What’s the Story?

by Sydney Lea

You learn a thing or two by getting along in years, or so it’s claimed. My poor, cursed friend Sammy, dead so young, didn’t get a chance to test such a claim. He crashed his motorcycle, or rather, a car smashed it for him. I suppose that’s another story.

But Sammy may in fact belong in this one, because, after all, he was my dearest friend for some years. He was also and always his doting grandmother’s pet. I knew the old woman well, a sweet-as-pie lady if ever one lived. Is that another story too, or stories, plural? Anyone’s personal history doubtless comprises subplots galore; who can be sure which is pertinent?

In any case, I’m sitting here waiting to see a doctor for some minor emotional problems. I’ve visited him now and then over quite a span of time, though never about anything that made him or me or anyone believe I was on the cusp of crisis. Just a little unease, that’s all. You might roughly liken this appointment to an oil check.

The waiting room’s walls are yellow, and that could be behind what’s going on with me just now. Despite the flowers on their corner tables, that color invades me. It brings a solo hunting trip rocketing out of my far past, because on my way home, all but out of gasoline near midnight, and with nowhere open to replenish the tank, I spent some doleful hours in a Maine motel whose walls were painted this very same yellow.

I’m sure the building was something much different back when the town thrived. The clapboard frame house may have taken boarders, say; but later a flat-roofed row of rooms, jutting out from its rear side into a former pasture, had been added. I wouldn’t be surprised if that extension were torn down by now, the big house restored and turned into a bed and breakfast, as has been happening for some while to so many of these old New England home places, so grand and so tired. An out-of-towner buys one, spruces it up, then hangs a quaintly lettered sign, usually with some name meant to be evocative but in fact absurd: ”Quail Acres,” maybe, in a part of the world where quail never existed, or similarly, ”Elk Meadow,” or else something romantic story-bookish— ”Sherwood Forest,” ”Midlothian,” what have you?

In the autumn I recall here, the town didn’t have much left but a paper mill, itself close to extinction, the industry having moved south to places with cheaper labor: Arkansas, Mississippi, and the like. I took the room, having really no choice, though I knew it would be full of an unmistakable mill-stench. Almost fifty years later, merely to think of that sulfurous reek makes me queasy, not to mention actually smelling it as I pass through one of the few towns where mills have survived, however shakily.

To the point: that night in the motel I felt that I was doomed somehow, that nothing would ever come to good for me. Why such melodrama? I couldn’t and can’t make sense of it, because in fact my life was pretty average at twenty-five, neither particularly happy nor otherwise. Still, the restless tick-tick-tick of my young dog’s paws on the scuffed linoleum floor made it seem ten years before morning broke and I could go find fuel. That clatter from a nervous pointer sounded like a prelude to judgment.

As it happens, when I sat down in the doctor’s office a few minutes ago, I took Psychology Today from a table, finding an article there by a certain Dr. Silver, who opined that a person normally mourns a dog for three weeks. Well, I’ve buried a fair number of dogs since that night I recall, and whenever I think about one, no matter how long he or she has been dead, I almost weep. On every one of them, be it pet or hunter, there hangs more than one tale.

Of course I don’t weep, not really, not out loud, as my friend Sammy’s grandmother did off and on until the day she died herself.

Am I so abnormal? I can’t say. At all events, that night I pictured a chasm yawning before me, and I felt certain one day I’d fall into it. And so I did in a way, though at length I’d climb out on the other side, or mostly out, as I’ve said. I’ll talk about that at some other point. It’s hard enough to stay on track here.

What made a night in a yellow motel so taxing? What about it induced this vision of the abyss? That particular dog was, if anything, too alive. Sammy still blithely trod the earth– or maybe not blithely, but he did move around on it for certain. Yet somehow I knew, or believed I knew, there was something terribly wrong on that earth, and it involved an evil act or thought of mine, even if I couldn’t for the life of me have described the what or when or how of my error.

I remember a train’s passing through that patch of village. It must have furnished the moribund mill. The freight cars’ clanking and rumbling woke me around daylight, and the engine’s whistle seemed to scream misery and condemnation of the ineffable sin.

I’d keep on living with this kind of vague anguish for years, still unable to give it a name. Things today are better for me, much better, but to this day it abides, for the most part all but imperceptibly. It seems hopeless to work out a narrative when so essential an ingredient goes unidentified, even if I have all those others. The spooked dog’s paws. My long-gone boyhood chum. His sobbing grandma. The train. The stink of the pulp mill. What do I know of psychology? What does anyone know?

That I ended up with the wife of my dreams and with five good children and, so far, four grandchildren– well, all that is simply a wonder. It can’t be explained, can’t be told to a doctor, not if I can’t tell it right to myself.

I mean, what’s the story, really?

SYDNEY LEA is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His tenth collection of poems is I Was Thinking of Beauty (Four Way Books, 2013); his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives, has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has just published his fourth volume of personal essays, A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife.