The Kinsman Ridge
“Ninety eight, ninety nine, a hundred.” My son Corey stopped at a fallen beech tree. He sat on the stump, crossed his chubby legs, and looked at me expectantly.
I had promised Corey a raisin every hundred steps. The idea, which at first had seemed inspired, was to give him an incentive to exercise. The way I imagined it, Corey would munch his raisins on the march. But in reality he sat and chewed each raisin as slowly and thoughtfully as a panda. By the time he swallowed, his pulse had dropped all the way to its resting level.
Up ahead the trail bent and steepened as it climbed the valley wall.
“Ready to go?” I asked.
“These are good,” Corey said. “I never had yellow raisins before. It makes sense, though, cause raisins come from plums and sometimes plums are yellow inside.”
“Raisins come from grapes,” I said. “They’re dried grapes.”
“Oh. Mom says they come from plums.”
“We can look it up later.” There was no point contradicting Millicent. I had vowed not to put Corey in the middle.
Corey uncrossed his legs; like his mother, he crossed them at the knee. At first I thought he would stand up, but instead he stuck his hand into his pocket and came out with an oyster cracker for his dog, Shagbark. Corey cupped the cracker in his hand, letting Shagbark lick his palm and fingers. It seemed to me that, before getting a treat, Shagbark ought to display some desirable behavior—ought to sit, perhaps, or at least stop licking his groin. But I had opinions about a lot of things, and I needed to pick my battles.
“When’ll we get there?” Corey asked.
“The lake? Twelve thirty, maybe later. Kinda depends on your raisin breaks.”
“Do they really serve mooseburgers?”
“Yep. And sweet corn and chocolate cake. You eat everything with your fingers, to keep dishes to a minimum. Everything tastes better, Cor, after a long hike.”
Corey stood up. “Come on, Shagbark.” The dog leaned into the trail, choking on his collar and wheezing asthmatically. Shagbark was a mix of some kind, but he lacked the best characteristics of his component breeds. He had a terrier’s beard, for example, and a terrier’s folded ears—but terriers don’t shed, whereas Shagbark left milkweed tufts of orange and black fur all over the beige upholstery of my rental car.
Corey counted his steps—“six, seven,...”—as he and Shagbark rolled out ahead of me. While he was sitting, the striped hem of Corey’s shirt had ridden up his back, exposing a juicy crescent of pale skin. Was he this fat back in June? It didn’t seem possible for an eight-year-old to outgrow a shirt in ten weeks. But Corey had spent those weeks at his grandmother’s house, where the television was always on, and every table and countertop offered a glass jar of Gummi bears or a bowl of chocolate-covered peanuts.
I thought involuntarily of the gingerbread witch, fattening Hänsel in a cage. To distract myself, I looked into the forest.
It had been years since I’d spent any time in New Hampshire. On my computer screen, back in California, I’d replaced the blue desktop with a photograph of New Hampshire’s Cannon Mountain—a live shot, updated every twenty minutes—but it wasn’t the same. In my office I didn’t smell pine needles, didn’t hear katydids and black-capped chickadees, didn’t feel sweat soaking through the bandages around the splint on my wrist. In my office the branches didn’t sway; the soft light didn’t trickle through beech and maple leaves to pool on an understory of sorrel, fern and clubmoss.
And in my office, I was three thousand miles from my son.
I was missing four days of work to take Corey to New Hampshire. Four days of not fixing bugs, not adding features, not testing prototypes. Four days when some unknown competitor in Redwood City, or in Bangalore, was catching up to us, or building on an already established lead.
I doubt I had taken off four days, including weekends, over all of the last six months. If I had, I might still be with Corey’s mother.
“A hundred.” Corey stopped at a fallen maple trunk. For dramatic effect, he spun round on one foot, nearly toppling before he grabbed an upright branch. “Whoa,” he said amiably. I passed him a raisin.
“Nice pirouette,” I said. “What happened to your hiking boots?”
“They didn’t fit.” He popped the raisin into his mouth.
“You’re a 5D, aren’t you? Were they too big or too small?”
Corey made an indistinct noise, pretending that he couldn’t speak clearly while he chewed a single raisin. I could tell the boots fit just fine. I had given them to him just the day before, after his eighth birthday party. They were fabulous hiking boots, heavy and solid like my own, handmade by New Hampshire’s Limmer family, whose grandfather used to shoe the Austrian army. Instead of wearing his Limmers, though, Corey was climbing a steep grade in thin socks and tennis shoes whose soles were worn as smooth, evidently, as ballet slippers.
