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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Sunday, July 04, 2010

"Still Waters" Chapter Four

As mentioned previously, “Still Waters” is an experiment in fiction and very much a work in progress. Pulling from a four-year-old draft, I plan to provide a chapter or two a week as my summer schedule allows. The following blue text is revised from Chapter 3.

Clair came from the cool house where she’d been watching from the window.

“Here’s an extra bottle of water for each of us. It’s supposed to get hot. Can’t have too much water. I wrote our initials on the lids.”

Dr. Sinclair began rolling backward down the driveway as the garage door slowly closed then stopped with a jolt, hit the button to raise the door, and jogged up the driveway.

"Whatdja forget?" Clair said out the open door, but he did not reply. He came back with a black mesh laundry bag and a short length of rope.

"You'll be glad we have this to put the water bottles in. I'll tie it to my tube so our hands can be free. The river will help keep the water cold."

It struck Clair as a clever idea compared to the many other things he might have gone back to get--his wallet, his sunglasses, his towel. It showed the kind of creative forethought and problem solving that she had come to expect from her husband. She didn't say so, but James knew these were her thoughts when she took a deep breath, shook her head, and smiled.

The car backed down the driveway just past noon—three minutes behind schedule. There was no one waiting for them, of course, but his wife Clair believed that time well spent must first be contained and that living without fixed schedules was like carrying an armful of groceries in a torn paper sack. James had proven her theory right all too often. Without the target of a noon departure, he’d still be frittering away in the yard. Three minutes was a manageable rip.

According to his laptop’s Flash-Map program, it was a two-hour-and-thirteen minute drive to Big Rapids.

Chapter Four

There were many things James Sinclair had been that no one now would guess. He had wrestled in high school and boxed in the Golden Gloves just for fun with his brothers who had been his sparring partners for years; he had been a grave digger at the county cemetery; he spent a year as a non-union machine operator in a union auto plant; and he had been a heavy equipment operator in a rock quarry; but all of these non-professorial roles were in a long-forgotten life known to few in his current world.

He was now Doctor James Sinclair, recently named head of the English Department at the Riverdale College, the same Friends school that had opened its doors to him the summer after he worked in the quarry.

He had found work in Kansas with a construction company that was building a dam for a new nuclear plant. The site was chosen for both its water supply and the fact that it rested on a bed of limestone that could be quarried out to make the dam and the hole that would become the cooling reservoir beside the plant.

The nuke plant itself did not yet exist and would not operate for another five years. First the world around the site would be transformed from parched, rocky soil to a gorgeous lake. It was a sobering thought to James when he was first told that the place he would spend the next three months would someday be forever under water.

The long dam went along the
south end of the excavated reservoir and natural valley there. It was made of seven layers of limestone, sorted to size.

Several times a day came the "Fire in the hole" signal as engineers
blasted the limestone embankment. The largest boulders were the size of cars. These made up the base of the dam. The next layer was made of boulders the size of washing machines, which nestled into the crevices of the larger rock. The third layer’s rock was the size of trash cans; the fourth the size of picnic baskets, and so on, each layer locking into the crevices of the layer below it.

James was hired midway through the dam's construction. By then trucks were bringing medium-sized boulders to large crushing machines to make the upper layers of the dam. The machines crushed and sorted the rock onto different conveyor belts. Bowling ball-size-rock went to one belt; baseball-size-rock to another; and road-gravel rock, which was the upper layer of the dam, went to another belt. His job was scooping up the small rocks that fell from the series of conveyor belts that carried the various sized boulders to correct pile.

Regardless of the crushing and sorting process done by the enormous machines, there were always small bits of rock that ran backwards down all three of the belts, like a thousand kids going down the up escalator at the mall. These mischievous rocks would pile up below the belts until they rubbed against the lower side of the belt. If left unattended, those little rocks would tear the belts to shreds and shut down the whole operation. It was an entry-level job that used shovels and a small zero-radius-front-loader, but James found satisfaction in knowing it was his vigilance that kept the belts moving.

The din made human communication impossible and earplugs permanent fixtures. During James short breaks, he sat alone in the shade of the moving conveyor belts and wrote on his empty lunch sacks. Only for the half hour lunch break were the machines shut down. The men gathered from their various posts to eat in the shade of the towering machines. Within a few weeks, it became habit for a young college kid named Sam Barclay to plop down beside James at lunch. Sam later explained that it was because James was the only guy in their part of the quarry who could converse without punctuating his sentences with foul language. One day, when the cacophony of steel and rock and rubber belts ground to a halt, and the earplugs were removed, and the ant-like men in their yellow hard-hats filed out of the dusty pits, Sam caught up to James on the long dirt ramp that led to their parked cars.

“Who’s the lucky girl you’re writing love letters to?” he joked.

James looked puzzled.

“I saw you writing down there under the belts,” Sam continued, “What’s that about? Are you scribblin’ to a girl friend or dreamin’ up new ways to crush rock?”

“You college guys think everything is about girls.” James smiled. He reached in his pocket and pulled out the folded brown paper bag he’d been writing on, then pulled out another from his other pocket and put them in Sam’s hands.

“Here are some lyrics. See if you can put ‘em to music,” he said and went home alone.

The next day Sam returned the two sacks with two sheets of typed pages.

“I thought you might want to see what this looks like on real paper. I’m no musician, but this is good stuff. Who’da guessed poetry could come from this hole in the ground.

“I like to write,” James smiled.

