Photo by Namroud Gorguis on Unsplash
The road from Plattsburgh to Chateaugay wound through the Adirondacks, past farms and little clusters of gas stations and McDonalds and such, just as it always did. But now there was a Dunkin Donuts where the old Dairy Queen would tempt me with deep-fried and soft-serve goodies. I had to laugh at that, as I passed the sign signaling the turnoff to the Dunkin Reserve State Forest outside Cadyville.
“Even the North Country’s got to change, I guess,” I said to the static-filled radio voices out of Plattsburgh. Soon enough, static would be all I’d hear.
I’d decided to take the long way, Rte. 374 West, just for the scenery and the time to remember. But a rainstorm was watering down or washing out whatever of the old sights I had wanted to see. And my memory wasn’t as good as it was the last time I passed through. The trip should’ve taken me something like an hour to complete. Though in my head, it was taking years. One, because of the weather, and Two, because it was taking me back forty-some years.
As if the weather wasn’t dreary enough, one place I really didn’t need seeing was the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. Even with the rain turning some of the scenery into an Impressionist watercolor, Dannemora is perpetually dreary. Its drab and chipped painted walls sit right there, not ten feet from the curbside. The exterior gave only a small taste of the depressing and dangerous world within those walls.
Passing the final tower, I took a look at the prison in my rearview mirror, like one would a traffic accident, when I hit one of Dannemora’s year-round potholes. I should have remembered how the town grew potholes like weeds and drivers were always going hub-deep in some of them when they hid beneath the shiny surface of a puddle that filled and camouflaged them. Taking another peek at my rearview mirror, to see the size of the crater my car just crashed through, I almost hit a young guy with his thumb out, who was walking by the side of the road. He dove into some weeds.
“You okay, man?” I asked after I’d pulled by the side of the road and jumped out. I found him wiping mud from his glasses, his faded denim jacket and pants covered in wet and sticky dead leaves.
“I think so. What the hell were you doin’, mister? You coulda killed me,” he said.
“I’m sorry. I hit one of those damned potholes and I guess I lost control of my car.”
“I’d say you sure did. What’re you one of those people who spend their days staring into a damn phone? Ow, my ankle,” he said as he took a step toward the road. “Jesus, bad enough I gotta hoof or hitch my way to Brainardsville, now I’ve gotta do it on a twisted ankle.”
“Jesus, I’m sorry. Um, maybe I can give you a lift. Brainardsville is on my way. Let’s get you out of the rain at least,” I said.
“That’d be cool. Thanks. Let me get my bag,” he said. He pulled an Army surplus backpack from beneath the autumn-dead bush that had shed its yellowed leaves on just about everything he wore. After he brushed most of the leaves off, he sat with his bag between his feet in the seat next to me.
“I don’t know whether to thank you or cuss you out,” the young guy said. “But a lift’s a lift, so I shouldn’t complain too much, I guess.”
“No. Anytime you can put Dannemora in your rearview mirror is a good thing, I always say.”
“You been inside?” he asked, his blue eyes widening a little. I wasn’t sure if that was in surprise or actual interest.
“A few times. Back when I worked for the newspaper in Plattsburgh. Now I’m a freshly retired guy and I figured I’d sort of retrace my steps in life while I still have the time. Now I can slow down to see the scenery I missed while I was hustling to make a deadline or blindly running for some other dumb reason,” I said.
“Apparently that’s not working out so good for you…or me,” he said, as he rubbed his ankle.
“Yeah, sorry again. By the way, my names James, but folks call me Jamie…even at my advanced age,” I said with a chuckle, extending my hand.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d keep both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, mister…Jamie. I don’t need my Grandma losing another of her own before she passes,” he said. “And my name’s Loyal.”
“Wow, now that’s a North Country name if I ever heard one. And I’ve not heard it in over forty years. Knew a guy from these parts by that name…”
“Yeah, well named for my Grandpa and there’s a lot of us around here living under that curse even today,” said.