When Corey swallowed his raisin, I handed him a plastic water bottle. He took it and started to drink at a rate that would impress any fraternity in the country. “Don’t drink too much,” I told him. “The raisins in your stomach will turn to grapes.”
Corey lowered the bottle and wiped his mouth. “Plums,” he said. “Shagbark, sit.”
Shagbark lowered his haunches about halfway to the ground, and Corey started to tilt the bottle toward his mouth. “For God’s sake, Cor,” I said. “Don’t let the dog lick the bottle.” Already Shagbark’s tongue was smearing the neck, soaking up drops of spittle and condensation.
“But he’s thirsty.” When Corey raised his eyes toward me, Shagbark saw his opening and seized the bottle in his mouth. He trotted quickly downhill, the bottle spurting water onto the trail as Shagbark’s feet slapped the mud. He looked back furtively over one shoulder, as though unsure whether we’d noticed his theft.
I started after Shagbark, and he sped up and disappeared around the switchback. When I caught up with him, he was lying in a patch of New England asters, holding the bottle between his paws and nursing it. I stamped on his leash, grabbed the loop handle, and yanked Shagbark abruptly to his feet. I plucked the bottle out of the asters, but by now it held only a splash of water, and the plastic around the neck had been chewed to a nubbly white.
Corey had just rounded the switchback when I straightened up. I handed him the muddy leash. “Wrap that around your wrist,” I said. “The bottle’s shot, but I guess that’s okay. We can drink from the streams.”
“No, we can’t,” Corey said. “They can make you sick.”
“That’s ridiculous. Who told you that?”
Of course. Millicent’s mom was so paranoid. “Corey, people have drunk stream water for thousands of years.”
When we reached the first stream, though, Corey and Shagbark remained stubbornly on the trail while I clambered down into the stream bed. It was a lovely shallow stream, a thin glaze of water braiding smoothly over a bed of amber-colored stones and sand. I bent to one knee and cupped water in my hands. “Beautiful,” I said. “Look at how clean this is.”
“It’s all brown,” Corey said.
“The sand and rocks are brown. The water’s clear.” I lowered my lips and drank. “Sweet and cool. Almost glacial.” I patted water onto my face and rubbed it onto my bald spot. “Ahh.” The water trickled down my neck and under my shirt collar.
Shagbark hunched his neck down toward me, but Corey leaned back and held the leash taut. Like his mother at stubborn moments, Corey crossed his arms over his chest.
“Don’t tease me, Dad,” he said.
~ ~ ~
“I can’t believe you’re even considering this.”
Millicent stood barefoot in the cold, damp sand. Like a lot of East Coast transplants, she had seized on the ideology that, even in January, it could never be cold in California. It just wasn’t cold, okay? The clouds hung low over Half Moon Bay; it had rained that morning, and a thin mist of cold droplets pricked my skin. The temperature couldn’t have been much over fifty—forty-five, it felt like, when the wind surged in from the ocean. Yet Millicent wore summer-white capri pants and a sleeveless yellow sweater. Her chin tucked into her neck, and her arms crossed stubbornly under her breasts.
“It’s a good opportunity,” I told her. “A promising market. Perspective tools for computer graphics.”
“Perspective,” she said. “That’s rich.”
“Sanjay’s got a great name for it: Vanishing Point Software.”
She snorted. “Even better.”
A Frisbee spun into the beach near my right foot, pitching up a divot of wet sand. “Pretty good, Cor,” I called. “That almost made it. Remember to spin it. Use your wrist.” Corey stood about twenty feet downshore, his hood raised, his hands pulled up into the sleeves of his anorak. I was pretty sure he couldn’t hear us from there, but we were about to raise our voices. “Why don’t you take a few steps back?”
I spun the Frisbee high over Corey’s head, and he turned to run after it. He held his arms stiff as he ran, and his anorak sleeves flapped in the wind.
I turned to Millicent. “This is different,” I said. “The business plan is solid. The first round of financing is already lined up. And Sanjay’s going to be CEO. I trust Sanjay. It won’t be like last time.”
“Will you come home at ten?” she asked.
“Startups move fast.”
“Then it will be like last time.”
I looked downshore. Next to a grassy dune, Corey was crouching to pick up the Frisbee. With his hands pulled up into his sleeves, he tried to pick up the Frisbee by pinching it between his wrists.
I turned back toward Millicent. “What do you want me to do?” I asked. “You want me to keep working as a systems administrator?”
“I want you to keep coming home for dinner.”
“Installing Windows security patches? Warning office managers not to open email attachments?”
