I. “Mr. Johnson”
A week earlier, we finished installing crown molding in the last of our five bedrooms. The white of the molding contrasted with the hunter green walls, which we selected to complement the ferns outside the bedroom windows. The arboreal effect found completion by the dark oak bed frames that a carpenter built for us after completing the furniture for the downstairs. Three years of renovations finally resulted in the catalog-worthy interior that we imagined when we decided to purchase the house in Hollisville and transform it into a bed and breakfast.
A number of guests had come through in the ensuing years, most to spend a weekend on the lake or hiking on the trails, which to our luck, featured in “Upward Slopes” magazine the month after closing the sale. Couples on romantic getaways, families with children that would rent two rooms and the occasional widow or widower made for an engaging blend of guests. We had taken our vacations the last three years in March, but opted to skip it this year to put our finishing touches on the renovations. The phone rang on occasion, though mostly for the purpose of making reservations for the coming summer.
When Mr. Johnson asked for a week in March, we warned him that the town is sleepy in late winter, but he insisted that it was acceptable. Or so he did in his way, his response to my cautioning no more than, “that’s fine.” He was the only guest since a family from Italy, who had relatives in the area, stayed for three nights in February, and ended up huddling with us by the fire downstairs during a snowstorm that deposited nearly a foot of snow, one inch shy of the record.
Mr. Johnson arrived mid-day, the winds having done little to disturb his well-coiffed hair. I could see through his camel overcoat that he wore a blue suit with the top button of his white shirt unfastened and missing a tie. The few people who had come in the winter wore jeans and boots, due to the ice. Mr. Johnson had a polished pair of cherry brown wingtips with a single scuffmark near the big toe of his right foot. It seemed he had come up from the city, though he arrived via taxi and carried only a small duffel bag and another suit in a garment bag.
The upgrades we made to the house included thicker insulation in the walls, which prevented me from hearing the conversations held in his room. So far as I could tell, he was not speaking English, though he lacked any trace of an accent in his few instances of conversation with us. For the first three days, he failed to show for breakfast, and was quiet during dinner, not speaking in any great detail about himself, standing out from all but our most reserved of B&B guests.
We did not see Mr. Johnson the day of his departure. He was gone without a trace, his bed made and $1,000 in cash sitting on the nightstand, which was about $400 more than he owed us for the stay. We tried the number he gave us to reach him, but our attempts to contact him met a recording stating that the number was not in service
Mine was one of the last retirement parties that Industrial Steel would throw. Our corporate office, where I had spent the past thirty years rising from junior associate accountant to vice-president of finance, hosted a 300-seat auditorium spanning the entirety of the eighth floor. It served well for events, and, on occasion, employee celebrations.
In the days leading to my parting celebration, my colleagues, aided by a moving company, packed in preparation for a move to a freshly-constructed high-rise across the street. They completed the move within weeks of my departure, to an office that no longer had its own event space, which, by any means, was unnecessary, as the glistening, pristine auditorium at the former office did not see enough use to warrant its cost.
Emma, whom I had married the day following my fifth anniversary at Industrial, sat beside me on the stage. A congratulatory banner draped from the rafters, adorned with shimmering red letters reading “Congratulations Jim!” was so large that it cast a shadow on her face. She had retired not quite a year earlier from her role as a speech pathologist at St. Mary’s Hospital, since then exhibiting a malaise I attributed to a lack of direction.
Richard Jenkins, known as “Jenkins” due to his arrival subsequent to a more a senior Richard, played emcee. He projected confidence when he spoke, an attribute that I was led to believe propelled him to president of communications, and technically my superior, within a far shorter time span than I required to ascend the ranks.
My emotions remained mostly in check as he spoke at the podium, though a tear may have slipped out when he concluded, “Jim, we’ll miss you; it’s rare nowadays that someone starts and retires from the same company, you’re the first in a while and the last I can think of, and we’re glad to have had you, best wishes to you and Emma.”
III. Hollisville in My Youth
A birthday in the summer left me without a celebration of my own during the school year. My parents nevertheless threw me a party each year, inviting any friends that remained in the city during the summer, or who had not gone on vacation the weekend of each year’s bash. The celebration of my twelfth birthday broke the tradition, this being the first of several years spent passing the summer in Hollisville, a hamlet in the countryside that appeared only on the most detailed of area maps.
