college; sent me north to the green mountains and valleys of northern Vermont. In Boston, I had been an itinerant student and waiter, someone who, in the language of my class, never seemed to get his act together. I was also a serial monogamist, staying in a relationship with a woman for six months to a year, and then abruptly leaving her; meeting another woman and falling madly, crazily in love, only to beg off as soon as the honeymoon ended.
You could say I had a problem with commitment, and perhaps even intimacy, the kind of intimacy that comes from a love that grows and changes with time; but the truth for me was more complex than any armchair psychology could pin down so neatly. I was at the time, and in truth still am today, a man who tries to anchor himself in the arms of a woman; a man of many fears, most of them irrational; a man afflicted with a syndrome particular to people who shirk the art of living purposefully, focusing all their energy instead on things they can never solve or understand, things like the sky and the spinning of the planet. My cure for this syndrome was fleeting, incandescent love, the kind of love where you never want to get out of bed, where you roll together under cotton sheets, where she enters your thoughts before you fall asleep and is still there when you wake.
I tell you this not simply to illuminate certain truths about me, although it serves that purpose as well, but rather to explain how I came to be so receptive to Wallace Fiske's story, even though I believe that you, as I did, will find his behavior and actions reprehensible.
I am from a family that traces its roots back to the Pilgrims, and though vast branches are considerably wealthy, with mansions in Chestnut Hill and seaside cottages in Marblehead, somewhere along the line my father's life diverged from those of his Brahmin siblings and I grew up in relatively humble, middle-class neighborhoods around Boston. My father, until his death, sold shoes, though not in a store on his knees with a shoehorn in his hand. He sold wholesale for various companies and made a decent enough living, though he never saved anything and he never told me exactly why he had no claim to the family fortune, other than to show his bitterness sometimes when he had been drinking by pulling out a tattered green copy of the Social Register to show me the names and addresses of all the Carters in it, pointing out the exclusive locations where they lived, and the stars next to their names that marked an entirely other level of prestige whose meaning I no longer recall.
Of Mother, for her part, I have only vague memories, since she died when I was six. I do remember a tall, dark-haired woman with a soft voice and a sad face, with deep brown eyes that made her look as if she were perpetually weeping. The last years of her life she spent primarily in bed, dying from a virulent form of bone cancer, and while it affected my life insofar as I grew up motherless, it affected my father much more, for she was his sun and his moon, and after she died he removed all evidence of her from our small ranch house, as if she never existed.
Since my father was always working, and my mother was dead, I spent much of my childhood and adolescence alone, and I learned, in turn, how to take care of myself. I went to school, made friends, and in retrospect was a normal, if shy, boy. Upon high school graduation, I even went to college, not something I was pushed to do but something I thought I should do and, without knowing what it was I wanted out of my fu-ture, I studied philosophy, which was a mistake, since it only taught me to move deeper into myself, something I did not need. Nevertheless, I was a competent, if unspectacular, student and managed to graduate in four years, at which point I began waiting tables at Boston restaurants and dating that city's daughters, a pattern I maintained until my father's death.
And so it was that in the summer of 1996, with all the recurrent guilt that comes with losing a parent, I broke it off with yet another girlfriend -- this time a tall, skinny divinity school student named Jill -- and without much of a plan, but armed with a ten-thousand-dollar inheritance, I packed my spare belongings into my Volkswagen and drove north from Boston to Vermont.
I do not know what I hoped to find amid those green hills in midsummer. I suppose I hoped that instead of anchoring myself in the arms of a woman, and instead of floating ethereally in a world of graduate classes and serving dinner to Bostonians, I would somehow find in that dramatic landscape a way to ground myself in something honest and true; something that would allow me to get outside myself and my solipsism.