Millicent spread her arms. “There’s more to life, Carl. Look around you. It’s Saturday, and you’re at the beach with your wife and son. How many times did we do this when you were at Reconstruction Software?”
“Startups are a gamble,” I said. “You squeeze a whole working life, all its sacrifices, into a couple of years. Reconstruction failed, but that’s normal, frankly. Almost everyone fails on the first try. You learn some lessons, you regroup, and in the end that first failure becomes chapter one in a larger success story.”
“How many chapters are there? Six?”
“I can’t give up,” I said. “If I give up, then that first setback becomes the whole story, a waste of two years. I’ll be bitter. If I keep going, if I try and make this work with Sanjay—”
Corey stood about twenty feet downshore. He pulled his hand out of his sleeve and tossed the Frisbee feebly toward me. The wind flipped it over and slammed it into the sand.
“Flick it, Corey!” I shouted. “It won’t fly straight unless you make it spin!”
“Don’t yell at him,” Millicent said.
“I’m not yelling. But he’s seven and a half. He should be able to throw a Frisbee.”
Corey trudged after the Frisbee, kicking the sand.
“And who should have taught him?” Millicent asked.
~ ~ ~
“Sixty [smack], sixty-one [smack], sixty-two [smack], [smack]ty-three.” Corey swatted at his arms and legs as he climbed in a slow, labored rhythm.
“You want some more bug repellent?” I asked him.
“It doesn’t help,” he told me. “I think they like it.” Mosquitoes drew to Corey like worshippers crowding the altar at communion. One mosquito whined into my ear canal, but withdrew abruptly when she heard that sweaty eight-year-old was the blue plate special.
“We’ll put on more repellent at your next raisin break,” I said. “The good news is, mosquitoes don’t like altitude. The lake should be pretty much bug-free.”
“Seventy-one [smack].” Corey swatted the back of his thigh, leaving a bloody smear under a crumpled black carcass.
“When I was a teenager,” I told Corey, “I’d stand shirtless in the woods and let them cover me. Then I’d beat my upper body like a tom-tom, killing as many as I could. The more I finished off, I figured, the fewer there’d be in the next generation.”
Corey swatted the side of his neck. “Eighty.”
“Guess it didn’t work,” I said.
We reached a steep, washed-out stretch, a tangle of tree roots laced among mud, puddles, and boulders. I said, “It looks slippery up there. Brace your feet on the roots.”
“Okay,” Corey said, making no effort to comply. The mud barely stuck to the soles of his shoes, which were so worn that he’d been able to draw a comic strip on them in ball-point pen. He was climbing so slowly that when he lifted his heels I could read the strip’s title in its entirety: Shagbark on the Fifth Moon of Jupiter.
“Ninety-nine, a hundred.” As Corey turned to sit, one sneaker slipped, and his tailbone dropped too quickly onto the Conway granite.
“You okay?” I asked.
His chin barely moved when he nodded.
I unzipped my day pack and pulled out a tube of insect repellent. I opened a fresh box of raisins and plucked one out for Corey, then reconsidered and dug up two more. “Something extra for your trouble,” I said.
Corey chewed slowly. “What else you got?” he asked. “Any chocolate?”
“I don’t buy candy,” I told him. “You know that.”
Above his shoulder a sign read, Lonesome Lake. 1.1 mi. 600 vert ft. I did some mental arithmetic. The climb to Lonesome Lake was supposed to be an hour and a half, but we’d hiked forty-five minutes and still had two-thirds of the trail to go. At this rate, we wouldn’t order lunch until one forty-five. I wasn’t sure Corey could last that long.
I said, “Why don’t I take the lead.”
Corey swallowed the first raisin, and set the second slowly on his tongue. “Okay,” he said indistinctly.
When we resumed climbing, I set a faster pace. My Limmer boots are so heavy and balanced that they have their own natural rhythm. You just lift one foot, and a sort of pendulum motion takes over. Earlier, walking behind Corey, I had held back. But now I let the Limmers set the pace.
Corey kept up nicely at first, or rather Shagbark did. At the end of his taut leash, the dog was evidently trying to insert his nose between my buttocks.
“Can you make him stop that?” I asked.
“Bad dog,” Corey said. But his voice lacked conviction.
~ ~ ~
Driving home from Vanishing Point Software, I stopped at the Indian buffet on El Camino Real. I’d been so busy I’d forgotten to eat either lunch or dinner, and I already had an inkling it would be unwise to come home empty-handed. When I opened our apartment door, Millicent was sitting on the sofa in the living/dining room. She sat cross-legged on the middle cushion, with knees and elbows pointing sharply toward the open cushions next to her, as though daring me to try and sit down.
