REPLAY
by Ken Grimwood

 

NINETEEN

The blue jay, darting and flitting outside the kitchen window as it built its nest in the backyard elm tree, was the first thing Pamela saw. She watched the bird’s colourful aerial dance, took several long, deep breaths to calm herself before she looked around or moved.

She was in the process of making a cup of coffee, had been just about to insert the filter in the machine. The kitchen was cosy, familiar. Different than it had been last time, but she remembered it well from her first life, before the replaying had begun. Last replay she hadn’t spent much time in here, had been too busy in her studio, painting and sculpting; the room had taken on the character of the maid they’d hired more than of herself. This kitchen, now, bore the stamp of her own personality, or at least the personality she’d had the first time around.

There was a Barbara Cartland novel lying open on the table, and next to it a copy of Better Homes and Gardens. Various clippings and notes to herself were stuck to the refrigerator door with little magnets shaped and painted like tiny ears of corn or stalks of celery. A drawing she’d done of the children – well executed, but without the finer skills of lighting and composition she’d acquired through years of practice in other lives – was taped to one of the cabinets. A large kitchen calendar hung above the table. It was open to March 1984, and the dates were neatly crossed off almost to the end of the month. Pamela was thirty-four. Her daughter, Kimberly, would have just turned eight; Christopher would be eleven.

She set the coffee filter aside, started to leave the kitchen, but then stopped and smiled as she recalled something. She opened one of the lower drawers beneath the counter, rummaged behind the boxes of flour and rice … And sure enough, there it was, right where she’d always kept it hidden: A Zip-Loc plastic bag containing most of an ounce of grass and a packet of E-Z Wider rolling papers. Her lone vice in those days, her one real escape from the tedium of housework and ‘parenting,’ as it had come to be called.

Pamela put the marijuana back where she’d found it, walked into the living room. The family photographs were hung there, along with two of her paintings from college. The promise that they showed had never been developed in this lifetime. Why had she ever let her talent go to waste for so long?

She could hear muffled music from upstairs: Cyndi Lauper’s cartoonishly bouncy voice singing ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun.’ Kimberly must be home from school; Christopher would probably be in his own room, playing with the Apple II computer they’d bought him that Christmas.

She sat on the chair in the foyer, took a pencil and a pad of paper from the telephone table, and dialled information for New York City. There was no listing for a Jeff or Jeffrey Winston in Manhattan or Queens. No Linda or L. Winston, either. It had been a long shot, anyway; there was no reason to think he might be back in New York. Pamela tried information again, this time in Orlando. His parents were listed. She called, and Jeff’s mother answered the phone.

‘Hello, my name is Pamela Phillips, and –’

‘Oh, my goodness! Jeff told us you’d be trying to get in touch with him, but Lord, that was ages ago. Three years ago, I think, or maybe even four.’ The woman’s voice faded as she apparently turned away from the mouthpiece, called in an aside: ‘Honey! It’s that Phillips girl that Jeff said might call, remember? Could you find me that envelope he sent?’ She came back to the phone. ‘Pamela? Hold on just a minute, dear; there’s a message for you here from Jeff. My husband’s getting it.’

‘Thank you. Could you tell me where Jeff is, where he’s living now?’

‘He’s out in California, in a little town – well, right outside it, he says – called Montgomery Creek, up close to Oregon.’

‘Yes,’ Pamela said. ‘I know where it is.’

‘He said you would. You know, he doesn’t even have a phone out there, can you imagine? It worries me sick, thinking what could happen to him in an emergency, but he says he’s got a shortwave radio for that kind of thing. I just don’t know what came over him, a grown man quitting his job and leaving his wife and – Oh, I’m so sorry. I hope I wasn’t speaking out of turn, to –’

‘It’s quite all right, Mrs Winston. Honestly.’

‘Well, it was just the strangest thing, anyhow. You might expect that kind of foolishness from a college boy, but for a man his age – he’ll be forty before too very long, you know – Oh, thank you, honey. Pamela? I’ve got that envelope he sent us for when you called. He said we ought to just open it up and read it to you. Do you want to get a pencil or something?’

‘I’m all set.’

‘OK, then, let me see … Hmmph. You’d think after all this time and so much mystery, there’d be more to it than this.’

‘What does it say?’

‘It’s just one line. It says, “If you’re coming, be sure to bring the children. I love you. Jeff.” That’s all there is to it. Did you get that? Do you want me to read it again?’

‘No,’ Pamela said, a grin spreading wide on her suddenly flushed face. ‘Thank you very much, but I understood it perfectly.’

She set the phone down, looked towards the staircase. Christopher and Kimberly were old enough now. They wouldn’t like the idea of leaving home at first, but she knew they’d soon grow to love Montgomery Creek and Jeff.

