Something was missing from Phillip Reese’s life. He had a great job. A fantastic apartment with a remarkable view of The City. Good friends. Money. But it wasn’t enough. Uncharacteristically, this man with the organized, analytical mind could not pinpoint the problem. It was simply an unwelcome unknown until on a moonlit ribbon of road he found what he had been looking for. But was it too late?
Phillip Reese never tired of the view from his twentieth floor apartment. At night, a diadem of lights crowned the city from river to sea. Across the park, above the scrambled streets and chaos at ground level –colored lights, some that twinkled, some that blinked, some with a bright steady stare into the black sky. It stretched as far as he could see. And from the big windows in his apartment, that was miles.
Frequently the noise of the city below reached his level –the horns and sirens and shouts and screams as unnerving as if they were there in the room with him. “What would it be like” he wondered as he retreated into quiet music from his very complete entertainment system, “to live in quiet solitude?”
But the view! It was all about the view from those huge windows. It was everything. Friends from his office shared his hospitality and the view, always saying “yes” to his invitations. He was never sure whether they came just for the view or for the food and drink. (He was generous with the booze). What really mattered was that they came and they filled his space with happy noise.
Phillip Reese was never really lonely. He always found something to fill his hours. Work– maybe too much of it. Entertaining friends. And he lived to run– when he had minutes or hours, in the daytime in the park or at night along city streets. The noise surrounding him, invading his space, eliminated by the music from his headphones. Deep inside the music and the runner’s high, he immersed himself in fantasy. Free-form, ego-fulfilling fantasies. Some that made him smile in the dark. He was an Olympic runner on his way to a gold medal. He was a guerilla fighter running toward the enemy. He was a much-admired political genius running to catch a flight to some mysterious foreign capital.
No, Phillip Reese was never lonely. But he deeply disliked being alone.
Several drinks into a fine spring evening–his guests quietly absorbing the retreating dusk, a prelude to the big show that would soon spread out across the city– Sarah Windsor calmly said: “I guess Jonathan told you we’re buying a place in Connecticut.”
Phillip stopped in mid-sip, almost spilling his martini. ” Connecticut? Are you out of your mind? And miss all of this…the clamor, the excitement, the color of the city. You know you can’t leave. ”
“That’s just the point, Phil. We have to. We’re both edgy when we get home from work. It’s all of that…the clamor, the noise…everything about living in the city. We finally broke through the veneer–the denial. We’ve been taking our frustrations out on each other and it’s not fair. No more desperation. We’re getting out of this trap we made for ourselves. Besides…” she smiled coyly…”I’m pregnant.” She held up a glass of pure orange juice. “No more booze.”
Phillip frowned. It was becoming too frequent. His playmates were marrying and moving on or having kids. “Love to come to your party, Phil, but that’s parents’ night at day school.” “Can’t stay for drinks tonight because the wife is waiting dinner.” “My son has a soccer game.” “Sorry, bro. I gotta go early today. One kid is playing a carrot in a skit about health food and the other one has ballet practice.” And now: “Have to stop drinking because I’m pregnant.” “Moving to Connecticut because it’s quiet.”
“No one wants to play any more. Am I gonna to have to find a whole new set of friends?” He faked a pout– inverted smile, eyes downcast.
Smiling, Sarah patted his arm. “Phillip, dear, you will always be our friend. We will come and visit. We will set “play dates” so you can come see us. Would you like that?” She looked at him over the top of her designer glasses. “Or maybe you and Keeley will finally admit it’s time. Seriously, Phillip, she wants a ring. She won’t wait forever.”
He squinted at her. “Wait, Sarah. Time out. We weren’t talking about Keeley and me. We were talking about–no, you were telling me about–your move to Connecticut. Let’s get back on topic. So good luck with the move. With the long commute. With yard work. High property taxes.”