She didn’t look up. Instead she stared at the television, switching channels furiously.
I stepped sideways into the galley kitchen and set the takeout bag on the counter that looked into the living/dining room. I dropped my keys onto the counter, noisily, and when she still didn’t look up I finally spoke.
“I stopped at that Indian place,” I said. “Brought you something.”
I waited for her to ask what I’d brought, but she didn’t.
“It’s your favorite.” I sang the syllables out: “Al-oo gho-bi….”
“Uh huh,” she said flatly, her eyes fixed on the television.
“Do you want me to heat it up?”
She shook her head. “We ate already. At seven.”
I looked at my watch. It was ten forty-five. “Is that what this is about?”
“What what’s about?”
I waited for her to say something else, but she didn’t. I walked into the living area, but could only get as far as the area rug before the magnetic repulsion around Millicent started to push me back.
I shoved forward and perched on the arm of the sofa. “Mill,” I said, and paused, “I know my hours are hard on you. But we are so close.” I pinched together my thumb and forefinger. “Tomorrow morning we’re seeing some venture capitalists for a second presentation. If the demo goes well, the funding will buy us four employees for eighteen months.”
“That’s great.” Millicent shut her eyes. “Another eighteen months.”
“You don’t see the big picture, Mill. If Vanishing Point takes off, it won’t matter that the first couple years were hard. We’ll own a big chunk of a company that’s worth something. We’ll move out of this cramped little apartment and buy a big old Victorian with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Our time in California will be a success.”
Mill stood up. She walked to the glass door and stared out over the balcony. From the window you could see the kidney-shaped pool in the courtyard apartments across the street. A patch of blue light danced on Millicent’s forehead.
“I just got off the phone with my mother,” she said.
This was rarely a good sign.
“Jesus,” I said. “It must be one in the morning out there.”
“We’ve been talking since Corey went to bed.”
Almost two hours. “What did you talk about?”
“How I’ve been feeling. Isolated. Neglected. Corey, too. He spends all his time at home because he doesn’t have any friends.”
“That’s one theory. Maybe he stays home to keep his mother company.”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re not happy here.”
“I know. You’ve never tried.”
“It’s true. You’ve never tried to make things work in California.”
“Carl,” Millicent said. “Mom said we should come back to Boston.”
“We’ve been over this,” I said. “Boston is professional suicide. The 128 corridor’s been dead for ten years.”
Mill turned toward me, finally, and I saw that her eyes were red.
“No one expects you to go,” she said. “Mom was talking about me and Corey.”
I shook my head. “What?”
“The school year’s almost over. We’ll have a couple of months to get on our feet. We can stay with her, she said, while I look for a job.”
I don’t know how long I was silent. I felt I was waking from a coma, and just beginning to understand what had been happening over the past six months.
Finally I said, “Oh no.”
“It doesn’t matter to me, Carl, if I live in a little apartment in Sunnyvale or a mansion on Nob Hill. I just can’t live alone any more.” She breathed in sharply through her nose. “I’m sorry.”
I said, “Please, Mill. What can I do to keep you here?”
“You can’t,” she said. “You won’t. We both know it.”
After Mill went to bed, I sat by myself in the common room, flipping channels with the mute on. I thought about Alan, a developer from my first startup, a skinny pale guy with a three-day beard. Alan was single, and once told me that he always kept the TV on in his apartment, just for company, he said, just to hear chatter and see friendly faces. Soon that would be me.
I was exhausted but I knew I wouldn’t sleep. Partly I was too keyed up, and partly I didn’t want to close my eyes knowing that tomorrow would be the first day in a very different life.
After a while, I set down the remote control and walked over to the counter where I had thrown my keys down. I inspected the metal flash drive on my key ring, wondering if I had dented it. There were slides for my presentation on that flash drive, and while the presentation didn’t seem so important now, it did seem like all I had left.
I carried the flash drive over to the computer table and inserted it into the back of my laptop.
~ ~ ~
As I climbed ahead of Corey, beech and sugar maple gave way to red spruce and the sharp, acrid scent of balsam fir. I looked back for Corey at every bend in the trail, and when I couldn’t see him anymore I sat on a boulder and waited.
Through the trees I could see across the Franconia Notch to Mount Lafayette. Below Lafayette’s bare summit, the spruce and fir trees looked as small and fine as clubmoss. It was hard to believe they were less than a day’s hike away. None of the perspective tools we’d developed at Vanishing Point could begin to create such a sense of depth. I moved my head left and right, noticing how the nearby trees moved while the distant mountaintop remained still. You could never do that on a computer. Or maybe you could. Maybe you could develop a user interface that sensed when the viewer was moving his head.
