Fiction

History

J. watched as her son M. and his girlfriend L. frolicked like pups at play in the park near the Museum of Science. They had gone to an exhibit on the Maya, walked through displays of reconstructed stelae depicting Mayan kings, peered into dioramas of cave murals and studied interactive maps charting the slow dissolve of one civilization after another, settlements migrating from southern to northern Yucatan then disappearing altogether under the fertile growth of jungle.

The three of them were on their own distracted migration from Science Park to Charlestown where M. proposed to show them a pre-revolutionary site: the home, he claimed, of Paul Revere. Along the way they tossed a Frisbee back and forth, first one direction then the other in a shifting triangulation of distances given their different skill levels. The two lovers would sometimes collide, grab on to one another, then peel off and run ahead as she followed. They would engage in these playful attacks, taunting each other, testing their tolerances for aggravation, and then shift into the kind of tableau that would suggest they were on the threshold of procreative possibility: arms draped across shoulders, lips to ears, hips touching. This was a prospect she wished for almost daily. She was at that age. These two could be parents in a few short years, or sooner if they were temperamentally in sync regarding the issue. And yet, here they were: hopping on each other’s backs, wrapping their legs around each other, howling into the crystalline late-afternoon of early spring where patches of snow still lingered among the crocuses now growing where great white heaps had lain for months.

They came to the Leonard Zakim Bridge with its giant, cantilevered concrete supports and ribbed undersides, like a gargantuan architectural carcass. And around them, only the empty park grounds. No one but themselves. As if there had been a mass evacuation. Beyond the park they could see rectangular segments of cityscape framed by the bridge’s understructure and access ramps. Both J. and L. noted the futuristic setting of the scene: the sterility of the new construction against the weathered character of the old city. L. said it made her sad to think that in a hundred years she would not be around to see how everything had changed. J. shared her own sense of melancholy for the present — how each passing moment, this one for example, would not be experienced again — this late afternoon together, the view, the incessant rumble of traffic overhead entering and leaving Boston, this very conversation, all of it a combination of sensory elements never to be repeated.

M., either unable to follow their conversation or simply disinterested, walked ahead, jumped from concrete island to island, leapt off retaining walls, then stopped and flung the Frisbee skyward toward the Zakim Bridge. The Frisbee appeared to almost reach the road level. “Well, Officer,” L. said, “I was driving along and this Frisbee glanced off my windshield and distracted me. Where did it come from? I have no idea.”

As the Frisbee fell, M. ran after it and missed catching it by inches. He had always been what a different kind of parent would call hyperactive. J. preferred to see him as an adolescent Labrador trapped in a young man’s body.

When they came to the highway separating the park and the center of Charlestown, J. made note of the fact that though she’d lived in the Cambridge/Boston area for over 20 years she’d never been to Charlestown. “I have no idea where I am,” she said. “You could tell me I was in Antwerp and I wouldn’t know the difference.”

The sun was nearly setting, the western sky had turned a soft shade of peach, and the air began to chill.

M. led them to City Square, a green space where gray stone slabs marked a rectangular plot the size of a two-car garage. He stood on one of the stone markers and pointed to the ground: “Look! Learn!” He paced around the plot clownishly, hands behind his back, mocking the role of a self-satisfied pedagogue. He stopped and pointed again: “History!”

The site could have easily been overlooked, given that the stone markers were at ground level. It turned out not to be Paul Revere’s house, but the house of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The house was built in 1629, over a hundred years before the birth of Paul Revere, and was later purchased in 1635 by tavern keeper Robert Long who converted it to The Three Crane Tavern.

That her son remembered all the facts incorrectly came as no surprise to J. He had never been the academic sort, never had the patience or the inclination to delve deeply into history or, for that matter, current events. And this was not a concern for her. She appreciated his desire to share what he’d seen despite the lack of historical accuracy. He’d always displayed a unique blend of intelligences: spatial, mechanical, emotional, philosophical. And these were in evidence enough, his view uniquely skewed enough, that she trusted that he would, at least, always be entertaining.