I spent the first days in an Econo Lodge on the fringe of Montpelier, but by the end of the week I had found a rental house in the town of Eden. The house was in reality more of a cabin, a poorly built cabin at that. The landlord, a gruff, hard-drinking New York firefighter, someday wanted to retire here but in the meantime rented it out for five hundred bucks a month. He had built it himself, but from scrap wood, he said, and it was a square structure, with a small porch on the front and two giant windows on the second floor -- storefront windows, salvaged when a local department store was razed -- so that if you were to look at it head-on the cabin resembled a large, benevolent face. Inside was a small kitchen, a living room beyond that with a woodstove, and then a wooden ladder that led to the upstairs loft, little more than a large, airy room with the storefront windows on the south side.
The cabin was built into the side of the hill, and from the porch and from the storefront windows you could see clear across the valleys of Eden, to the mountains in the distance, the curved horn of Camels Hump interrupting the horizon at sunset. The land around the house was rocky and soon gave way on all sides to a thick forest of poplars, eastern cottonwoods, maples, and evergreens. As the house was set down from the dirt road that ran along the ridge of the hill, you could see no other houses from it and, though solitude of this kind seemed the wrong cure for my fears, it struck me as perfect for my needs: out of the way, real, firmly in and of this earth.
Those first months were a matter of adjustment, but I surprised myself by giving in to the rhythms of the place, waking with the sun, sleeping in a bed next to the storefront windows, underneath a canopy of stars in clear weather. During the days I explored the town. First by car, driving around the endless dirt roads that dip and weave through those pitched valleys. I drove by old farmhouses, cows in pastures, pebbly mountain streams with thin waterfalls falling next to the road, run-down trailers tucked into the woods, abandoned cars stacked like pancakes next to them. I drove by old churches with old graveyards, the stones illegible with age. I drove by logging roads cut like seams into the forest, men with heavy equipment dragging the ash and pine down narrow escarpments to muddy clearings, long logs piled high for hauling. I drove by defunct mills, their wheels no longer churning, the clapboards peeling away from the frames. I drove by dirty-faced children playing on the sides of the road. I drove by an old woman wearing hip waders and standing in a child's plastic pool, a slaughtered pig at her feet. I drove by the mix of poor and country wealthy living side by side. I drove each day until I could not drive anymore.
I began to walk. Initially I stuck to the roads, exploring the one I lived on, the surrounding roads. I walked with a big stick to ward off the various dogs that rushed out to meet me. Eventually I grew bolder and began to cut directly into the woods themselves, egging myself on, forcing myself to face the fears of deep forest that anyone who has spent a lifetime in the city has. I walked through meadows of wildflowers, up steeply pitched forest walls, across mountain streams that had slowed to a trickle but that, from the looks of the beds, ran hard and fast with snowmelt in the spring. I walked up the sides of small mountains, above the tree lines, until I could see the undulating hills spread before me, ridges like waves frozen in time.
At night I sat on the porch of that ill-built cabin and watched the gathering dark. I smoked cigarettes and drank scotch and looked at the woods. I looked at the night sky, bright with stars, the moon sometimes sitting crescent-shaped above the mountains. From here I also watched the summer thunderclouds come over the hills, thick, black clouds, and then the rain in the forest, and then overhead, and then, sitting inside, listened to it pound on the tin roof.
When the fall came and the hills of Eden filled with gold and reds and purples, I decided I needed to find a job. For one thing, I spent all my time alone, and had no friends here, and I needed something to give definition to my days during the winter. I had heard through the owner of the local general store that Mrs. Andrews, the woman who delivered the mail for the town, was retiring. Delivering the mail in Eden was unlike delivering mail anywhere else I had been. No uniform, no going door to door with a bag over your shoulder and a can of Mace in one hand. No, it was rural delivery, and they gave you a car, in this case an old Jeep with the steering wheel on the right side.
It took about six hours in good weather to do the job, and this sounded about right to me. It seemed, curiously enough, to fit my circumstances: hardly good work for the college educated, but honest work nonetheless. Good work for a man trying to turn over leaves. I had to take the civil service exam in Montpelier, but I passed it easily, and in the third week of October 1996, I, Nathan Carter, loosely of the Boston Carters, became the mailman for the town of Eden, Vermont, and this is when Wallace Fiske and I first crossed paths.
The Fiske house was something of a local landmark. Located at the base of a steep hill that contained what was considered the most dangerous road in Eden, it was one of the oldest in the town, built in the early part of the eighteenth century. Likewise, the Fiske family was one of Eden's oldest and, though they were mostly hill farmers, their land was among the most coveted by the yuppies that had been moving in from Burlington for the past decade. They owned almost three hundred acres, a mixture of woodlands and open pasture, and the house itself was a clapboard cape, and though it was run-down, sinking in places into its foundation, it sat on a small knoll above a crystal blue pond called Mirror Lake that was located entirely on the Fiske land. From that house, as I would discover later, one looked down on the pond and to the hills beyond it and to the line of mountains in the distance.
Wallace Fiske was not a man who received a lot of mail, but if you have an address in America you inevitably get something. His house was one of my last stops, late in the afternoon, when I had been driving those dusty dirt roads for hours, and for weeks I had been putting his mail in the box next to his driveway. I never once saw Wallace during all this time, though I had heard whispering about him in the general store. He was largely regarded, from what I could tell, as one mean bastard, an old man who was best avoided, a man who kept to himself, not even in contact with the many Fiske cousins and relatives that lived in other parts of Eden. What I did see when I dropped off his mail was his dog, a nasty old cur of indeterminate breed that growled at me sideways when I pulled up to the box. I saw his cows, a small herd of Jerseys. Sometimes I also saw his chickens, moving freely across the driveway and into the road.
Then one day, as I was putting his mail in the box -- mainly junk flyers from the local Wal-Mart, a catalog of farmer's equipment -- I heard someone yelling, and then around the house came a tall, old man, moving quickly toward the Jeep.
"Get that shit out of here," he said as he came toward me, and I got my first look at Wallace Fiske. He looked to be in his late seventies, his face heavily lined, his gray hair cut close to his head everywhere except in front, where a sweeping bang came across his forehead. He wore jeans and a brown Carhartt jacket, a pair of work boots. He looked as if he might have been handsome once, almost patrician. He walked fast, though jerkily, as if his knees lacked tendons. He was pissed off.
"Get that shit out of here," he said again, as he got close.
I leaned out the window. "Hi," I said.
"I said, 'Get that shit out of here.'"
"It's the mail."
"I don't give a shit what it is. I don't want it here."
I tried to reason with him. "It's the mail," I said again, as if that piece wasn't clear and that, if he understood this much, we could work it out. "I don't really have a choice. If it has your name on it, I'm supposed to make sure it gets here."
"Bullshit. You do what you want with it. But don't bring it here."
And then, before I could say anything else, he had turned on his heels and headed back the way he came, as if everything was settled.
Back at the general store, I told the postmistress, Connie. She chuckled a deep, throaty, cigarette-laced chuckle. "That's Wallace for you."
"Well, what do we do?"
"What do you think you do? You keep delivering the mail."
"Isn't there a form or something he could fill out?"
"For junk mail there is. And that's pretty much all he gets. That and taxes. But he'd have to come in and fill it out. And he won't do that."
"Can we call him?"
She laughed again. "Wallace doesn't have a phone."
"What did Mrs. Andrews do?"
"She put up with his shit."
The following day I was coming down the steep hill before the Fiske house and rounded the bend slowly, looking for him for some reason, as if worried he had set a trap for me, when I noticed that the mailbox itself was gone. I pulled alongside where it had been, and I could see the post hole that was now in the weeds. The dog came out from behind the house and limped toward my car, moving in that odd sideways fashion, its lips sliding over its yellow teeth. It barked twice. There was no sign of Wallace. I looked over his delivery. The local pennysaver, another catalog, this one with curtains on the front
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