Metal tags jangled, and when I looked downhill I saw Shagbark trotting toward me. Shagbark, alone, without Corey. I stood up. “What’s going on?” I asked, as if this unruly mutt, who barely sat on command, could somehow answer urgent questions with coded barks.
I grabbed Shagbark’s leash and let him pull me downhill. When we rounded the switchback, I saw Corey lying on his side, propped on one elbow, his leg bent under him. I broke into a trot. “Corey!” I shouted. What kind of father was I? What kind of man loses track of his eight-year-old son on a slippery mountainside?
I pulled up next to Corey and crouched. Shagbark leaned forward and sniffed his armpit diagnostically. “I slipped on a rock,” Corey said. His face was queasy.
“Can you stand?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Which leg is it?”
“Left.” I immediately felt foolish. Of course it was the left leg. That was the leg with mud smeared on its shin.
“Knee or ankle?” I asked.
I held his foot and swiveled it around. “Does that hurt?” I asked.
“A little,” he said, but he hadn’t winced.
“Are you sure? It doesn’t feel stiff or anything.”
His eyes fixed on the ankle, as though searching for a hint of injury. “Maybe it’s okay,” he said with faint surprise.
“Let’s have a look at your knee.” I reached into my jacket for some water to wipe away the mud—but the bottle, of course, was empty. I looked at Shagbark, who stared blankly from under his arched, white, old-man eyebrows. His eyes gave no apology for taking the water bottle, and no offer to compensate by licking the mud off Corey’s leg.
I licked the side of my thumb and smeared away most of the mud. “Here’s your problem,” I said. There was a raw patch below the kneecap, about the size of a flash drive. “Let me put some iodine on this. It’ll sting, but just for a minute.” I dug the plastic first aid kit out of my windbreaker, and picked out the iodine and moleskin. While I was smoothing the moleskin onto Corey’s knee, another father climbed by with an athletic teenaged son. “Give him a Purple Heart,” the father said. I didn’t bother to laugh.
“You think we should go back?” Corey asked.
“It’s not much further.” I gave him a raisin for strength. “I know how you feel,” I told him. “Almost like you’re going to throw up?”
“This is going to sound strange,” I’d said, “but the best thing you can do, probably, is to walk it off. Why don’t you try putting some weight on that leg?” I took his hand and helped to his feet. “Take a few steps,” I told him. “I’m right behind you.”
Corey started uphill with a theatrical limp, as though he were trying out for the last act of Rigoletto. “Onetwo, threefour, fivesix….” After the twelfth step, I started walking slowly behind him. Shagbark tugged the leash, but I pulled him back. From now on, I told myself, I’d let Corey set the pace.
As we rounded the switchback, Corey’s steps evened out, and I was just starting to relax when he abruptly sat down on a birch stump.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him. “Is your knee bothering you?”
“That’s a hundred steps,” he told me.
“Are you sure? It seems like we just started.”
“I counted. Weren’t you listening.”
I dug out a raisin. While Corey chewed, I realized what had happened. The limp had introduced a new style of counting. Before the fall, Corey counted only his left foot, “one [right], two [right],” but afterward he counted both his left and right, first limping “onetwo, threefour,” then walking more steadily, “sixtyone sixtytwo sixtythree sixtyfour.”
I didn’t like the implications. In the startup world, we talked about our burn rate: how close were we to a viable product, how quickly were we burning through cash, people, and patience? Corey’s burn rate didn’t look good right now. He was walking more slowly, taking twice as many breaks, eating twice as many raisins. When I’d planned this hike, six little boxes of raisins had seemed like more than enough. But here was Corey, on double rations, working deep into box number five.
In my pocket I fingered the sixth box nervously. It was almost one-thirty. I was getting peckish myself.
~ ~ ~
I had arrived at Mill’s parents’ house the night before, just after the guests cleared out from Corey’s eighth birthday party. As far as Corey knew, I’d been unavoidably delayed when my connecting flight was grounded in Chicago. In truth, my connection had gone smoothly and I was already in Boston’s Logan airport when I called to say I couldn’t make it. Under the circumstances, there was no way I could spend three hours in the same room with Mill’s mother.
