A novel by Todd R. Lockwood
The fifty chapters herein were written in fifty consecutive days, beginning on May 25, 2017.
(Quickly navigate to any chapter by clicking on the three horizontal lines in the upper left corner of this window.)
It’s Monday night, and it’s late. I’m stranded in the JetBlue terminal at JFK and wishing I was home. I missed the 11:16 pm flight to Burlington by one minute. Next flight out: 8:30 am tomorrow. A nearby hotel room seems like a logical plan, except that everything I’d want to have with me is in my checked bag. I’ll sit it out.
There’s only one person in sight, the guy who tests the shrieking door alarms at each gate—yet another reason to travel with noise-cancelling headphones. Song birds descend on the seats and carpeting to eat the crumbs. Bird squadrons bolt up and down the concourse, emboldened by the scarcity of humans. I can’t help but wonder if they’re showing off for the really big birds parked outside.
Stephen Kiernan’s new novel, The Baker’s Secret, beckons from my briefcase. I’m already 200 pages in. The question is, will the story continue to compel me enough to stay awake. The cast of characters has already etched in my mind. So I dive into the silence of my headphones and open to the next page. Within a few paragraphs, I’m back in northern France, in a German-occupied village. Lives are hanging by threads, making my travel predicament seem trivial.
A few hours later the story reaches its apex and tears are streaming down my cheeks. Travelers begin to arrive, and the food concessions spring back to life. I turn to the last page just as my flight begins to board. Not such a bad way to spend the night, after all.
Wednesday. My feet are back on the ground in Burlington after the all-nighter at JFK. I spent most of Tuesday sleeping it off. Now I can settle back into my routine, beginning with my morning exercises, then I’m off to coffee.
I’m walking across the Starbucks parking lot when I first notice it: a little twinge of pain in my chest, left of center, not a wincing pain, but enough to get my attention. Lasts about a second. I’ve had these little twinges for years. My doctor hasn’t been able to explain them. Typically, I’d get a few of these in the span of a few minutes. After that, I might not experience them again for weeks or even months.
But this time is different. The twinges are coming every three to five minutes, and they’ve continued right through the morning. My doctor had told me years ago, “What ever this is, it’s nothing to worry about.” I’m replaying that line in my head like a broken record.
The temperature is 75-degrees and the skies are clear. I’m just itching to get out on my road bike. Conditions like this don’t come around very often. But the twinges have been there for hours now. I decide to do a little experiment. I put on my shorts and sneakers and head out for a 20-minute power walk, just to see whether some mild exercise has any effect.
The twinges become less frequent, so I decide that a bike ride is warranted. I head out around 5 pm. A few miles into the ride, the twinges are gone, but there’s something else now: I’m feeling a tightness in my chest. Forty minutes later, I get out of the shower, and the tightness is still there. I weigh my options. The dinner hour has arrived, and I really don’t want to go to the Emergency Room on an empty stomach. From experience, I know that a visit to the ER for anything heart-related can take hours, even if there’s nothing wrong.
Now the tightness is accompanied by some pain. What if this is something serious? The Emergency Room now seems inevitable. I grab an overnight bag and pack some essentials: toiletries, a change of clothes, cell phone charger. I resist calling 911. I don’t want to freak out the neighbors with an ambulance. I can certainly drive a car. The pain is staying at a constant low level, not alarming, but it’s still there. I place a tiny bottle of nitroglycerin pills into my pocket. Better safe than sorry.
I drive gingerly up Spear Street, toward the hospital. I’m thinking about the ramifications of being kept overnight and possibly taking a visit to the catheter lab. Should I call one of my kids? As I approach the traffic light at Main Street, I notice that the pain and tightness has subsided. I veer into the right lane and turn toward the Interstate. The ER can wait. I know exactly where I want to go: to my last supper.
The parking lot at Pauline’s Café is peaceful tonight. The tightness in my chest is barely noticeable. Peter, another Pauline’s regular, is eating by himself. I ask if he’d like some company. A man in his eighties, Peter has a remarkable memory. He knows the names of every employee at the restaurant. Peter tells me that I have a knack for storytelling, and that I should be writing them down. He says I’m just getting started. When I leave the restaurant, I’m thinking about what he said.
On the way home, the chest tightness and pain returns. I get onto Spear Street again and drive straight to the ER. A nurse greets me at the front desk. I utter the words “chest pain” and get pushed to the top of the triage list. A few moments later I’m in a resuscitation room. They wire me for an EKG and install an IV line. A monitor on the wall is tracking my heart rate & rhythm. A nurse takes a blood sample and sends it off to the lab. Then time slows down.
Through the curtain I can hear a patient discussing his health history, and it’s much more serious than mine. From his voice, he sounds one-third my age, maybe younger. I can’t see him, but he says he has a weight problem along with a myriad of internal issues. Sad to think about it, to have so many health problems at such an early age. Eventually, he’s allowed to leave. All I can see is the extra-wide wheelchair they bring for him.
A kind doctor comes by to discuss my symptoms and my blood test results. She says there’s nothing obvious. She wants to order a second blood test, just to be sure. It’s getting late, and I’m getting tired. The bed is comfortable, but every time I begin to doze, the low heart rate alarm begins to ring. 37-beats-per-minute. I hear that Lance Armstrong’s resting heart rate is 32. That’s roughly one beat every two seconds. It comes from years of aerobic exercise combined with naturally low blood pressure. The fact that I’m in this category greatly reduces the likelihood of a heart attack.
An hour later, the second blood test results arrive. Negative again. I’m allowed to go home. Now the chest tightness and pain is completely gone.
Thursday morning. I sleep a little later than usual, shower, and get started with my morning exercises. I’ve been doing these exercises for close to twenty years. They were recommended by a physical therapist for a nagging shoulder pain. As soon as I get into the last exercise, bang, there it is. The twinges are back, and so is the chest tightness. I had skipped the exercises for five days while traveling and must have pushed too hard on Wednesday morning. Tugging on the bicycle handlebars only made it worse. The whole thing was just a chest wall irritation and had nothing to do with my heart.
I like to believe there’s purpose in these little excursions of terror and worry, even when they turn out to be nothing. That dinner with Peter, my last supper, may turn out to be a gift.
It’s good to be alive.
Saturday morning. Having solved the chest pain riddle, I decide it’s time to celebrate and get out of Dodge. I grab a couple of bottles of water, unplug the Tesla and point it south. There’s no plan, no destination. I call it Car Ouija. When I nudge myself away from routine, things happen—the unexpected, the unimagined, and the beautiful. I have a hunch that today will be a banner day for all of the above.
The Interstate feels like velvet. The only sounds are the gentle whir of tires and of air caressing the car. Perfect conditions for thinking. I’m trying to understand how I got to this place. It’s been one hurdle after the next. Every time I overcome one of life’s little challenges, another one pops up to replace it. It feels like I’m being tested. My guardian angel must be using all her strength to keep from intervening.
It started in November, 2016. That’s where I’d draw the line. For a lot of us, November 2016 was a reckoning. Out with the old, and in with the … well, you know. For me, there’s an added piece: my 19-year-old son left home for Marine Corps Boot Camp in November. The enormity of his commitment makes my own endeavors seem insignificant. For thirteen weeks, his welfare is the only thing I think about. Communication is limited to letters—no email, no telephone. A candle burns at my house 24-hours-a-day.
At his graduation in February I finally take a deep breath. The Marine Corps hasn’t turned him into a monster. He’s just a more focused version of himself. His sense of humor is still intact, and so is his kindness. I feel pride that I wasn’t expecting—me, the 1972 draft dodger who arrived at the induction physical looking like a concentration camp victim. But that’s another story.
My son ships out for his next phase of training, and I’m feeling good about it. He makes a fine Marine. I’m ready to take on another challenge. My dentist informs me that one of my root canals has reached the end of its life. I’m beginning to lose bone around the roots of the tooth. It’s time for a dental implant. “No big deal,” the he says. “I had one myself recently.”
