|She first noticed him boarding - or trying to board - the commuter flight taking her home to the island. He seemed lost, confused, virtually disoriented and, most probably, senile. She couldn't tell what the story was, but she pointed him up the narrow door-turned-stairways and waited patiently while he grabbed the guide cables and hauled himself up laboriously, pausing with each step to catch his breath and gaze above as if he were climbing some mountain and trying to see the peak lost in clouds near the summit. She wondered if he had broken his glasses.
She heard grumbling commence behind her as two investment banker types frowned upon his ascent as if he were some dog of an over-the-counter stock slow to fulfill its promise. Used to quick profits and frequent trades, they were short on tolerance, it seemed. One of them, at least, probably carried a portable phone and used it in conspicuously inappropriate places like quiet restaurants - usually at the table next to someone trying to find a bit of peace.
She knew this type well. Sam, her recent ex, was cut from the same cloth and had the same profile . . . the dark suit, the rep tie and the phone. He was and they were, she thought, walking, real life stereotypes. She should feel guilty, she knew, sizing them up and typing them so negatively with so little real evidence, but she didn't feel the slightest remorse as they whispered snide attacks on the slow moving man above her.
"Wait until it's your turn," she found herself thinking. "How funny will it seem when you are old?"
Time had slowed for her ever since she moved to the island in September. When the stem of her watch broke, she had dropped it off for repair and left it there unclaimed for weeks. Now, the passage of the old man bothered her not at all. Even when he seemed to get lost moving down the aisle of the Beechcraft, she remained calm. She was in no hurry.
An hour later, pulling her bag and cart from the terminal, she spied him once again standing forlorn as he tried to wave over a cab from the waiting line. She could see that the cabs were all empty as their drivers stood around on the sidewalk swapping stories, but he kept waving at the vehicles anyway until the group recognized him and called out in unison, "Hey, Bill! Glad you're back!"
"Where you headed, Bill?"
"Home," he muttered, turning toward the voices. "I got to get home."
"Well your taxi's parked right over there where you left it, Bill. She's been waiting."
He stood staring the longest time as if enveloped in heavy fog. The battered old station wagon with taxi light on top was but fifteen feet from him, but he didn't seem to recognize it.
"Here," volunteered one man, short, stocky and very red-faced, "let me help you with that bag."
As she stepped across toward her own car hidden deep in the overnight parking lot, she noticed a sign above his cab reading "Loading and Unloading - 15 Minute Limit." But there was no ticket on his windshield.
How long had it sat there? she wondered. And how long had he been "off island?" How could this old man possibly drive a cab when he could barely navigate the aisle of an airplane?
Perhaps, she thought, he was like the walrus, awkward and slow on the land but graceful and speedy in the water. Put him behind the wheel of a cab . . .
It was a week before she saw him again. Her rented house sat on the edge of the parking lot for the island's most popular public beach, and she was up early morning to watch the November sun rise over the ocean and the empty parking lot while she struggled with her latest canvas. All day long she could watch a thin trickle of traffic pull up to the edge of the dunes to enjoy the sight of surf pounding onto the shore line - two or three cars at a time at the most.
Some were regulars. The red pick-up which arrived at seven and sat for half an hour while a bearded gentleman in a lumberjack's colorful jacket read the morning paper. The aqua station wagon with the huge white poodle eager to race his owner across the sand to the beach. The twin Saabs, probably lovers, arriving at lunch to park in a discrete corner.
And then there were the tourists, a dwindling flow as the weather grew brisk. Most came wheeling down the bike path from town, half in fancy bikers' gear and the other half clad in make-do. Occasionally a taxi pulled up to the front edge of the lot to unload a half dozen visitors who usually stayed only long enough to cross the sand and tease a few waves.
She did not recognize his cab at first. It was his walrus shape which caught her attention as he swung open the driver's door and shuffled to the rear of his wagon. What was he doing out at the beach with an empty wagon? she wondered.
