THE PENDULUM’S PATH
Copyright © 2002 by Dave Shields
All Rights Reserved
I often wish we hadn’t walked the dog that day.
The cold broke records for Salt Lake City in late November. The slight breeze stung exposed skin and even pierced through clothing. Six inches of snow from the day before remained mostly untrodden. Frost sheathed bushes and trees. Sara, Ranger, and I followed the familiar quarter-mile path from our home, crested a final rise, and looked down upon the three acre clearing where we loved to play. A duck paddled quick circles in the last bit of open pond water. A thick ribbon of mist revealed the path of the meandering brook that filled the small reservoir. Normally, even in winter, Brigham Park teemed with people and their pets. Today it was virtually empty. Not a soul visible and only one van in the lot, a rusted powder blue Ford I’d never seen before.
When I paused at the top of the steep railroad-tie staircase, Sara cuddled close, tucking her shoulder beneath my arm. I felt a shiver descend her spine. I glanced at her. With her beautiful face concealed beneath two swirls of an Aztec print scarf and her long blonde hair tucked under the hood of her coat, all I could see were her eyes. Exotic deep blue, but softened by highlights radiating from the hidden center, like deep water on a sunny day. Would our child inherit that color?
I felt a burning awareness of the confidence she’d placed in me by carrying our child. Her upbringing taught her much more skepticism than mine. We were deep into our courtship before she ever spoke of her hopes or dreams, even though I opened up to her from the very first. But eventually she told me everything, including how her mother had trained her for her entire life to doubt the intentions of anyone who wanted to get close. As a result, the process of earning Sara’s faith, bit by bit, and the knowledge that she gave it at that level to no other, made it the most valuable gift anyone had ever shared with me.
Ranger tugged at his leash, yanking me from my daze. His breath escaped in charging white clouds.
“You’re certain it’s all right for you to be out in this cold?” I asked Sara.
She stroked our retriever’s golden hair. “Make up your mind, Tom. You talked me into coming. Now you’re trying to talk me into going back? Maybe you’re getting cold and want to use me as an excuse.”
She knew that wasn’t true. “No, just experimenting with being overly protective. As a father that will be my main responsibility, won’t it?”
“Your idea of parenting scares me. We need to get you a book. You have less than six months to study up on this.”
I chuckled. “No, I’m not studying some book. That’s your answer to everything.” Even though I’d grown up fatherless I was confident I knew what it took to make a good parent. All my life I’d watched dads, paid close attention to everything they did. I’d developed a sort of expertise. Since adulthood I’d often dreamed of the relationship I’d have with my kids. “I don’t need an instruction manual. It might take me a while to hit my stride, but I will. Bear with me.”
“Yeah, right. The moment we get home I’m getting on the Internet and buying every child-rearing manual I can find.” Her muffled voice emerged from the many layers of clothing. She gave me a quick hug, then nodded at the stairs. “Take Ranger on ahead. Use the railing, the steps look slippery.”
“Now who’s overprotective?” I started down, one hand holding the leash, the other in my pocket. Ranger lunged forward. I windmilled arms and legs in a fight for balance as we careened down the steep slope. When I hit level ground I pitched face first into the snow. My ears and cheeks went numb. I rose to my knees, blew out a mouthful of ice, and removed my powder packed sunglasses. As I cleared the lenses, I glanced toward my wife.
“Very impressive,” Sara called.
I climbed to my feet and brushed myself off. “They don’t teach those moves in any book.”
“Believe me. I can tell.”
Unclipping the leash, I spanked Ranger’s flank. He loped away. “At least there won’t be anything putrid for him to roll in today.”
Sara smiled as she eased her way down the steps. Near the bottom I reached out for her gloved hand. Together we crossed the snow-covered parking lot. Ahead, Ranger circled the rusty blue van, nose to the ground, pausing to give each tire an extra sniff. The van looked out of place to me, sitting alone where there were usually half a dozen shiny SUV’s. Various tracks made it impossible to tell which way the occupants had gone.
After a moment Ranger looked toward the park, sniffing the breeze. I tucked the leash into my coat pocket and looked in the same direction. No sign of anyone. “If his brain were half the size of his nose, we’d have something special,” I said, laughing.
“Be nice. He’d never say such a mean thing about you.” Sara poked the side of my nose with her finger.
“My schnoz-to-brain ratio is the opposite of that mutt’s, if you’re trying to imply something. But now that you mention it, what does Ranger say about me?”