So I go to a specialist for the first phase: getting the tooth pulled. I explain to the doctor that I’ve built up a resistance to local anesthetic over the years, so he gives me a double-dose. After some serious pulling, the tooth comes out. From here, it should be a walk in the park.
I’m told to expect some pain and swelling for about three days. Indeed, the pain has subsided after two days, but I’m feeling a new soreness in the back of my mouth. It’s getting more and more painful to open my mouth fully.
At day seven, I can only open my mouth a finger-width. Apparently, I over-extended my jaw during the tooth extraction, resulting in a TMJ injury. TMJ is an acronym for the jaw joint, located just in front of the ear. It’s the most complex joint in the body. “These injuries can be serious,” my dentist informs me. “Most surgical fixes don’t work.”
I contemplate the implications. Eating has already become a different experience. Food has to be scaled to my narrow mouth opening. Serious kissing is out of the question. And then there’s the issue of getting any sort of dental work done in the future. Annual cleanings will be near impossible. And the list goes on.
My dentist knows a physical therapist who specializes in TMJ problems. I start seeing him twice-a-week. The progress is slow. I’m doing various jaw exercises, but some of them result in more swelling and pain. My jaw muscle on one side is stuck in spasm.
Days turn into weeks, and weeks into months. After two months, I am finally out of pain, but I still can’t open my mouth wide enough to eat a banana. I’m coming to grips with the idea that this could be the new normal.
The doctor who pulled the tooth asks me to come by for a followup visit. He suggests that I try a dental laser treatment on my tensed up jaw muscle. I figure I’ve got nothing to lose.
The laser looks pretty serious, with its roll-around console. He slides the laser probe into my half-open mouth and runs the laser beam back and forth across the tense muscle. Within minutes, the muscle relaxes. I’m feeling relief already. After two weeks of laser treatments and PT, my jaw is opening fully again. I’m pleased to learn that my jaw joints never got damaged. It was only a pulled muscle. Bananas never tasted so good.
I’ve been silently cruising in the Tesla for almost two hours. I’m on a back road in New Hampshire. A late lunch seems like a good idea. I come upon a rambling mom & pop store, looking as though it was cobbled together from several barns. A banner hangs across the front: Country Buffet.
The buffet consists of a selection of sandwiches and salads in clear plastic boxes. The only item that remotely matches my diet is an asparagus salad: asparagus spears over greens with vinaigrette. The woman asks whether I’d like a small or large salad. Large please, and a bottle of spring water.
I’m eating the salad from the seat of my car and I notice a man standing on the side of the road. He’s carrying a rumpled grocery bag under his arm. A well-worn suit hangs from his lanky frame. His shoes are covered in dust, but there’s dignity in the way he carries himself. A car approaches. Instead of putting his thumb out, he engages the driver with a pleasant smile. The car slows, but rolls by. A second car does the same thing.
I finish the asparagus salad, swig a few gulps of water and roll out of the parking lot. I pull up next to the man and lower the passenger window. His destination is six miles down the road. He climbs in. To my amazement, he knows my name. We attended the same boarding school in the sixties. I learn that he went on to college and graduate school, and ultimately became the president of a bank in Boston.
There we go, I’m thinking. Car Ouija is doing its magic again. Eventually, his life unravelled and he moved to a farm in New Hampshire and changed his name. Nothing illegal. He says he had his priorities wrong and wished he could do it over. I tell him it’s never too late. I stop at a lone mailbox, and he climbs out. He says he was glad to see me again.
Sometime later, I’m in the resort town of Wolfeboro. There’s a decent looking restaurant on the main drag. I go inside, hang my jacket on a barstool and order a glass of wine. Then I head for the men’s room. I’m amazed at the quality of this restroom. The tile work and fixtures are first class. Looks like an architect was actually involved in it.
The urinal is one of those new fangled waterless models. How the heck do they do that, I’m wondering. I hadn’t peed since the mom & pop store, so this is fortuitous timing. The fragrance of asparagus is loud and clear.