“What did you major in?”

“I majored in getting done with high school and finding work.”

“Seriously? You never went to college?”

James smiled and shook his head.

“You ought to think about moving back to Michigan with me and take a few classes at Riverdale.”

“Riverdale?” James asked.

“Never heard of it, right? It’s a small school with about 1,200 students. It was started by Quakers like a hundred and fifty years ago, but now they let anybody in.”

“Even heathens like me, eh?” James joked.

“That’s not what I mean. I meant you don’t have to be Quaker to go there. Lots of the students have no Quaker background at all.”

“So I wouldn’t have to where a broad-brimmed hat like the guy on Quaker Oats?” James smiled.

“No. Believe it or not, some of the girls still wear a sort of bonnet thing, but that’s totally optional. It is strict, though. Real conservative. No drinking or smoking. No co-ed dorms. And they mean it."

"I don't drink and I don't' chew and I don't go with girls that do." James recited.

"Yep. Kinda like that," Sam laughed.

"I'm serious," James said, "I really don't. I was brought up Baptist. My list of don'ts is probably longer than yours, so that would be no problem."

"Well, then, I’m serious: you should think about coming to Riverdale. I could pull some strings to get you in this fall.” He pointed at the paper in James' hand. "You really ought to start thinking beyond brown paper bags."

That is how it all began. Sam was a friend who also happened to be a Friend. James was well-versed in the Bible but was not a Quaker. All he knew of that sect was what he’d learned from Sergeant York and The Friendly Persuasion, two of his favorite Gary Cooper films. He knew Quaker men and women sat on separate sides of their Sunday meeting house; they did not allow instrumental music in the home or church; and they were pacifists during times of war. It is often true, however, that one’s truest assessment of a group is based on the first person one meets from it.

James trusted Sam, and come mid-August, he turned in his Bobcat keys and became not a Quaker but a college freshman at Riverdale College. The school's roots were still Quaker, but its enrollment had broadened somewhat in recent years to a general mix of conservative people of faith. It suited James fine. He was twenty-six at the time.

Sam graduated a year before James, who by then had met an attractive Riverdale graduate who worked in the library and typed papers for a dollar a page. Clair McNeal happened to be from Kansas, thirty miles from that rock quarry where he had worked three years before. That fact alone seemed too providential for James to ignore.

What began as a business transaction became regular meetings for lunch; then Sundays to church and dinner; then pretty much pleasantly presumed days with Clair who eventually began refusing payment for typing James’ papers. "You might need to start saving your money," she'd say, trying to hide a smile.

James stayed on for grad school at Riverdale; saved up for a ring; got engaged (She had gotten over the fact that her name would be Clair Sinclair on about their third date) ); earned his masters; and married Clair in the summer of 1980. Two weeks before their wedding, James accepted a teaching position there at Riverdale. Clair kept her job in the library, and the next twenty-five years turned like pages in the wind.

Driving north to Big Rapids, Dr. Sinclair reached over and patted the knee of his wife of twenty-five years who had been staring out the window.

"Huh? What?" she muttered.

"I love you," he said.

"I love you, too." she replied. "What brought that on?"

"Nothing. I was just thinking... Thinking about all the funny things that brought us together. Things that easily could've turned out completely different."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Clair asked.

"What if Sam hadn't been working in that rock quarry in Kansas. What if I hadn't been writing on brown paper bags down under all that dust. What if I hadn't been accepted at Riverdale. What if you couldn't type?"

"You think too much." Clair smiled. "That's just how God works. We aren't suppose to understand it."

"Maybe not. But it's okay to wonder... and be amazed... and thank God... and pat my wife's knee for no reason."

"That kind of thinking is fine," she smiled.

"I'm looking forward to tubing down the river. We don't do things like this often enough."

"The girls and I have been looking forward to it, too" Clair smiled, patting her husband's knee.

She turned on the radio and began scanning channels for a familiar tune. James' face kept wincing at each stop: talk, commercials, hip-hop, more talk, hard rock. He shook his head, and then...

Well, if sweet talking you
 could make it come true
I would give you the world right now
 on a silver platter
But what would it matter...

Clair began to turn the channel. James touched her hand.

"No. Leave it. I haven't heard
Rose Garden in years." And he began singing along.

So smile for a while and let's be jolly
love shouldn't be so melancholy
Come along and share the good times
 while we can. I beg your pardon
 I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine
there's gotta be a little rain sometime...

"Dad, how do you know this?" Anna asked, "It just came out."

"This came out
thirty-five years ago," her father laughed.

"Honest, Dad, that just came out.
That's Martina McBride. She wasn't even alive when you were in high school."

"Well, it's a cover then. How else could I know the words?" He resumed singing, surprised that lyrics he had not heard for decades were coming from somewhere in his mind.

You'd better look before you leap
 still waters run deep
And there won't always be
 someone there to pull you out
And you know what I'm talking about
So smile for a while and let's be jolly
love shouldn't be so melancholy
Come along and share the good times
 while we can. I beg your pardon
 I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine
there's gotta be a little rain sometime...

Kenzie leaned between the two front seats.

"Daddy, you should say 'I never promised you a turtle garden' instead of 'rose garden.'"

As the song began to fade, repeating that line, her father looked in the rearview mirror and did as she requested. Kenzie laughed. Clair shook her head. Anna put in ear buds and turned on her Ipod.

Big Rapids was five miles ahead.

To be continued...


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