Mill answered the door, alone. She was dressed lightly—a spaghetti-strap tank top and denim shorts, blond hair cut in a pageboy. She dressed like a teenager, actually, which I took as a hopeful sign. I imagined her reverting to teenaged habits, as she used to when we visited her parents at holidays. I imagined her watching television till one in the morning, eating ice cream out of a cardboard pint, then sleeping till ten. I didn’t like to consider the alternative, so I didn’t ask. If Mill was acting like a grown-up—comparing school districts, trying to land a decent-paying job—that meant she wasn’t coming back to California. And neither was Corey.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m sorry I missed the party.”
“That’s okay. I’m glad you came.”
The only light in the entrance hall came from the stairwell behind her. Shadows deepened the hollows above Millicent’s collarbone. A murmuring sound trickled down the stairs: nighttime baseball, the Red Sox.
“Your dad’s watching the game?” I asked.
“And Mom’s at the grocery store.” Mill smiled. “So you’re safe.”
I looked down at the plastic bag hanging from a string on my wrist. “I brought him a present,” I said. “Hiking boots.”
“Let me guess.” She shut her eyes and pressed two fingers to her temple. “Limmers?”
I raised the bag and peered into the mouth. “Uncanny,” I said.
“I’m sure he’ll like them.” She turned and ushered me into the foyer. “This is good, what you’re doing. Spending the weekend with him.”
“I’m not going to miss my son’s birthday,” I said, a little fiercely. Three weeks ago, I had woken in a panic with that very same thought.
“He misses you,” she said, as though she had nothing to do with that. “I can tell.”
We walked past the foot of the stairs. Mill bent to switch on a table lamp in the hallway. An inch of bare skin peeked out between her tank top and her shorts.
“What about you?” I asked when she straightened. “Do you miss me?”
Mill locked on my eyes. “You know I do,” she said. “I’ve missed you for years.”
Which was true, I’m sure. Though we’d only been separated ten weeks.
I swallowed, and changed the subject. “Where’s Corey?”
“On the back porch.” Mill stood aside and waved me down the hall. As I passed, she looked down at the splint on my left wrist. “What happened there?” she asked.
“Too much typing,” I said. “Goes with the territory.”
“Not carpal tunnel?”
“No,” I said, though actually I wasn’t sure. “Just a little tendonitis. A few days off will be good for it.”
When I creaked open the French doors that led to the porch, Corey looked up from the book he was reading on the vinyl sofa. “Hi, Dad!” He ran toward me and wrapped his arms around my waist. The side of his head pressed against my breastbone, which meant he was taller than I remembered. He felt rounder and softer, too. The next time I see him, I thought, his head will be closer to my collarbone. One day I’ll show up to find his voice has changed and he doesn’t want to hug me at all. I fought the impulse to throw him over one shoulder, carry him out to the car and stuff him into the trunk. I held him until he squirmed, and barely stopped myself from asking, Are you coming back?
Toenails clicked on the porch tiles. A cold wet nose pressed the back of my knee.
“Hello.” I stepped back. “Who’s this?”
The nose probed toward my fly.
“I haven’t named him yet,” said Corey. “Maybe Shagbark?”
Corey nodded. “Grandma gave him to me.”
“Grandma,” I repeated, half to myself. She was nailing them down. Corey had a dog now, and she’d probably found him a spot in a good school, maybe even private. I was sure his birthday party had been full of kids his age, kids she hoped would be his new friends.
I said, “I brought you something, too.” I held out the shopping bag with my right hand. With my left hand, the one in the splint, I tapped Shagbark’s sniffing nose away from my fly.
“Thanks.” Corey seemed to reach for the bag, but instead of taking it he grabbed Shagbark’s collar. “I’m going to start training him this weekend.”
“We’ll be in New Hampshire,” I said. “I’m not sure a motel will take this guy.”
“Okay,” Corey said. “We can stay here if you want.”
~ ~ ~
“Eight hundred and six, eight hundred and seven.” Corey plodded forward, staring at his sneakers, while he counted the steps since the raisins had run out. “Eight hundred and eight, eight hundred and nine.”
“Hey, Corey,” I said. “You notice something?”
“What,” he said, without looking up.
“You’re walking downhill.”
Corey raised his head. In front of us, the needle-strewn path descended leisurely through the fir trees.
“What’s going on?” Corey asked, as though waking from a dream. “Did I turn around?”
“You made it,” I told him. “This is the Lonesome Lake Basin.”
“Uh huh. The lake sits in a big bowl, and we just came over the rim.” I pointed back. A big chunk of Conway granite marked the crest where the trail had peaked and started downhill.
“Then where’s the lake?” Corey asked.
I winked. “You’ll see.”