I’m zipping up, and I notice that something feels different. My right pant leg is soaked. The unique little drain in the waterless urinal had deflected a stream of pee back in my direction. I scan the room for the paper towel dispenser. There isn’t one. Instead, it’s just an electric hand dryer, one of those new ones that you put your hands into rather than under. This isn’t going to help.
I’m hours from home and don’t have any spare clothes with me. I’m also getting hungry. So I buck up and head for the bar. That’s when I first see her from across the room, one of the most beautiful women I’ve seen in years. She’s sitting on the barstool right next to mine. There’s another couple on the other side of her, but she isn’t interacting with them. She must be alone.
I’m frozen in place, trying to sort this out. The smell of asparagus pee is wafting up from my jeans. I can’t very well grab my jacket and run. The glass of wine I ordered is sitting there. That would make no sense.
I go for broke. I mount the barstool and say to the woman, “You wouldn’t believe what just happened to me.”
“Try me,” she replies.
The sweet irony of my introduction is not lost on Julia, the beautiful woman sitting next to me at a bar in Wolfeboro. It’s not every day that peeing on your pants can be seen as an attribute. She found the whole thing quite amusing, especially the asparagus part.
I tell her a story about my dad, a veteran practical joker. At the 1964 Lockwood eggnog party, my dad slipped into the powder room. There, he found a narrow-spouted watering can with a half-gallon of water in it. Guests mingled shoulder-to-shoulder on the other side of the paper-thin door. With utmost dexterity, he trickled the entire contents of the watering can into the toilet from an altitude of 4-feet. It took forever. Outside the powder room, guests were squirming. Finally the door burst open and my dad exclaimed, “WOW! I NEEDED THAT!” The room exploded in laughter.
The second thing I notice about Julia, after her easy smile, is her hands. They’re the hands of a woman on a mission, beautiful yet capable. Her long fingers hint at her stature, which I’m guessing is well above the New England average. She seems ageless. Whatever the number is, it’s irrelevant.
I ask her if she’s from the area. Sort of, she says. Her family has had a summer place in Wolfeboro for many years. She has a condo in Boston and an apartment in Manhattan. I hesitate to ask what she does for work. I don’t want to get too pushy. Taking a different tack, I ask her if she went to college in Boston. “MIT,” she replies, “for Nuclear Physics.”
“Good God. Will you marry me?” I ask her.
“You don’t waste any time, do you?”
Julia, a PhD physicist, works at a nuclear research laboratory in Boston—not exactly what I thought of when I first saw her. Our conversation moves in six directions at once, ricocheting from subject to subject. Clearly, we have very similar wiring, and similar leanings too. We order dinner, but the conversation never pauses. She’s fascinated by my quest on this day, a journey with no particular destination. “What are your plans for tonight?” she asks.
“I haven’t thought that far ahead,” I reply.
“You’re more than welcome to stay at our house and use the washing machine.”
“I wouldn’t want to intrude. You barely know me.”
“Nonsense. You can have your pick of guest rooms,” she says. “We’ll have the house to ourselves.”
“That’s really sweet of you,” I reply. “Well... You can count on me to be a perfect gentleman.”
The house is startling—a sprawling lakeside villa surrounded by tall pines. We enter through an eight-foot-tall front door, wood as thick as my fist. Once inside, the ceiling quickly rises to twelve feet or more. Generous windows look out over Lake Winnipesaukee.
“Welcome home,” Julia says.
Julia’s family home feels familiar, an echo of my childhood summer home on Lake Placid—the high ceilings, the lake view, and the tall pines. “First things first,” Julia says. “Let’s get you out of those fragrant jeans and put them in the washing machine.” She hands me a silk bathrobe. “You can take the first or second bedroom down the hall. Each one has its own bath. Make yourself at home.”
Julia is indeed tall. Five-foot-eleven I would say. She could get away without heels but wears them anyway. Her stature sets off a wave of endorphins deep inside me. I’m six-foot-four, and I feel a physical kinship with her, going back eons. Clearly, we are from the same tribe. I feel compelled to put my arms around her, but I don’t, not just yet.