As J. read the plaque explaining the history of the site what struck her as so remarkable was that it had been completely erased in the collective memory. The Three Crane Tavern had become a “great house,” a meeting place in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. In 1775, in response to sniper fire coming from Bunker Hill, British soldiers set fire to Charlestown and the Three Crane Tavern burned to the ground. Rather than rebuild, residents simply buried the site and used it as parade grounds for Revolutionary troops. The site had only been discovered when surveyors preparing for the Big Dig tunnel had uncovered the foundation of the building. It was both patently obvious and dumbfounding, J. realized, that we stand upon the very ground of our history and are clueless amnesiacs, unaware of our origins. She resolved that this was probably not such a great loss considering that memory is nearly always faulty and history always biased.

As she stood by a marker designating the main room of the tavern, she tried to place herself in time, imagining what it must have been like inside the tavern, say, on a cold winter day
— the flurry of conversations, the coziness of the small, smoke-filled quarters, the smells of ale, tobacco, meat and potato stew, the musky sent of the unwashed crowd. She’d always claimed that she’d probably have been a loyalist at the time of The Revolution. She shared this thought with the others as they stood around the site.

“Why?” L. asked.

She shrugged. “Why reject a perfectly civilized, albeit autocratic, society for an uncivilized, equally autocratic bunch of reactionaries?” She smiled. “Besides, I’m an anglophile. I can’t stand American culture, screenplays, politics…” She gestured to include the world around them, “and all the rest.”

L. was not convinced this was reason enough not to support the fight against tyranny. J. admitted that she wasn’t convinced herself, but relished holding that view.

The sun had now effectively set. The sky above was a deeper blue, the horizon a deeper red, the chill turning to cold. They had at least a mile to walk back to L.’s car parked on Museum Road.

Once they crossed the boulevard again and headed toward the pedestrian bridge J. pointed out the only light apparent in the sky — an exceptionally bright object. “Look,” she said, “Venus!”

“Are you sure it’s not an airplane?” L. asked.

“No,” J. said. “I’ve been wrong before.”

The planet of love had been prominent in the early evening sky for the last few months. One night recently J. was at home when M. texted her: “What‘s that next to the moon?” She got up, went to the west-facing window of her room and saw the waning sliver of the moon side-by-side with Venus. They had, in fact, been playing catch-up since late February. She texted her answer. Seconds later her phone vibrated again: “Aha!”

This sort of exchange had been common between them since M. had gone off to college years ago. Then it was phone calls: “What’s that recipe you used for meat loaf?” “What was the English movie about a coffee salesman you like so much?” “Oh, Lucky Man.” “Aha!” “What’s that word for when you see something that isn’t there? Like in the clouds?” “Pareidolia.”

The calls would be brief since he was either in the middle of cooking, having a discussion with friends, or working on a paper. She was always bemused and flattered that he thought of her, even if it was only to fill in the gaps of his memory.

As they approached the pedestrian bridge they came upon a young couple ahead of them with a small, long-haired dog. When they caught up with the couple they stopped. The young woman held the dog on a thin, sequined leash. L. cooed to the little dog and asked if she could pet it. “Sure…” the young woman said. “Livvy loves everyone.” She spoke with a pronounced accent that turned out to be the Charlestown variation of a Boston accent. As they began walking together again, J. questioned her about living in Charlestown. The young man with her was her brother and the two of them had lived in Charlestown their whole lives. The woman was pretty, on the plump side, her eyes noticeably accented with eyeliner. As they spoke, J. imagined that they were somewhere in Dublin, Ireland, for reasons she couldn’t explain. The young woman’s brother was taciturn, younger than his sister. J. asked the young woman if she liked living in Charlestown. She said yes, that she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, except maybe Italy. “Italy? Why? Are either of your parents Italian?” The young woman shrugged. “No. I just think it would be pretty.” “Aha!” J. peered down the walkway where M. and L. had gone. She smiled. “I should catch up.” She leaned down and scratched Livvy under her chin then said goodbye to the young woman and her brother and trotted off.

She could see that M. and L. were at it again — engaged in horseplay. She slowed to a walk and watched as L. hopped on M.’s back and wrapped her arms around his neck. M. turned around and backed toward the bridge railing. J. looked away. In her mind she saw one or both of them toppling off the footbridge to the concrete below. She glanced again and saw them leaning over the railing, heard yelling and laughter. She looked away again, could feel her heart pounding in her chest.

