Can a man think out his life, or must he just tag along?
– John Steinbeck

November 1960
Sweet Farm, Carmel Valley, California
Chuck at the Rock – Schulte Road Bridge

Charles Huffington huddled on his rock under the Schulte Road Bridge, quaking like one of the nearby river-hugging willows in the chilled and impatient November air. The wind whipped Chuck’s shaggy blonde hair into his face. It picked up the tail of his wrinkled blue Brooks Brothers shirt and flapped it against his cold backside. His jacketless body was just one of his issues. His shivers, and the hairs standing on end, on his arms and under his socks and on his temples and slowly creeping into the sensitive hollows behind his ears, came from other and more compelling sources than lack of layers: fear, loneliness, despair, shame, DTs.

The Carmel Valley night sky was clear, full of stars, the moon bright and close to fullness. The stark sky was crystalline, calling, begging Charles to look upward to share its sparkling pulchritude, but Charles’s eyes were clouded with tears.

In a shaky hand, he addressed an envelope to his mother by flashlight, unaware of the call of the stars above him, the soft breeze on the path rustling the willows, the trickling, tinkling sound of the river splashing its way over rocks that usually made him want to unzip his trousers and water a bush. He stopped to light a cigarette, curving his body and cupping his hand over the Zippo. He brushed sparking ashes off his bare arm, exposed by rolled-up shirt cuffs. His trembling fingers slipped and poked the ballpoint pen through the paper several times, staining his khaki pants.

Lady Charlotte Huffington
Buchram Place
London SE

Christ Almighty, Chuck mumbled to himself as he scratched his note. He sniffled his running nose and wiped the tears he wasn’t crying onto his sleeve. How could I have done that? I don’t even like Fox Wyman. Hghmph. I don’t really like her perfect sister, Nana either, but look at that mess! 14 years of that! Ugh! What am I doing? Well, I know what to do now. I’ve been working up to this. It’s settled then.

Chuck finished his writing business, sluiced icy-cold Carmel River water over his not-crying face to clear the not-cried tears and trudged his way back up Schulte Road to the farm. He took his time. No country boy, our Charles Huffington: his nocturnal peregrinations were few, and his shoes were slip-on, thin-soled, citified. He waved his little flashlight into the bushes, spotted the bright orange eyes of a fox, or maybe that was a raccoon. No more foxes for him! He scratched his way along the pavement for about three hundred yards until, in his beam of battery-operated luminosity, he picked up Sweet Farm’s dirt driveway to the left.

He stopped by the blue VW Split Window Sedan, new to him and Nana, but old to someone: rust peeled the paint off by layers—brown-sugary crusts attesting to years of Pacific Ocean-side parking. He placed the addressed and stamped envelope on top of his suitcase in the tiny backseat. He retrieved his jacket from the front seat and put it on. His feet whispered up the walkway to the house. He carefully slid open the glass door, stepped in, closed the door behind him, took off his shoes, gathered them under his arm, and in his stocking feet, crept into the Adobe House, his home for almost twelve weeks, like a cat burglar. He slowly sock-skated to the piano, picked up some papers off the bench and tiptoed down the hall into Jolene’s room. He tapped her on the shoulder and Jolene jumped awake with a yelp.

“Sssshhhhh... It’s OK, Joey, it’s me. Daddy.”

“What is it? You all right?” Her voice was sleepy, surprised.

“Spiffing, Poppet. Come out to the yard so we have pr-r-r-i-ivacy.” Pr-r-i-i-vacy. Was he slurring his words? His Britishness got all uppity when he was drinking, compensating. Even Jolene at 12 got that. In his right hand he held some papers close to his chest and over that, in his left hand, his conductor’s baton.

Jolene looked at her clock. “Daddy, It’s 2 in the morning. Can’t this wait?”

“No. No...” he whispered as he slipped on his shoes. He was clearer-eyed by then, the splash of water and late night walk home in the wind having braced his shakes a little, but the distress surely showed on his face. “No, it definitely cannot wait. I have a train to catch. I have to go. I have to go.”

