Unto the Mountain (novel-in-progress)
His grandfather loved to tell people the history of the business when he took them into the woodshop. Jamie had heard the story so many times, he could repeat it in his sleep—three different businesses it’s been, really: three businesses, five generations of Harmons, and another one in training.
Sorry to let you down, Poppy, Jamie thought. You and Dad both.
He stepped into the comforting aroma of pine and cedar, his eyes taking in the lathe, the chisels and gouges laid out on the bench, the shelves of varnish and polyurethane, the woodstove along the wall. How many hours had he spent in this shop? His earliest memories were of being in here with a fire going, helping his grandfather meet orders for his handmade wood items. After his grandfather retired from the company and turned over the reins to Will and Peggy, this shop became his business. He made whatever his customers wanted—vases, candleholders, crucifixes, Nativity sets, ornaments—but the most popular items were his segmented cherry and maple bowls made of trees taken from the mountain. It was a big deal when his grandfather cut a tree on the mountain because he didn’t harvest many of them. By his order, the pines and hardwoods that grew on Bear Mountain were off limits to harvesting for the lumbermill. Jamie’s father didn’t understand it—what sense did it make for the family to buy logs from timber brokers and local landowners when they had seven thousand acres of trees right behind the homestead? But Harry wouldn’t relent. It was one of the many items of contention between the patriarch and his firstborn son.
Lauren had followed him outside. “Are you okay?” she asked from the shop door.
How many times had people asked him this over the past two years? The words meant nothing.
“I can’t do this,” he said.
“Can’t do what?”
He waved his hand in the direction of the house. “Watch someone else die.”
Lauren moved closer. Don’t take my hand again, he thought. Don’t, don’t … Perhaps sensing his thoughts, she stopped, a foot away. Her hands remained at her side.
“What a time you’ve had, Jamie. Your whole family. I don’t know what to say …”
“There’s nothing to say other than it sucks.”
“Yeah. It does.”
He looked at her, taking in her frizzled chestnut hair hanging in ropes over her shoulders as if she’d just stepped out of the shower. She was a girl who needed no makeup to be beautiful, and yet as pretty as she was, smart too, and athletic—top in their class, president of Student Council, captain of the girls’ swim team—she didn’t have a pretentious bone in her body. Every guy in the little Catholic high school they went to wanted her, and he had no doubt that the sex-crazed guys in her co-ed dorm at Princeton were after her as well. Had any of them had her? He didn’t like to think about it. It was why he had to let her go. After three years of dating or hanging out or whatever it was they’d been doing, he couldn’t leave her dangling any longer, waiting for him to figure out what the hell he wanted. She’d put no pressure on him—she was not that kind of person. But she was a sexual being, after all. Everyone was. It was natural. Him too. The difference was, he had all these rules in his head. Rules, rules—stupid rules. When you have the best thing in the world standing in front of you and you’re too much of a wuss to take it, you don’t deserve her in the first place.
For a long while neither of them said anything. They stood under the fluorescent lights like boats anchored in a marina. Lauren didn’t have a coat on and at one point she shivered and wrapped her arms around her chest. It came to Jamie how cold it was in the shop without the stove on.
“Here,” he said, taking off his coat and laying it over her shoulders.
“Oh, Jamie,” she said.
The door opened behind them. It was Aunt Peggy. The look on her face told Jamie everything he needed to know.
“Come,” she beckoned.
They followed her back to the study, where Harold Dunlap Harmon had breathed his last. He lay still in the oversized bed with his eyes fixed vacantly on the bear head mounted on the opposite wall.
Everyone was crying, everyone reaching for each other, everyone except for Carol, who, strangely, wore a peaceful smile as if she’d just witnessed a beautiful sunset. As Jamie watched, his aunt went over to the window and threw it open. She raised her arms like a minister and waved them toward the outside.
“Go, Dad,” she said to her father’s lifeless body. “You’re free now. Go to the mountain you love.”