“So where are you comin’ from?” I asked him. We still had twenty or so miles to go and WIRY lost its crackling voice a ways back. I figured small talk was all I had. Cellular service had even gone flat here in this section of the mountains, so I couldn’t even stream anything from my phone.
“Oh, you work there?”
“Oh…I see,” I said, dividing my vision between the highway and him. “Sorry.”
“Meh, it is what it is. I only did three of five to fifteen. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong crowd, if you know what I mean,” he said. He stared out the window. His words turned to steam, clouding the view until he wiped them away with his hand.
“You got any music to play? I mean real music? I’ve had too much hip-hop and country since I been inside,” Loyal said, changing the subject.
“I’m afraid not. WIRY still sucks and cellular sucks and I didn’t bring any CDs. I’m a forgetful old cuss, I guess.”
“This car doesn’t have a tape player?” Loyal asked. It sounded like he’d been away for a hell of lot longer than he’d been on earth. “My family’s truck still does.”
“No, afraid not. Why’d you ask?” I said. Now I was interested.
‘Cause I got this here tape my Grandma sorta gave me when I went inside. It’s tunes she used to play and sing for me when my Mom was alive and even after. This old tape has seen a lot of wear and tear, but I’ve fixed it with Scotch tape every time it breaks,” Loyal said as he fished in the between his feet.
“Would you mind if I played it on this?” he asked, pulling an old portable cassette player from the backpack.
“Jeez, how old did you say you are? I haven’t seen one of those in twenty years,” I said with a little laugh. “Here comes Lyon Mountain, by the way. I’d say another twenty minutes to Brainardsville.”
“Yeah. So do you care if I play this or not? It’s old stuff, tunes my Grandma loved and my Grandpa hated. Ol’ Loyal would pitch a fit and head for the bar if she played or even hummed them.”
“Sure, since I’m driving down Memory Lane today, might as well have the right music to set the mood.”
Loyal pushed the PLAY button and turned up the volume so I could hear the pops and gaps in the tape that began with the harmonized hmmmm-hmm-ummm-hmmmm-hmmmm-hmmm-ummm-hmmm-ummm of Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon, just before Simon laid down one of my favorite acoustic riffs that kicked off his song “America.”
I heard, “Let us be lovers, we’ll gather our fortunes together…” and I got that same cold sinking feeling I always did when I heard that song.
“Man, Loyal, you’re playing one of my favorites. Your Grandma has good taste.
“Yeah, she loves every song on this cassette, A-side and B.”
The sky began to brighten and I could see Chateaugay Lake to my left. I couldn’t help humming along myself. And then came the Moody Blues placing their stamp on what I always called Art Rock with “Nights in White Satin.”
“Wow, been a long time since I’ve heard this one, too.”
“Yup, my Grandma says this is Art Rock, whoever he was. I went to school with some LaRocks, though none of them was named Art.”
That cold dip from Simon and Garfunkel tired into an iceberg in my gut.
“Say, Loyal, you never told me your Grandmother’s name,” I said, almost dreading the answer.
“Her name’s Mary Grandjean,” he said.
“Oh, don’t know her.”
“But she goes by Sandy. She used to have sorta blond hair, so everyone calls her Sandy. Sandy Benson Grandjean,” Loyal said as he hit FAST FORWARD. “I really like this next one. So’s my Grandma and so did my mom.”
I closed my eyes for a second. I was afraid I knew what was coming up. I was as sure of it as I was that around the next bend was the intersection where I’d leave Loyal off for Brainardsville.
Before it even began, I started humming the intro to “Looking at the Rain.” The strings came up and then the oh-so-Canadian baritone of Gordon Lightfoot. My heart pounded and my hands sweat on the wheel.
How old are you, Loyal?” I asked.
“Twenty-three,” he replied.
“You say your Mom has passed?”