Her sly smile crinkled the corners of her eyes. “He says you’re handsome, sensitive and trustworthy.”
“Very perceptive. Maybe I’ve underestimated him.”
The dog leapt through the snow ahead of us, dodging this way and that, frolicking with invisible friends. He scooted low to the ground, burying his snout in the snow, then looked back toward us with a powder-enshrouded face.
We laughed, then Sara’s smile faded. She bit her lip. “What is happiness, Tom?”
I chuckled and pinched her cheek. These unanswerable questions of hers seemed somehow tied to her pregnancy. I suspected she pulled them from women’s magazines, and I worried that she’d compare anything I said to the “correct” answer written upside down at the end of the article. “How about you tell me?”
“I wish you’d at least try.”
“Normally I would, but right now my brain is frozen.” I wondered what topic she would come up with next, for she seldom tolerated silence when there could be discussion. To Sara conversation, or rather, conversation with friends, might have outranked breathing in importance. While, prior to getting married, I enjoyed spending days at a time alone in the wilderness, she’d always hated being by herself for even a moment. She discouraged my trips to the back country. Since our wedding I’d gotten used to a lot more time together, and a lot more talking.
I looked ahead. A thick curtain of fog rose above the serpentine creek. We entered the mist and crossed a bridge, our echoing footsteps accompanied by water gurgling through encroaching ice. For a moment we couldn’t see beyond arm’s length. Then, I sensed shadowy figures beyond. I stepped from the cloud to see a man and two dogs emerging from the park’s wooded fringe. Ranger bounded toward them like a dolphin leading a skiff to open seas. The stranger grabbed his pets’ collars, then crouched low, as if preparing to kick my dog in the face the moment he came within reach.
“Ranger! Sit!” I yelled, already sprinting in his direction.
To my surprise the dog sat in full stride. He slid to an uncomfortable looking halt only a few feet from the group. I hurried to his side and grabbed his collar, not confident his good sense would last.
While the man struggled to restrain his dogs, I looked him over. He wore an overstuffed goose-down parka which made it impossible to judge his size. The tightly drawn hood revealed only a small circle of his leathery face. Two thick brows, the color of storm clouds, loomed over ultramarine eyes. Heavy crow’s feet made the features seem deeply set. His lips hid behind a scruffy salt-and-pepper mustache and beard. Similar countenances filled inner-city bread lines across the nation.
The dogs were both mutts, medium-sized and rambunctious. The stranger spoke to them in an urgent whisper. “Daddy shouldn’t have brought you here. We should’ve gone to our usual spot in the hills. Sorry Moxie, sorry Bailey, I know you’re upset.”
Their tails wagged vigorously, and they strained at their collars. They didn’t look upset to me.
The man’s gaze met mine. “The way he charged like that. You can’t tell what’ll happen…”
The words blurred. His voice was soft, yet a disturbing whine predominated it, like a pre-adolescent boy trying to talk his way out of punishment. A deeply buried memory stirred. I’d once known this voice, but from where?
He cleared his throat, and the sound brought everything back. Uncle Martin. I’d last heard his characteristic cough at age twelve. Images that might have lain dormant forever returned. My bloodstream felt carbonated. I battled my nerves. Here before me stood the black sheep of my family. I’d long since quit thinking I’d ever see him again. Now that we stood face to face, staring across a gap of two decades, now that I suddenly knew he was alive, I felt unprepared.
My face must have twisted in concern, but the man misread my expression and tried to explain himself. “It’s not that I don’t trust dogs. Trustworthy dogs are as common as trustworthy people are scarce. I’d rather trust a coyote than–”
“Are you Martin?” I remembered how much he disliked being called “Uncle,” so I avoided the term. My question billowed through the icy air in a gossamer cloud.
He glanced at me, then away. His eyes didn’t return to my face. Apparently my voice didn’t reawaken memories in him. Why should it? I hadn’t even been through puberty the last time we spoke.
Then, cautiously, as if it were more a question than an answer, he said, “Yes? People used to call me that.”
“What’s your name now?”
“My new name?” His tone suggested he couldn’t remember that one either. “Just call me Martin. Who are you?”
I extended my bare hand. “I’m Tom.” He still didn’t recognize me, so I added, “Thomas Lewis.”