The trees opened gradually, and we came onto a muddy bank. For a lunch spot at one thirty, the lake was surprisingly uncrowded. On the far shore, the father and son who’d passed us earlier were skipping stones on the water. The ripples spread out, and reflected trees shimmered on the surface. Shagbark pulled for the edge of the lake and took a couple of laps before Corey restrained him.
Above the trees on the far shore stood the Kinsman Ridge. Both Kinsman peaks were broad and lush, and North Kinsman’s long arm was wrapped around South Kinsman’s shoulder.
“You made it,” I told Corey again. “I’m proud of you.” I reached out to tousle his hair, but instead the splint on my wrist clunked him on the back of the head.
“Sorry,” I said.
Corey didn’t answer.
We walked on raised planks to a pressure-treated dam, then crossed the dam to the far side of the lake. I couldn’t smell anything yet, but Shagbark tugged on his leash, as though he, at least, had caught an early whiff of grilling meat.
A muddy path led up to an octagonal building with a green tile roof: the Lonesome Lake Hut. I clambered up the stairs and threw open the door.
“He can’t come in.” The guy at the counter barely glanced up. His head was shaved, and he was kneading bread dough with the heel of his hand. “The dog, I mean. We can’t have animals near the food.”
“Okay,” I said. “Cor, can you wait outside?” Things didn’t look right, anyway. There were no other customers, just some empty picnic tables shoved under the windows. I looked at my watch; it was five minutes to two.
When the door fell shut I asked the bread-kneader, “Did we miss lunch?”
“What?” He flipped the dough over and slammed it to the cutting board.
“Lunch? Did we miss it.”
“Um.” He stopped kneading and looked up. “Actually, we don’t serve lunch.”
Behind him, at a four-burner range, a skinny kid with a goatee was stirring bones in a stock pot.
I said, “What do you mean? You’re cooking right now.”
“This is for dinner,” he said. “That’s not till seven, though, and it’s just for hikers who are staying in the bunkhouse.”
“I’m sure I had lunch here.” I spread my arms. “Mooseburgers, creamed corn, chocolate cake. We could see the lake from the window. I was with a college buddy.” It was Sanjay, actually. “This would have been, I don’t know, ten years ago?”
“That’s before my time.” He picked up a chunk of dough and pressed it into a loaf pan. “But it sounds like you might be thinking of Cannon Mountain.” He turned his head. “Hey, Steve.”
The kid at the stockpot plucked a headphone out of his ear.
“On Cannon,” the cook asked, “from the cafeteria, can you see the lake?”
“Who knows?” said Steve. “It’s so damn foggy up there.”
The bald guy shrugged.
Cafeteria? That didn’t sound right, either. I was sure I’d eaten at something with a little more character than a cafeteria.
“Have you got anything at all? I’ve got a worn-out eight-year-old on your stoop.” What I called a stoop was actually a spacious deck laid with dark-stained diagonal boards. But calling it a stoop made Corey sound more pathetic.
The cook shook his head toward a scraped-out bowl of applesauce. “We sell leftovers if we’ve got them. But by this time of day we’re usually cleaned out.”
I looked again at the skinny kid by the stove. He was a teenager, and teenagers ate all the time. A backpack leaned against the wall under the fire extinguisher. In one of the pouches, I was sure he had a private stash of candy bars and dried fruit.
I resisted the urge to jump the counter. Instead I said with forced calm. “How about some water, then? We lost our bottle. The kid’s pretty dehydrated.”
“Sure,” the cook said, nodding with imagined magnanimity. He set down his knife and walked over to the sink.
While the cook was washing his hands, I crouched at a low wooden bookcase under the picture window. Next to a chess set leaned a worn paperback with a white spine reading Family Hikes in the White Mountains. I flipped to the chapter on Lonesome Lake and confirmed that they didn’t serve lunch here. It wasn’t a recent change, either. The book was copyrighted in 1988.
The chapter ended by describing the climb from Lonesome Lake to the top of Cannon Mountain. Cannon Mountain, which had a big ski shelter with a lunch room that was open year-round. I started to give myself a pep talk. This isn’t a setback, I told myself; it’s an opportunity. At a startup you learned to tell yourself that almost automatically. If a demo went badly, you had an opportunity to improve your presentation skills. If venture capitalists denied you funding, you had a chance to present your case to more-committed investors. The most compelling success stories rarely chronicled a steady climb; instead, they were full of lost water bottles, slips in the mud, and triumph over adversity.
“You want your water?” I heard the cook set a metal cup on the counter behind me.