“Yep, when I was five. She ran with one of those wrong crowds, too. Driving home drunk, she went off 374 and…that was that.” Loyal sighed against the window. I mouthed the words, “Wishing this was all a dream…and I’d find you sleeping when I wake…”
“You say somethin’, Jamie?” Loyal asked.
“No, son, just love the words to this song. Always meant a lot to me,” I said.
“Yeah, sometimes poor old Grandma wipes her eyes when she hears it. Well, here’s where I get off I guess,” Loyal said. He seemed so much calmer just from playing those songs.
“Let me drive you to your Grandma’s. I don’t want you making that ankle any worse.”
“No, really, it’s okay.”
“Please, let me. It’s the least I can do,” I said. Was I sounding frantic?
“Okay, just hang a right on 190 and then your first left onto Church Road. It’s the first house on the right,” Loyal said. I could see the excitement in his eyes, could sense his heart beginning to beat harder, faster, too.
If he felt my chest, I’m sure he’d ask to be let out now.
“This is it right here. That’s my Grandma’s place with the redwood porch.”
A woman in her late fifties or early sixties hurried out the door, off the steps and trotted to the road as I slowed the car to a stop and Loyal jumped out into her tearful hug.
“Oh, Loy, I’ve missed you so. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to pick you up, but the battery went on the truck again and I didn’t have someone who could jump it or change it,” she said.
She looked a little rounder, shorter, and tired. But that voice I’d never forget.
“Well, it’s okay. I got a ride just a couple of blocks from the prison from Jamie here. Jamie, this is my Grandma, Sandy Grandjean,” Loyal said. His grandmother leaned to look at my face through the passenger side window. Her joyous expression quieted, but her eyes widened to their old sapphire glory.
“Thank you. I‘ve been so worried about him. Even getting home today. Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?” she said. Sandy turned her head to get a better look at my face.
“No thank you, ma’am. I’ve got to be up the road in Chateaugay in about a half-hour. See an old friend. But I appreciate it. And, by the way, I also appreciate your taste in music. That old cassette brought back a lot of memories,” I said.
“Sorry, Grandma. Grandpa got it for me before he passed,” Loyal said.
“I thought he threw it out after all these years,” Sandy said. “Well, I’ve lived the past couple of years without it. It’s the second copy of the original. But I’m a hundred times happier that I have you back than that old tape. Oh, I’m sorry, Mister…Jamie?”
“Hey Grandma, we were just listening to this when we drove up,” Loyal said as he hit PLAY again. Lightfoot sang:
Waiting for a line to fall
Telling you it’s all a big mistake
But the words won’t come
I know I’d feel the same
Looking at the rain
Sandy just stood silent for a second and then leaned back into my window, and said, “Thank you, Jamie, for giving me my grandson…again. And that old music, too. God bless you.”
“You’re welcome, Sandy. God bless you, too. Best of luck, Loy,” I said. I slowly pulled away, but looked back in the rearview mirror. There Sandy stood, watching me drive off like the last time I saw her.
I shook my head at how life winds and winds, but sometimes brings you back to people and places you missed from your first time.
It was then I recalled what the next song was on that old cassette, a mix-tape before mix-tapes got that name. I knew it because I put it there, as well as on the CD I replaced it with years ago, the one my wife hated hearing because I’d get all quiet, distant she said, when I played it. And I started hearing that old Fairport Convention song, the one I replaced on my CD with the solo Sandy Denny version, because…Sandy.
Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?
Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know it’s time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
I do not count the time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?
And I am not alone while my love is near me
I know it will be so until it’s time to go
So come the storms of winter and then
The birds in spring again
I have no fear of time
For who knows how my love grows?
And who knows where the time goes?
This is an afternoon’s work (or joy, since that’s what I experienced writing it). It was inspired by three photos from Canadian writer and teacher Sarah Salecky. I used one of them as the illustration. I was supposed to center on the sense of sight, but I think hearing barged in, too. But so much of this story is found between the lines in the things Jamie sees in the rearview mirror of his mind. At least that’s my story…