He opened the back gate of the wagon wide, reached inside and dragged a black garbage bag out onto the asphalt. He then turned and hauled the bag a dozen feet over to the public trash cans where he stopped to rest a few moments before lifting it up and dropping it down inside. Evidently satisfied with his work, he shuffled back to his cab and climbed inside on the driver's side forgetting to shut the gate in the rear.
She shook her head in disbelief as he swung the wagon rather dramatically around the lot and headed back toward town with the gate wide open and swinging behind him. She wondered if it would still be open next time she saw him some place else on the island.
Sandra was not a real artist. It was a childhood dream put on hold for practical reasons. "Painters don't earn much of a living," her father had warned, and so she had dutifully laid aside her oils and brushes in favor of a career in publishing.
Here she was in mid life and mid career living on an island and a rapidly dwindling savings account, dabbling in oils and an occasional consulting assignment which helped to stem the outward flow of cash. She could exist this way, she figured, for a year, living off season at low rent and finding a real job again when the money was all gone.
"What do you do?" they always began as the opening gambit of the island bar scene.
At first she had stumbled through complicated explanations of divorce and leaves of absence and publishing and painting, but she soon learned from the resulting glazed eyes that it was too much too soon. They merely wished to label or peg her in the island lexicon, to establish her P.I.N.
"I'm an artist," she tried one night.
"Oh . . . " responded the young carpenter, obviously impressed and curious. "What kind of artist?"
"Painter," she replied with the self confidence of a Mary Cassatt, the verve of one who has exhibited on both continents.
"A painter . . . wow. That's great. What kinds of paintings?"
"Oils," she continued the ruse, hoping he would soon run out of the pointed questions.
"Yeah, but oils of what?"
"Well, actually," she replied, "I've only been doing this for a short time." Next thing she knew, the carpenter's eyes went blank as she was back to her old script of divorce and leaves of absence and publishing.
Soon she learned to complete the entire painter script with single word responses, never mentioning divorce or publishing.
"Yeah, but oils of what?" "Surf."
She refined the act until she could handle just about any probe.
"Had any shows recently?"
What began as a game turned rather serious as she recognized a lifetime pattern of being too free with herself, too quick to answer probing questions, to reveal her innermost feelings, thoughts and doubts even to strangers. She began testing the new more tight-lipped style and found that it gave her new power. Glazed eyes were replaced by curious ones.
Sandra was suddenly Sandra the mystery woman. The more she held back, curiously, the more the motley collection of drinkers wanted to know her, wanted to win her, wanted to take her to bed. Frustrated by her own brief answers, they cast aside the questions and began feeding her stories of their own, explaining themselves and their crumpled lives, seeking approval with tales of daring and sympathy with tales of woe. Her own eyes began to glaze over. It was too much too soon. She didn't want to know them that well, let alone sleep with them.
She tried it once or twice, bringing them back to the huge upstairs room with cathedral ceiling, fire place and ocean views. She picked a couple of young ones and found their ardor much like their life stories. Making steaming love in front of the fire place had all the subtlety and romance of Nordic Track .
But she wasn't really looking for romance or a lover, she kept reminding herself. This was to be her winter of solace and solitude. No obligations, no responsibilities and no compromises. She had devoted a lifetime to compromise and giving, but now she sent the young men home before dawn refusing them the intimacy of her bed and a slow awakening. These episodes were mere work-outs, she reasoned. She needed to concentrate on her painting. The quick withdrawal and rolling away of her young friends was a relief to her.
Sandra was amused at the thought of herself as a human ATM - speed deposit and speed withdrawal with the maximum in tenderness and loving preset at small change. Most of the time she was "out of service" like those spiteful cash machines you count upon early in the morning on the way to the airport at the start of some long trip. She didn't care what P.I.N. they might offer . . . carpenter, doctor, lawyer or house painter.
She kept seeing the old man's walrus face in her mind's eye, but she failed to catch him dropping off trash again as the town removed the cans after Thanksgiving. She looked through the windshield of every passing cab, but it seemed that he had disappeared.
She was determined to paint the face, but her sketches looked more like storm clouds than a man's face. She needed to see him again - perhaps capture him with her telephoto lens. With his obvious blindness it should not be difficult to capture him unawares.