From our three-bedroom row house in the city, the journey to Hollisville spanned a three to four hour drive depending on the traffic, until reaching the town nestled cozily in a valley next to a small, yet endearing, recreational lake. When approaching by car, the town majestically came into view from the top of a hill, about ten miles from the highway that brought us in from the city.
We spent the month of July in Hollisville every summer from the year of my twelfth birthday through the last summer with my parents before I left home for college. I resisted the urge to find joy the first month I spent there, having left behind my friends and the summer basketball league for a place that lacked activities other than the lake and a nearby golf course that my father enjoyed but for which I had no use. Hollisville’s limited recreational offerings, against the endless options to fill the time in the city, required an adjustment that I was unable to accomplish in the first few years I visited.
The quiet air prevailed; car horns never sounded, traffic was slow and infrequent, sirens were either non-existent or unnecessary when we visited. The few sounds shattering the tranquility served up the town’s unassuming charisma: birds, rustling leaves in the summer breeze and the occasional jingle of bicycle bell.
My initial reluctance to appreciate Hollisville did not endure eternally, failing to persist with age. I grew fond of the pleasantries on offer, including the quality time there with my parents, as I passed the last two summers before I departed for my university. The houses were large, many had four to five bedrooms, but stayed cozy by the quaintly small rooms, low ceilings and ornate wordwork. In the city, we slept no more than five feet from our neighbors, separated only by brick walls and the one foot gap between the houses. In Hollisville, the grass filling the space between houses required hours to mow.
Old-world charm graced the fixtures in the house we rented. Chandeliers and crystal sconces lit the rooms on the lower floor and cast iron appliances in the kitchen were functional, if not a tad arduous, for preparation of our food. My mother cooked pies with apples and cherries from the trees on the front lawn, and on warm summer evenings, we sat in the backyard, my parents with a glass of wine, and me, often with books that I read until the sun no longer offered enough light.
Our careers, while admittedly tedious at times, brought Emma and I in contact with a good share of differing personalities and quirks. With over thirty years exposed to the varying shades of humanity at a hospital, Emma’s contacts with patients and their families providing an unending source of dinnertime conversation. I attribute at least part of our effortlessly successful marriage to the entertainment value she contributed to our evening discourse.
My work, while unquestioningly less entertaining than Emma’s, brought me into contact with plant managers, steel fabricators, salesmen and angry competitors from around the world. The combination of managers’ fiery streaks and the variety of cross-cultural business norms produced a life’s worth of dressings-down, misunderstandings and other oddities.
During an attempted meeting at a bar in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, the chief executive of an Asian conglomerate swore at Jenkins and me in a language neither of us could identify, capped by launching a full pint of beer at Jenkins’ face, soaking the only suit he brought on our trip. It was unclear to either or us what offense we caused, as we had only just entered the bar and approached him at the counter to exchange greetings. Jenkins had only elected to join me on the trip at the last minute upon learning of my destination, and while it was comedic to see him get doused in beer by a salesman in a suit, I could not avoid feeling sorry for him.
Jenkins possessed an affability in his dealings with me, that, despite our difference in age, forged us into acquaintances over the years; not friendly to the point of seeing each other on the weekends, but we would have a drink after work about every other week. He invited me and Emma to his daughter’s wedding in California, but we made up an excuse not to go for no particular reason other than lack of desire. While standing in the bar dripping wet, he looked at me and said, “I don’t think he’s going to buy” in a sort of calm demeanor lacking in any hint of the anger that might be expected from such an interaction.
Emma’s work experiences consisted of the raw emotion and unpredictable outbursts that accompany the mixture of human sufferers and their families at a hospital. Suffice it to say that we were no strangers to events out of the ordinary. With both of us retired, and Emma having endured a year more of it than me, the days drew out longer. After running errands and attending to increasing appearances with doctors, we passed most afternoons in anticipation of dinner.
Every other weekend, we spent an afternoon with our son Michael and his wife Jennifer, usually at their loft near on the periphery of the financial district, where both of them worked sixty to seventy hour weeks. Michael and Jennifer had been married for several years and reached the age where children of their own might be expected, though it seemed they were waiting for the right break in their careers. Emma and I refrained from the urge to pressure them, even though having a grandchild to care for, and spoil with our retirement funds, would have filled the time.