“Thanks.” I set the book on the shelf, stood, and picked up the cup with my good hand. The metal felt wet and cool. I wished I’d asked for a cup of my own.
When I turned toward the deck, my heart fell. Corey sat in the position that I’d left him in—slouched over with his shirt tail four inches above his waistband, his lower back a relief map of mosquito bites. Shagbark, angling for a scratch behind the ears, tried to push his head under Corey’s hand, but Corey ignored him.
Who was I fooling, with my talk of triumph over adversity? If I led Corey to the peak of Cannon Mountain, would he be proud? Would he give a better report to his mother? Had his mother been proud of me for joining a second startup?
When I opened the door onto the deck, Shagbark sprang up, pointing his nose inquiringly at the cup. “Oh no you don’t,” I said, raising the cup to shoulder level. “Not this time. Cor? You want some water?”
Corey looked up at me. “Is it clean?”
I sat down next to him. “It’s clean.” I dropped my legs over the edge of the deck and handed him the cup. He’d feel better, I hoped, once he had something to drink.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “They don’t serve lunch here. That water’s all I could get.”
Corey looked at the cup, and raised it to his lips. As he drank, I imagined I could see his cheeks plumping out.
“I did eat here once,” I said. “But I guess it must have been dinner. I screwed up.”
Corey set the cup down on the deck. Shagbark stood to lick the rim.
“Anyhow,” I said, “we’ve got some options. Behind us, up in the clouds, is the top of Cannon Mountain. It’s a ski slope in winter, and they’ve got a proper cafeteria with, I don’t know, sandwiches and stuff. And when we’re full, there’s a cable tramway, kind of a ski lift, that’ll take us down to the road. Drop us about two miles north of the car.”
“The walk to the car is flat,” I said. “That’s the good news. The bad news is that getting to the top of Cannon is also two miles, maybe even two and a half. And it’s mostly uphill. Total ascent is over a thousand feet.”
Shagbark lifted his back foot and scratched under his chin. Corey was silent.
“Until a minute ago,” I said, “that was the only option I could see. And ordinarily that would be the only option I’d tell you about. But there’s another way.” I hesitated.
“There is?” he said.
“Yeah.” I paused again. Why was it so difficult to say this? “We could go straight back down the way we came. It was two and a quarter hours up, so I doubt it would be much more than an hour and a half down. And that would take us straight to the car. Or wait. At the foot of the trail there’s that campground, with a canteen. So we could stop there, get some canned spaghetti or something. And in another twenty minutes we could be at a McDonald’s.”
“You’d let me eat at McDonald’s?” Corey asked.
“Why not?” I said. “Under the circumstances. By three thirty we could be back in the motel, watching satellite TV.” I couldn’t believe I was saying this.
Corey turned away from me and started running his nails through Shagbark’s coat.
“The top of Cannon is nice,” I told him. “Misty and cool. There are stunted spruce trees everywhere, like little Christmas trees, not much taller than you are.” I stopped myself. “But that’s not a reason to go today. We could ride up tomorrow, on the ski lift. Or we could skip it. Go some other time.”
Corey turned his head and looked past me, in the direction of Cannon.
“You can’t see the peak from here,” I told him. “All you can see is the shoulder.” I realized how forbidding that must sound. “I’m not saying we should go up there. I mean, I would go. I would go, if it were just up to me. I think it would be kind of cool to say we’d climbed a four-thousand-foot mountain, and before you were ten years old.” I looked at the moleskin and mud on his knee. “But that’s my own craziness,” I said. “It doesn’t need to be yours.”
Corey swung his legs under him. He pulled a burr out of Shagbark’s coat and flicked it into a thicket of hobblebush.
“So,” I asked, “so what’s it going to be?”
“I don’t know.” A small hardness came into Corey’s voice. “Whatever you want.”
It was a tempting answer, but dangerous. Corey’s mother had done whatever I wanted for six years. And for the last year she’d done it with about the same level of enthusiasm as Corey was showing now.
I looked at Corey’s posture—back curved forward, legs apart, mouth slightly open. It was a look I recognized, the look of the fourth day of final exams, of the twelfth mile in a marathon. It was the look Corey’s mother had when he was six weeks old and she hadn’t slept three hours in a row since before he was born.
It was my look, the exhausted stare of a computer programmer with the first signs of carpal tunnel syndrome, with thirty thousand shares in a company that would expire worthless if I didn’t soldier on.
I didn’t know how to get rid of that look, but I was pretty sure marching my son into the clouds wasn’t going to do it.
“All right,” I said. “All right. Let’s go back down.”