“Phillip, really! Do you think we would go into this without thinking it through—thoroughly? Of course, there’ll be times when we miss this life””-she swept an arm across the room, the people, the view….”but we know what we’re doing. And one of these days, friend, you’re going to get enough. The view and parties and putting up with the never-ending noise will become very, very old.” He shrugged and walked away, abruptly and impolitely ending the conversation.
Early into the night, couple by couple, with a “Thanks, Phil. Great party but we have a school-age baby sitter and need to get home ” his guests wandered off toward the elevator and home.
He was alone. He parked himself in a big chair facing the windows and stared at the view. The night noises drifted up from the crowded streets and sidewalks below. And for one brief moment, he saw himself old, friends so deeply involved with their own lives that his repeated invitations were met with “Sorry, Phil–” kids’ birthdays, teacher’s visits, school plays–“Sorry, Phil. Can’t find a baby sitter. Can’t leave the kids alone.” He would get meaningless invitations from long-ago friends to their kids’ high school graduations, college graduations, and finally–weddings. He shook off the images of life yet to be. And quietly went to sleep in the chair, mindless of the array of humanity spread across a city fully awake all night–twenty floors below.
By the time he joined his friends at the office next morning, they were well into everyday conversation. “Have to visit with Stanley’s teacher after work tonight.” “Greta puked in the car on the way to school today so there’s a bug going around. Watch your kids.” “John just got his lower braces and the poor kid is in pain.”
It might have been his hangover headache from the night before. Or maybe, at thirty-two, there was too much undisciplined little boy in him. He slammed his fist on the counter. The coffee in his cup spiraled up and out onto his white shirt and favorite tie.
“For Christ’s sake. Don’t you guys ever talk about anything but your miserable lives?
The wintry silence in the room told him he had gone too far. But it was too late. Mark Rundgren spoke first. “I think, buddy, your reality check just bounced. Take a look at your own life. Work, apartment, great view. Repeat: work, apartment, great view. Repeat. Got it?”
Phil nodded. “Got it. Sorry. I’m a jerk. I over-did it last night and I’m paying for it.” The conversation drifted until one by one, they left the break room for their offices, stopping to smile and pat him on the shoulder. A reassurance that he was still part of the team. And a vague indication that his next invitation might be left unanswered. Not even “Sorry, Phil. Can’t find a babysitter. Maybe next time.”
That night, alone in front of oncoming dusk and the start of the nightly light show, he did something he had never done before. He did what Mark Rundgren had suggested. He looked at his own life. Seriously and in depth.
“What was it Rundgren said?”, he asked himself. “Something about work, apartment, great view. Repeat.” A long introspective pause. “Yeah, but I have what some guys would die for. A great job, money, a stupendous apartment, an impossibly amazing view of the city and….” What else? He frowned. There was no “what else?”
He had come to the city right from college; a bright shiny newly minted next- big-thing in the finance world. A well-dressed, handsome, savvy young analyst who knew the business like he knew his own family tree–one grown by hard-working parents who managed to scrape up enough with a second mortgage on their home to send his brother to med school, his sister to law school and him for an MBA at Wharton.
Not bad, huh?, the old man would say with a chuckle. Until the chuckle became a cough. Until the cough became a frightening interruption of grey-faced wheezing and struggling for breath. Until his father died of lung cancer two years ago. His mother, in constant grief, wandered off into a cloudy province where no one could reach her. She remembers no one.
His older sister, the lawyer who stayed in the town where she was born– married another lawyer–her high school sweetheart. There are two beautiful (of course) children, his niece and nephew. Picture-perfect, too perfect for Phil.
Life is not like that, he told himself. They text periodically so she can report on the condition of their mother, although there really is nothing new–ever–to report. Beyond those texts…impersonal, infrequent… lay a chasm empty of a real relationship.
Phil’s forty-year-old brother, a renowned surgeon on the west coast, shows up frequently on the news or in society magazines with his wife–a model–gorgeous and self-confident. He has a huge practice. “Surgeon to the stars”….Phil calls him, derisively. His model-wife, smiling, tells interviewers: “We’re much too involved to care for children” So there are none nor will there ever be. Communication between Phil and his brother — a Christmas card. Theirs –photos of themselves skiing the Alps, safara-ing in Africa. His–gold embossed heavy paper that says simply “Greetings of the Season.” How warm, he muses to himself. How wonderfully familial.