“OK, Chuck,” sighed the nervous Jolene. Crapola. She didn’t like this at all. What’s a girl supposed to do here? “I’ll get Nana.” Her mother might know what to do.

“No! Oh, God, no, you can’t. No, don’t do that. This is the point. No Nana. Come with me. Outside. Please.”

“Right. OK. OK.” Jolene grabbed her robe and slippers. Whatever this was, good or bad, she was now in the middle of it. She sighed. In the Middle Again. A good song title for Tate. She followed her father out the bedroom door and right out the little side door into the yard, away from the windows.

When he judged they were far enough away from the house to speak, Chuck faced his daughter, took her by the shoulders to steady his hands and whispered, deliberately, “Joey, I am leaving. I am going on a trip. I am going for a job. But, don’t tell, Jo. Don’t tell anyone. You’ve got to give me time to get away, because they’ll want to stop me, so don’t tell. I want you and only you to know this.”

“But, where are you going, Daddy? I thought you had a job here, at Sweet Farm? Why are you leaving? Are you coming back?”

“I will be back, Poppet. I am going to get that conductor job, but ssshh... They don’t think I have it in me, but they’re wrong. They’re wrong. I can’t stay here. I can’t pick the bloody lavender. I can’t look at my hands anymore, or do any of this. But you, you have to keep my secret. Keep my secret, honey, OK? Do not tell them.”

“Daddy, have you been drinking? Are you planning on driving?”

“I’m fine. I’m fine. Sober as a judge. Clear as a bell. Solid as a rock. For the first time in eons. Honestly. I just needed to tell you I’m going. And I’ll be calling you in three days time from my hotel room in New York, so you’ll be the first to know the good news.”

“It’s not good news that you’re leaving, Daddy.”

“Yes, yes, it is. I’ll get this job and I’ll send for you.”

“No, you won’t. But if you need this, OK, I won’t tell.”

In silence and wonderment at her beauty and perfection, Chuck looked at his daughter. His only ally. Oh, wait. His responsibility! But, no. Really. She’s better off this way. I must do this. He made her promise she would not tell.

“There’s nothing for me here, Poppet, but you.” And now you have to watch me go. I’m sorry.

And with that, Chuck pulled himself up to his full height, pushed all thoughts of who and what he was leaving out of his carefully corralled mind and boldly stepped into his future self, like slipping inside a new body, a whole different person.

He flung his errant thoughts away, a burdensome old coat, and focused on the path. One. Foot. In. Front. Of. The. Other.

He kissed his daughter on the nose, walked steadily to the old battered Bug and, in order to keep its rasping, choking, coughing, sputtering lurch into action from waking the entire Sweet Farm compound full of Nosy Parkers nestled snug and oblivious in their dozen or so beds, he pushed it down the dirt driveway to Schulte Road. He kept pushing until his sound effects were buffered by an old stand of bushy cypress trees. Then he jumped in and, with the usual rumble and cough under the hood, started up the car and was gone.

Jolene stood goose-bumped in the dark. She felt the weight of this secret knowledge like the burden of chain mail on her chest. She listened to the VW rumble away west on Carmel Valley Road and imagined her father at the wheel, whizzing by Felipe’s Fruit Stand, changing into his white tie and tails while driving at 80 miles an hour, slicking back his hair with Brylcreem (a little dab’ll do ya!), whipping out his baton which sparked and smoked and cooked itself right into a magic wand, while he transformed himself into Super Conductor, his alter-ego, his joke on himself, his best Self, he said, when looking at photos or in the mirror, ready to walk onto a stage or conductor’s podium. He was just looking for that Self. She knew he’d lost it. They didn’t joke about it any more.

She thought about getting her mother up—but then, what would Nana do now? Chase after him? No way. She wouldn’t. She hardly noticed his existence these days.

No, Jolene promised her dad. Maybe this is really what he needs. His dragon to slay. The start of a new day. I have to give him this.

She thought he was dry. Or at least not drunk. I didn’t ask him what he was going to do about the car. Maybe I’m dreaming.

Jolene went back to bed, but did not sleep until dawn, thinking about the Super Conductor and his magic wand.


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