This was nothing new. Her son had always been both reckless and seemingly unaware of his body in relation to the rest of the world. She’d first witnessed this when he was less than two years old. They were in the bookstore at the university where she worked in the English department. She’d stopped at a table to look at some remaindered children’s books. She found none that were appealing — which, of course, would explain their being on the remaindered table. Then she turned to look for M. In the few minutes that she’d been distracted he’d walked to the rear of the store and climbed nearly to the top of a ladder attached to the shelves. She steeled herself, felt the tug-of-war between conflicting impulses and emotions: fear and panic vs. calm and determined intervention. She walked to the foot of the ladder and waited, watching him, prepared to catch him if he fell. At one point he turned and looked down. She smiled up at him. “Hello. You’re really high up there.” “Yah,” he said. “Do you want to come down?” She asked. He looked at his hands on the rung of the ladder, appeared to be giving this some thought, and then said “OK.”

When he reached the bottom of the ladder she took his hand and kissed the crown of his head. As they walked out of the bookstore she played alternative scenarios in her mind: In the first, a mother finds her son at the top of a ladder and she shrieks, spreading alarm throughout the store. The child is startled by this and loses his grip, falls to the floor before anyone can reach him. In the second, the mother yells at her son, he becomes conscious of his precarious situation, freezes in fear, and is unable to climb down. In the third, the mother grabs the boy once he’s off the ladder and shakes him, grits her teeth, and berates him for doing something so dangerous.

As they continued to walk at his small pace, hand in hand, she was thankful that she’d behaved the way she had. Later, as she witnessed his recklessness again and again, she often wondered if this was not all her fault, that by controlling the impulse to over-react she had given him permission to tempt gravity over and over until, one day, he would be seriously injured.

She looked back at the railing. They were gone. She walked slowly to the spot where they’d been, glanced over the edge, and felt relief at seeing only the concrete below. The fall would not necessarily have been fatal, maybe 20 feet, possibly resulting in broken bones or a concussion. Still, she was thankful that once again there’d been no accident.

J. caught up with the two of them. They walked back through the park where they’d been earlier, past the playground and the freshly landscaped beds of crocus, though now they were only shadows in the snow-dusted soil. The air was getting colder by the minute, the sky turning midnight blue. M. and L. walked side-by-side now, their arms draped around each other. The day was coming to a close. Like school children returning home after a late afternoon’s play, the mood between them had become subdued.

J. spoke in a tone of mock sentimentality: “Remember when we were here earlier today?”

“Yah…” L. said.

“It was fun, wasn’t it?”

“Yah…”

“Remember how we played Frisbee and you two jumped all over each other?”

“Yah… Remember how we saw that woman with a dog on the bridge?”

“No… what dog?”

They both laughed, though J. continued let herself indulge in the melancholy. This was, in part, due to her age. Though she’d always been prone to moods, being at the further edge of middle age — where one begins to get discounts for everything from bus fare to movie passes — made these moods all the more poignant. She found herself imagining the future as a faded gray membrane before her, and beyond that, a portal only large enough for one.

Once they reached the car, L. began opening the doors. M. had decided that he would run the three miles to their apartment while L. drove J. home to her apartment in Cambridge.

M. stood by the passenger door, put his arms out in the awkward, exaggerated way he’d always done. Though sincere, he was always self-conscious about gestures of affection. J. held him tightly, aware that she was sensing the hug as unnecessarily final, as if they were at an airport terminal. Not unlike her son, she was constitutionally unable to calibrate goodbyes.

J. got inside the car while M. and L. hugged. They would be meeting in half an hour, planning their evening over dinner, enjoying each other’s company. She would return to her home alone, a smallish room in a boarding-house style apartment with housemates who were all young travelers from Central and South America with whom she would exchange polite smiles and little else beyond the awkward greetings in her poor Spanish and their halting English.

Once L. got in the car, they sat quietly for a few minutes, as if each of them was mentally processing the past few hours in their own way, filing images, words, and emotions for access later. J. looked out her window and watched her son begin his run. It was not the labored pace of a jogger on a marathon, but the sprint of a young man who runs because he has no choice. Once he reached the end of the block, he disappeared.

END

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Alyson Lie

Alyson Lie

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Alyson is a writer, editor, meditator, and dharma practitioner. She lives in Cambridge, MA.