She became a stalker just as bow season opened and real hunters crisscrossed the island driving deer from cover. She made a list of all the spots where taxis might pause and she created a schedule of visits, sitting with hot coffee and camera primed as her car engine ran to warm her against the December chill.
For more than a week she clung to her obsession and let her painting slide. The lines of cabs were short and the customers rare as almost all the inns and restaurants closed for the season and the ferry ran with mostly empty seats.
She began to fear that he had been injured or lay home sick in bed. She recalled tales of old people dying in bed unable to reach their phones, or she imagined him living in his cab and freezing some night when the temperature dropped to single digits.
But then he appeared, all of a sudden, at the airport, pulling his Pontiac up to the curb at the end of the taxi line and letting his engine run like hers and the other three cabs.
She was parked a mere car length away - a direct, clear shot from the passenger's window - but the sun beamed down on his window with such dazzling intensity that she knew any picture would be overexposed and useless. The sky, entirely unsympathetic, was acid blue, clear and unlikely to change. Even if he moved forward or she shifted her own car, she knew there was no shot.
When he rolled down his window to smoke, it took her several moments before she realized the glare was gone. Sliding across to the passenger's side, she grabbed her camera and lowered the power window so she could frame his face just as she hoped to paint it. Adjusting for the light, she sharpened the focus and was about to push down on the trigger when his head suddenly swung in her direction and she found his eyes aimed at hers.
He was not so blind, she discovered, as the walrus face rearranged its bags and folds into storm clouds, imploding with outrage which poured forth with the bellow of a wounded animal.
"LAY-DEEEEE!" he trumpeted, shoving open his door and staggering to his feet with one hand outstretched to block her camera from his face.
Too late. She had caught the outrage in full glory and her window was powering shut faster than he could cover the distance between them. It was time to escape.
She should have known better. It was déja vu . Driving toward Kilimanjaro a few years earlier, she and Sam had stopped to photograph a solitary Masai warrior standing with spear in hand upon the shoulder of the pot-hole strewn road which passed as a highway.
"The guide book says they expect money," Sam had cautioned. Always the anxious one, he urged her to negotiate first, shoot later, but she ignored him and raised the camera anyway.
The man had pivoted so swiftly that only his back side was showing. He was giving away nothing that day.
When she pulled the prints out of their envelope the next day, having splurged with 24 hour developing, the image of the old man's face filled the print with the same darkened cloud formation which had defied her brushes for the past few weeks. His lunging movements had thrown off the focus and blurred the shot so dramatically that his features were all but unrecognizable. He did not even come across like a walrus. She shuddered slightly, standing out in the wind on the brick sidewalk.
The head hunter's call came as a surprise, since she had left no trail behind. Somehow they had traced her all the way to the island in order to dangle the San Francisco publishing assignment - a whole new division devoted to electronic media. It would be "her show." Was she willing to re-locate to the West Coast?
And now she was waiting for a cab to the airport, catching an early morning flight to Boston on her way to the interview. It was a very big job, the Kilimanjaro of publishing assignments. If she won them over, it would mean packing away oils and brushes, sketch pads and canvas, leaving her island behind before she had a chance to watch her first real winter storm.
The taxi pulled up in the darkness to sit waiting for her exit. Through the glass pane of the storm door she was able to recognize the battered Pontiac and its driver. At first she hesitated, afraid that he would recognize her, but then she pushed ahead through the doorway with suitcase in hand, pulling the locked door shut behind her.
The ride lasted some ten minutes, but he never showed any sign of recognition. She kept waiting for his stare in the rear view mirror and some words of anger, but he drove on as if they were total strangers.
The route to the airport - back roads carved through sand - was filled with huge pot holes and deep puddles, but he steered the old wagon around and through the obstacles with the smooth, rhythmic grace of a dancer. He was concentrating so intensely on the road ahead that she knew she was safe. Like the walrus, she remembered.
Perhaps she, too, was like the walrus, she found herself thinking, as the commuter flight took her up and away.
- The End -