Three days into my retirement, the memory of the celebration at Industrial’s auditorium becoming a page of fading history, Emma and I set off on the vacation that she spent weeks planning. In our days saddled with the time-consuming burdens of employment, we took a week long vacation about once per year, with a small trip to somewhere within driving distance once or twice during the summer. She and I both considered ourselves fortunate to have traveled to a number of cities abroad, though our planning efforts were sparse and we tended to arrive lacking in specific plans.
Our first retirement trip assumed the opposite approach, owing to Emma’s free time to plan it. We spent three weeks traveling to France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, traveling on the high-speed train between destinations. Emma had performed an intricate job of planning details down to the mundane. She printed a hard copy of our itinerary before we departed for the airport, which I noted contained nearly hour by hour plans, from museums to spas to dinner reservations.
On the return flight from Rome, we spoke for two hours about how we could have seen more in our past trips if only we had taken the time to plan them. “But I guess we didn’t have the time I do now,” she mentioned, trailing off at the end as she turned to face the screen nestled in the seatback in front of her. The second day back, having spent the first day recovering from jetlag, brought the realization that we needed to fill the time with something else.
V. Back to Hollisville
Despite my fond recollection of the latter summers in Hollisville, I had not returned since the summer I reached my eighteenth birthday. While in college, I worked during the summers; my first year at a summer camp in town, the remaining two with Industrial Steel in a precursor arrangement to what became their internship program. On more than one occasion, Emma asked “what about Hollisville?” as we planned our brief summer getaways. I always considered it, but, for varying reasons, it never came to fruition. I fail to recollect a truly compelling excuse for my reluctance to agree.
We tended to be spur of the moment planners, dissimilar to many of our friends who insisted on arranging the details of vacations months in advance. By the time we could select a weekend for our trips, the nearby hotels, and even the burgeoning bed and breakfasts, would be full. Lacking the patience to identify a novel option, we complacently kept to our trusty locales, spending at least one of our trips each year at Lake Ruptokin, a man-made lake named after the dog of the proprietor of a nearby lodge that always had rooms available, albeit for a premium for a last-minute reservation.
With the daily obligation of work behind us, and the desire, even need, to identify a substitute, I queried Emma one evening over dinner, “what do you think about finally trying Hollisville this weekend?” Her eyebrows raised in conjunction with the excitement noted by her widening eyes and burgeoning grin, “great idea!, we should have no problem getting a room in April.” I learned the following afternoon that she was thankfully correct, as my search on the internet for accommodations revealed an abundance.
Neither of us had stayed in a bed and breakfast during our travels, while Hollisville carried a beaming reputation for them, leaving little doubt that we should try it. For general use, we had a comfortable sedan, one suited for our age and quasi-urban environment – if not indulgently so – but decided to rent a small SUV to make the drive through parts of the wooded terrain a little easier on my back. Both of us were impressed at the additional height advantage the car gave us on the highway, and were especially in favor of the ride on the quarter mile dirt trail leading from the paved road to the house that would play host to our first B&B experience.
Pulling into the driveway, Emma pointed out a crudely drawn but conspicuously placed sign, quipping that the red spray painted letters spelling out “For Sale” atop a large wooden plank “resembled the opening of a horror film.” Apparently in gest, she said, “maybe that means we could buy it cheap if they can’t afford a real sign.” I chuckled while stopping the car in the designated spot in the dirt, peering in amazement at the beauty of the house.
The pale-yellow facade complemented the white shutters that framed the windows on both stories and the faded blue double doors in the entryway. A paved stone walkway edged with wrought iron railing led up the four-staired stoop to the front door, on both sides of which budding flowers arrived in tandem with deciduous grass. Reminiscent of a high-end furniture store, the interior likewise did not cease to awe us. After the hosts, a couple more elderly than us, escorted us to our bedroom and poured chamomile tea from a stovetop kettle, Emma commented, “it feels like we’ve entered a storybook.” By mid-afternoon Monday, the day of our slated departure, we had negotiated a sales price and our lawyer was reviewing the disclosures. We closed on the house two weeks later.