Now, mirrored in the huge windows, he sits alone, for once oblivious of the view, taking an inventory of his life. Adding it up….”I shouldn’t,” he tells himself. And realizes all too soon, staring into the endless black night, that he really shouldn’t. Where there might have been laughter, meaning, close ties to family and friends– were instead mostly white, empty pages–a tiny sum of human relationships.
Sleep came late. He struggled with demons in the dark. Where do I go from here, he asked himself? The only answer came too early: the drift of classical music from his radio alarm. Time to face the day. He lay there, staring at the ceiling. Should I call in sick? Would they even notice? And then, as fate sometimes does when it steps in and rearranges a life–it presented a solution. Quickly, impetuously, in his mind it was done. All it needed now was the time and the nerve to put it in place. He would test it, he reasoned, to see if it filled the emptiness he had wrestled with for years.
Next morning, the office banter slowed to a crawl when Phil came in. ‘Sorry to be late guys. What did I miss?” Jonathan frowned. “Just the usual, Phil. Little insights into our own cosmos of kids and crap. Our miserable lives.”
A wan smile flickered across his face. “Look, guys, I was wrong. And I apologized…although it’s hard to take back something that hard core.”
Jonathan shrugged. “It is what it is, Phil. But we still love you, don’t we, guys?” Laughing, Mark grabbed Phil by the shoulders in a bear hug. “Yep. You’re still one of us.”
“Thanks, guys.” And before anyone could say more–before it became a sugary “bro” moment, he laid it out for them. The plan in words that tumbled out of his mouth one on top of the other. Get it out–fast– he told himself –before the reality of it hits me and I waffle–sliding back into the rut I’m trying to get out of. “I’m going to take a two-month leave of absence. Going upstate. Lake Pleasant—actually—where my dad used to take us fishing. Going to just hang out and– —try to find myself.” He stopped and shook his head. “I can’t believe I just said that. But really, I need to get in touch with who I am–or at least who I want to be. Does that make sense? Probably not. I’m not even certain it does to me. It’s just….”
“What the hell?” Jonathan interrupted. “Are you out of your effing mind? You’ll go batshit crazy, Phillip Reese! You’re not accustomed to peace and quiet. To introspection. To having to live with yourself–and only yourself–day in and day out. It won’t work.”
“I’ve gotta try, Jon. I’m on the road to nowhere right now. Like you said, Mark, it’s “repeat, repeat, repeat.” I have to break out.”
“This doesn’t have anything to do with the crap we gave you about your ‘miserable lives’ comment, does it?” Lymon Foster frowned. “Because if it does, we should all be hung for the way we reacted. You’re a good friend not just a colleague.”
“It was a wake up call, Ly. I can be an ass sometimes . And that’s not me. At least, I don’t think it is. I hope it isn’t.”
Jonathan, shocked, sensing things were already off the rails tried to bring it back to reality. “Okay. So you go into the woods, grow a beard and read Walden Pond over and over again to convince yourself you’re having a great time…alone. But think about us. And mostly about Keeley. What about Keeley Everett? She’s so smart, so beautiful and so hung up on you. Look, take a week. Take her on a cruise. See cities. See people. It’ll work. I guarantee that’s what you need. ”
“Whoa! That’s what I’m trying to get away from. I need some alone-time. I thought I hated being alone. But it’s the only way I can sort things out. I’m ready to find some magic in my life. I crave something out-of-the-ordinary, for a change. Not just the usual.”
“All I know is that I don’t want to be within a thousand miles of you when you explain this b-s to Keeley. It won’t fly, Phil.” Jonathan shook his head. “It won’t fly. She’s too smart.”