We settle in on the couch with a bottle of wine, and the conversation continues. Julia tells me more about her work, mostly related to medicine. She seems quite casual about it, as if nuclear medicine is as ordinary as marketing. I avoid asking her whether she’s been married or has children. I’ll wait for her to bring it up.
Framed photographs of her family cluster at one end of the coffee table. She lifts one frame at a time and introduces me to the various members of her family. “I’ll be testing you on this later,” she says.
There’s one photograph of Julia receiving an award at some sort of formal event. She’s shaking hands with a gentleman festooned in medals and wearing a formal military uniform. “Wait a minute,” I say. “I know that guy.”
“The King of Sweden?” she replies.
“Yes. I actually do. But you, Julia, you won a Nobel Prize?”
“I shared it with two other physicists.”
“Excuse my French, but Holy Crap!”
“How do you know the King of Sweden?” she asks.
“The King and Queen stayed at our home in Lake Placid during the 1980 Winter Olympics.”
“My, you’re full of surprises,” Julia says.
“I think you may have me beat in that department.”
“How did the King and Queen happen to stay with you?”
“It was serendipity.”
In the summer of 1979, six months prior to the 1980 Winter Olympics, my mother received a telephone call from the Swedish Embassy in Washington. They wanted to rent my mother’s parents’ home on the outskirts of Lake Placid for the King and Queen of Sweden to stay in during the Olympics. My mother’s parents had passed away, and the house was just sitting there, fully furnished, with no one in it. But my mother had already promised the house to another family. Sadly, the answer was no.
A few days later, the embassy called back and asked my mother whether she would consider hosting the King and Queen at our house instead. My mother had to think about it for about a millisecond. So we had King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Sylvia staying with us for twelve days. It was a fascinating experience. When their entourage pulled away from our house for the last time, my parents stood by the front door waving them off. Tears streamed down my father’s face. He realized that the apex of his life had just gone by.
Julia and I talk for three hours. The coincidences and similarities between our lives are surprising. It’s beginning to seem like we were bound to meet sooner or later.
“You must be getting tired,” she says, “You’ve had quite a bit of adventure for one day. I’m going to fix you breakfast in the morning, and then we’ll throw our fates to the wind.” After a pause, she says, “I’m so glad I finally met you.” She gives me a gentle kiss on the cheek, and we go our separate ways.
I’m lying in bed, dumbfounded by my good fortune. I’m hesitant to go to sleep because I don’t want to miss anything! I also don’t want to wake up and discover this is all a dream. Julia is beyond beautiful. She’s one of the most extraordinary women I’ve ever met, and we seem to have made a nice connection. My brain is still buzzing from our conversation.
I replay the evening in my mind. One moment in particular stands out. I recall two words Julia said when we first arrived at the house: welcome home. Not welcome to my home, or welcome to our home, but just, welcome home. I don’t mean to read too much into this, but it seems like she may have meant something by it.
I’m awakened by a narrow beam of sunlight piercing the curtain. The clock says 8:05. Outside, the crows chatter. I faintly hear the sound of running water. Julia must be in the shower. I throw on my clothes, including the freshly laundered jeans, leave a note for Julia on the kitchen counter, and step outside the front door. The cool morning air is rich with oxygen.
I hear the sound of someone raking the grass. I step away from the front porch, and there he is: a man in green coveralls. He stops what he’s doing, smiles, and heads in my direction. “Good morning, Mr. Lockwood. I’m Gus, your caretaker. If there’s anything I can do for you, don’t hesitate to ask. It’s very nice to meet you, sir!”
“My pleasure as well,” I say reflexively.
Stunned, I step back inside. Julia is preparing breakfast.
“Good morning, handsome. Did you sleep okay?”
“Yes, it was lovely … but I just met Gus, and he knew my name.”
“Oh, that. I just like to make sure he knows who’s on the property.”
“But he acted like I own the place,” I say.
Julia just smiles. “Where shall we go today?” she asks. “I want to be your copilot to nowhere in particular.”