His crumpled expression transformed into a grin. “Thomas Lewis? Little Tommy?” Ignoring my hand he moved closer and looked me up and down. “You grew up.” The pungent odor of halitosis wafted toward me in strong bursts at each cloudy exclamation. I worked my frozen fingers back into my glove.
I felt my wife’s arm slide into the crook of my elbow from behind. “Martin, my wife, Sara. Honey, let me introduce you to Martin Crump.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw her nod, probably recalling no more than a few passing references to this man, the youngest of my mom’s two brothers. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said.
Martin nodded shyly, his gaze on the snowy ground.
“How’ve you been?” I asked.
He said no more. Overhead, geese honked as they beat their way south in a rippling vee.
I wracked my brain for something safe to say. “Nice dogs.”
He glanced at the animals. They were sniffing one another’s privates. “Yours too.”
I seized the opening. “Ranger’s a great dog. Doesn’t mind as well as I’d like, but we–”
“Dog’s shouldn’t have to mind. People don’t.”
I looked toward him quickly, hoping to better understand his odd words with the aid of his expression, but he turned away. I followed his gaze to the dogs, already play fighting.
I took Sara’s hand and started walking in the direction Martin must have been headed when Ranger interrupted. The biting cold made motion a necessity. Martin fell in step at my side.
“What breeds?” I asked.
“Bailey’s half lab, half chow. Moxie’s part collie, part something else. I’m not sure what.”
I wasn’t either. Moxie personified mixed breed. Her confused expression indicated a shortchange when vital genes had been dealt. “Looks like she might have shepherd in her,” I said.
Martin regarded the mutt. “I hope not.”
Sara and I shared a puzzled glance.
Moxie looked over her shoulder at me, flipped her tail up, and caught the end in her mouth. She stared straight into my eyes, teeth clamped on the furry appendage. She may as well have said, “If you think I’ve been shortchanged then how about that? I solved the ultimate canine puzzle.”
Martin swatted the tail from the dog’s mouth as if the habit annoyed him.
Sara smiled. “Tom and I spent last weekend with your brother, Joe.”
Martin kicked powder into the air. “My brother– the big shot.” He spat, as if removing a bad taste from his mouth. The little ball of saliva rolled down an undulation in the snow. It picked up a furry looking coating and stopped. He said no more. That single statement apparently exhausted his interest in the subject.
I stared ahead, letting the white to gray monochrome of the winter scene blur in my mind. Surely Martin remembered how much I’d once admired Uncle Joe– that I’d looked up to him like a son to his father. And though that sort of emotion was now ancient history, our recent visit to Joe’s Santa Barbara home had rekindled my love for the man on another level.
“Tom, how long has it been since you and Martin have seen one another?” Sara’s question brought me back to the present.
Before I’d even begun the mathematics, Martin spoke. “Four days short of twenty-one years.”
I looked at him in amazement.
He continued. “The last time I spoke to my sister, and therefore the last time I saw Tommy, was Thanksgiving Day, 1975. When I left her house that day everything worth saying had been said.”
“You haven’t spoken to your family in all that time? Why not?” Sara asked.
“Lot’s of reasons.” He hesitated, as if trying to buy time to recall them. He looked to the frigid sky and seemed to discover the remainder of his thought in a cloud. “I’d had enough of her trying to force me to live my life her way. I said to myself, ‘I don’t need this. I know what this is about and I don’t need it.'”
Sara crinkled her brow. “What was it about?”
He snorted. “Tommy could tell you.” He looked at me as if we were soldiers who’d defended the same hill.
I shrugged. “No one ever told me why you disappeared.”
He shook his head. “Figures.”
“So what happened?” asked Sara.
Martin’s tone sharpened. “My, aren’t you a nosy one. Emma wanted to gloat, okay? She’s certain if I’d followed her advice things would’ve turned out better.”
I knew the rebuff would dampen the fun of discovery for Sara. I wondered what sort of advice my mom might have wanted to dispense, but I’d rather ask her than him. We walked silently for quite a ways.
Sara squeezed my hand. I looked at her and she mouthed her next question.
She’d owe me big for this. “What advice?” I asked hesitantly.
The visible fragments of Martin’s face reddened. “Emma has all the answers, Tommy. How can you not know that? She’s always shoving them up everyone’s nose. Well, I have a news flash. Her lifetime of good luck has come at my expense.”