Mark checked his watch. “Hey, guys. We’ve gotta get to work. We probably have voice mail filled to infinity . We need to continue this later.” They dispersed, each to his own office, shocked, puzzled, not believing what they had heard.
Alone in his office, Phil collapsed in his chair. “What the hell have I done? Did they even understand what I told them?” he asked himself. His cell phone buzzed. A text from Jonathan. “Great joke, man. You really pulled it off. Had us all convinced. Drinks after work? On me!”
Phil slowly shook his head. “How do I tell him it’s the real thing? That by this time next week, my office will be empty and someone else will be over-the- moon in love with the view from my apartment windows. And Keeley…” he stopped, closed his eyes. Yes, Phil, what about Keeley? Think.
He begged off having drinks after work with Jonathan. Sinus headache. Weak excuse. Did he see through it? Maybe not. His text didn’t give a clue: “Sorry, old man. Catch you later this week, OK? Don’t miss the chance to get me to pay the tab. Feel better.” Phil would tell him “Jon, it’s for real”—tomorrow.
Night settled over the city. The view was perfection. Last rays of sun captured in the river, lights winking, blinking on. “Jesus, Phil, what have you done? What the hell were you thinking? You can’t possibly pull this off.” He looked around the apartment. What to take? What to leave? Can’t take much. I have no idea where I’ll live. And again–as it would repeat itself so many times before he closed the door behind him and took that last ride down in the elevator he asked himself: “What the hell were you thinking?” And, Phil, what about Keeley? Think.
Instead of sleeping…because he knew it was useless to try….he made lists. Keep this. Sell that. Leave this for the tenant who comes behind me. The tenant who will go nuts over the view. He checked an online map of upstate New York.
What was around Lake Pleasant? Nothing. Hope and pray I can find a place to live. He sat alone in the dark–just before sunrise came over the building. What the hell have you done, Phil? What have you done?
The weekend came wrapped in early spring sunshine, delivered on a light breeze. Phil packed his car. Three hours to Lake Pleasant. Two days there, searching. Not just for a place to live, for a life. His life. Lake Pleasant? Lake Unknown. Lake Scary. Lake WhatthehellPhil.
Alone in the car, cool jazz on Pandora—apprehension began to slip away. Replaced with excitement, maybe? Or fear? Or mixed. The road was smooth, tree-lined, no traffic. So this is what isolation is, he said to himself.
He pulled into the gravel drive of the Lake Pleasant Bait and Snack Shop.
An old shed one good breeze away from collapse. Unpainted, creaky porch. Desiccated fish heads hanging from the rafters. “Ugh. Primitive as hell,” he muttered weaving between the obstacles . The front door, hung by two rusty hinges, threatened to give way when he opened it.
One light bulb over the case of fishing lures. Another over the ancient cash register. Lighted glass-front soft drink cases the only acquaintance–however slight– with today.
“Hello. Anybody?” No answer. He walked cautiously across the squeaky floor. “Hello?” He repeated. The sound of shuffling feet preceded a man –at least Phil thought the creature was male–emerging from behind the soft drink cases. Gnome-like, long grey hair peeking out from under a ball cap sideways on a small head. “Can I hep you?” The voice decidedly female.
“Yes, ma’m. I’m here for the weekend from the city. Any place around here to spend the night?”
“Yeah. You can try the Bide-A-Wee just up the hill yonder. It’s on the lake. Might have a room for the night. Place to eat there, too.” She squinted at him.
“You from these parts?” He frowned. I thought I just said I was here from the city. Maybe she doesn’t hear well. Louder, he repeated: “No. Just up from the city. For the weekend. Leaving Sunday.”
“Oh, I see. Fishin’ are ye?”
“No, no. No fishing. ” Should I tell her I’m here to try and find myself? Fat chance she’d get it. “Just needing some rest over the weekend.”
“Yep, I guess you city folks need to get away ever’ once in awhile. Well, good luck with the Bide-A-Wee. Nice folks. They’ll find ye somethin’. And good luck with yore fishin.'” Phil nodded and rolled his eyes.