I squeezed Sara’s hand and mouthed back, “Thanks a lot.” I certainly hadn’t wanted our exchange to follow this course. After all, Mom’s greatest weakness was being too compassionate, everyone knew that. She volunteered for the homeless, attracted stray kittens like a lint magnet, once even rescued a mouse from a spring trap and nursed him back to health. She’d practically raised her own mother, for God’s sake. I could sooner believe the Pope had been baptized Mormon than give weight to Martin’s version of events.
His ridiculous claim revealed something fascinating, though. Beneath his crusty exterior flowed molten emotion, no matter how disconnected from reality. Our silence was broken only by the sound of snow crunching beneath our boots, until I asked, “Where do you live?”
“Why do you want to know that? Don’t I have a right to my privacy?”
I put up a hand, feeling frustrated. Couldn’t he discuss anything calmly? “Forget I asked. Sheesh.”
“It sounds like something Emma would ask.”
I shook my head in disgust. “Anybody might, don’t get so riled.”
“Wouldn’t Emma love to know what I’m up to? Did she send you here to spy on me?”
Sara tugged at my arm. When I looked her way, she flicked her head toward home.
He’d piqued my curiosity, but I wouldn’t force Sara to remain in a situation she didn’t like. “Listen Martin, we’ve got to go. If there’s a way to get hold of you I’d like to talk more. If not, I guess that’s the way it has to be.”
He didn’t respond as he continued walking at my side. I noticed the dogs. They wrestled in the snow, grabbing at each other with lethal looking fangs. Their communication looked so much more dangerous than ours, yet it was really the other way around.
After a long moment Martin spoke. “I don’t see why it’s any of your business. If you must know, I live in the Avenues.”
One glance at his worn clothing and I knew he was lying. He couldn’t afford the Avenues. A lot of good such a vague address would do me anyway.
He cleared his throat, as if starting fresh. “The city has sure grown. Did you realize there are over a million people in this valley?”
I looked at Sara hopefully. It sounded like an honest effort at friendly conversation. Maybe we could start again. She lifted her eyebrows, and I took it to mean she’d give him another chance.
I nodded toward the Wasatch Front. “Maybe they like the view.”
Martin grunted, apparently unconvinced.
I looked at the faces of the imposing wall of mountains, covered in a fresh layer of white. “We’ve been to the top of many of those peaks, hiking and skiing. Ranger’s even been up several, including Mount Olympus there. I’ve gotten us into, and fortunately back out of, some pretty tight spots. Do you like to hike?” I’d taken two or three more steps awaiting a response before Sara halted. I looked at her, then followed her gaze back.
Martin’s eyes weren’t on the peaks, but instead on a spot inches forward of his boots.
“Are you all right?” Sara asked.
He nodded, keeping his gaze down. “It’s a surprise to run into a familiar face, never happens. Not until today. That’s fine by me. I’ve had it with being judged by people who won’t forgive me for what happened decades ago.”
I looked at him, trying to interpret his seemingly heartfelt words. “What are they judging you for?”
His gaze stayed on the ground. “It’s impossible to avoid those people . . . too many of them. All thinking they’ve earned the right to judge me; well they haven’t. They don’t know a god damned thing. So what if it bothers them I’m independent. Why should I care?”
He stroked his mustache. “Just me and the dogs. That’s how I like it. I get out like anyone, though. Shopping and whatnot. I look at the people and wonder, what right do they think they have to be here?”
I studied a row of poplar trees, naked of leaves, sheathed on this day in a biting frost. The uppermost twigs scratched at the sky, pleading for more hospitable air. How could he be so obsessed with the opinions of strangers and so uninterested in his own family? With unlimited topics to discuss we couldn’t even talk about the weather without conflict. I had so many questions, if only he would share his answers. I had so many answers, if only he would ask the obvious questions.
“But what were they judging him for?” Sara whispered, mulling the still unanswered question.
A rapid twitch convulsed an inch below his left eye. Then he stuck a finger past me into her face. “Mind your own business.”
I swept his arm away. “That’s no way to treat a lady, Uncle Martin. We’re leaving now.”
The motion threw him off balance. He stumbled backward. A new expression, oddly like curiosity, overcame his face. “Uncle?”
I recalled his inexplicable contempt for that word, and halfheartedly wished I hadn’t used it. It no longer mattered, though. I’d had it with this frustrating exchange. I grabbed Sara’s hand and started away.
I looked back.
“I’m not your uncle. Your life is a lie.”