“Thanks.” He turned to go. Then, turning back, he asked: “Do you know of any places that might be for sale around here? Small. Reasonable.”
“Well, y’know, I don’t honestly but let me ask my son. Raymond!” She shouted so loud Phil’s ears rang.
Like Act Two in a stage comedy, another figure shuffled out from backstage …from behind the soft drink cases. His costume a torn t-shirt with a faded “Grateful Dead” logo on the front. Bald, narrow eyes, a cigarette drooping from one corner of his mouth. “Look, ma. I’ve tole ye a thousand times. Don’t goddamn shout. I ain’t deef like you.” Seeing Phil, he frowned:”Whatcha need, mister?”
“Just wondered if there were any places for sale around here. Don’t need a lot of space. Something priced right.”
“Dunno,” he said, shifting his cigarette, squinting through the smoke. “Unless…naw. Probably wouldn’t do.”
“What? What wouldn’t do? Anything–as long as it isn’t falling down.”
“Don’t think you’d want it, mister. Somethin’ queer about that place. Weird things. Pretty decent cabin. Ain’t big. And it’s right on the loop.”
“What’s the loop?”
“Road that goes through the woods and out t’other side somewheres.”
“Do you think I could see it while I’m here? I’m in kind of a hurry to find a place.”
“Real estate sign in front. Guess you’d just call that number.” He flicked the ash off his cigarette. “Anythin’ else?”
“No. You’ve been a big help, Raymond. Thanks a lot. ” He felt like he should at least buy something to show his appreciation but even the candy bars had a thick layer of dust on the wrappers.
Phil trudged across the gravel to his car. What am I doing here?, he asked himself as he slid into the leather car seat. He sat for almost a minute, reflecting, taking in the view. Trees, nothing but trees. Big ones. Pine, oak…some unidentifiable. An unobstructed view of trees. “Well, this could get old,” he muttered starting the car, hitting the gas, digging noisily into the gravel as he pulled onto “the loop.”
He found the Bide-A-Wee up the hill just as the old woman in the bait shop had told him. It wasn’t what he expected. Neat, white little individual buildings –the kind they used to call “tourist cabins” back in the 30s when these were built– grouped around a larger white building with a blinking “Vacancy” sign in one window. A sign that said “Eat” blinked in another. He pulled in and got out of the car. He could see inside the all-glass front door–no one on the desk. The bell attached to the door brought someone. A man, grey-haired, slight. Wearing a big-name shirt–Phil could tell by the polo pony stitched on the front. The man smiled. “Hi! May I help you?”
“Hopefully. I’d like a cabin until tomorrow afternoon if that’s possible.”
“Indeed it is. We’re slow this weekend. New competition on the other side of the lake.”
“Oh? There’s another side of the lake?”
The man nodded, adding quickly. “Yeah, but it’s not nearly as beautiful as this side.” He laughed. “How’s that for salesmanship?”
“Good job!” Phil stuck out a hand. “Phillip Reese. Just up from the city for a little R and R. Need to stand back a while from the daily grind.”
The man shook his hand, nodding in agreement. “I hear you! Ned Sloan. Retired professor, mythical history. Emory University. My sister Emily–also retired– and I discovered this place by accident on a visit to some colleagues, also retired and living in Belleville across the lake. Fell in love with it and –here we are. Long way from Atlanta–and far away from the daily grind. ” He pushed the register toward Phil.
A quick signature and he pushed the book back toward Ned Sloan.
“I’m thinking of maybe buying a place up here. Is there anything for sale? Something small, unpretentious. Something affordable.”
The man smiled, nodded. “A cabin on the loop’s for sale. Might be just what you’re looking for. Nice. Fairly new. Dynamite view of the lake. Should be a bargain–been on the market for some time now.”
Phil frowned. ” Is that the one Ray at the bait shape said was—mmm–haunted or something?”
There’s more. It’s not on Amazon yet, but if you want to read the rest of it, contact me and I’ll get you a copy — if you’ll review it and give me your feedback!