Besides, Pamela thought, biting her lip, it wouldn’t be for long. They’d be back here in New Rochelle, back with their father, before they started high school.

Three and a half years. Her final replay; the last months and days of her phenomenally protracted life.

She planned to enjoy them all, to the fullest.

It was one of those rains that will neither cease nor get on with it and be done, but simply keeps on falling with a dull and intermittent insistence.

They’d been stuck inside the cabin like this for two days now; it was getting musty, the air dank with the smell of mildew from a leather vest that Christopher had left hanging on the porch railing overnight and had brought inside the next morning to dry by the stove.

‘Kimberly!’ Pamela said with exasperated dismay. ‘Will you please stop drumming on that plate!’

‘She can’t hear you,’ Christopher said, and leaned across the table to lift the miniature foam headphone away from his sister’s left ear. ‘Mom says to cut it out,’ he yelled over the tinny sounds of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin.’

‘As a matter of fact, just turn that off,’ Pamela said. ‘It’s rude to listen to music by yourself while we’re all having lunch.’

The girl put on her most aggrieved grimace and pout but took the headphones off and put the Walkman away, as she’d been told. ‘I want another glass of milk,’ she said in a petulant tone.

‘We’re out of milk,’ Jeff reminded her. ‘I’m going into town tomorrow morning; I’ll bring some back then. You can ride in with me, if you’d like; it may have stopped raining, and we could walk down by the falls.’

‘I’ve already seen the falls,’ Kimberly whined. ‘I want to watch MTV.’

Jeff smiled tolerantly. ‘Out of luck there, kiddo,’ he said. ‘We could listen to the shortwave, though; see what they’re saying in China, or Africa.’

‘I don’t care about China or Africa! I’m bored!’

‘Why don’t we just talk, then,’ Pamela suggested. ‘That’s what people used to do, you know.’

‘Yeah, sure,’ Christopher muttered. ‘What’d they ever find to talk about so much?’

‘Sometimes they told each other stories,’ Jeff put in.

‘That’s an idea,’ Pamela said, brightening. ‘Would you like me to tell you a story?’

‘Oh, jeez, Mom, come on!’ Christopher protested. ‘Where do you think we are, in kindergarten or something?’

‘I don’t know,’ Kimberly said, turning thoughtful. ‘Maybe it would be fun to hear a story. We haven’t done that in a long time.’

‘You willing to at least give it a try?’ Pamela asked her son. He shrugged, didn’t answer.

‘Well,’ she began, ‘thousands and thousands of years ago, there was a dolphin named Cetacea. One day a strange new awareness suddenly came into her head, as if it had come from the sky above her ocean and beyond. Now, this was in the days when dolphins and people sometimes spoke to one another, but …’

And with the gentle summer rain in the background, she told them the story of Starsea, of the common bond of loving hope that linked the intelligent creatures of the earth, the sea, the stars … and of the catastrophic loss that ultimately brought humanity to the sorrowfully exalted moment of first full contact with its ocean kin.

The children fidgeted a bit at first, but as the tale wore on they listened with increasing fascination while their mother verbally recreated the film that had once won her worldwide acclaim and had brought her together with Jeff. When she had finished, Kimberly was weeping openly, but with a glow of otherworldly rapture in her young eyes; Christopher had turned his face away to the window and didn’t speak for a long time.

Just before dusk, a single shaft of sunlight broke through the overcast sky, and Jeff and Pamela stood outside on the porch to watch it slowly fade. The children chose to stay inside; Kimberly had borrowed some of Pamela’s watercolours, and was painting images of stars and dolphins, while Christopher was absorbed in one of John Lilly’s books.

The shifting light played vividly across the rain-soaked meadow, the billion droplets beaded on the fresh-cut grass shimmering like unearthly jewels in a field of green fire. Jeff stood quietly behind Pamela, his arms around her waist, her hair against his cheek. Just before the light failed, he whispered something in her ear, a line from Blake: ‘“To see a world in a Grain of Sand,”’ he murmured, ‘“and a Heaven in a Wild flower.”’

She pressed her hands to his, softly completed the quote: ‘“Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,”’ she said, ‘“and Eternity in an hour.”’

The towplane taxied into position, and when it had come to a stop, engine still turning, the line boy ran out to attach the two-hundred-foot nylon rope from the sailplane to the hook at the tail of the idling Cessna up ahead.

‘Christopher, you want to check out the controls for me?’ Jeff said to the boy who sat in the student’s seat in front of him.

‘Sure thing,’ Pamela’s son answered, his tone serious with pride at being part of the preparations, not just someone who was along for the ride. The boy wiggled the glider’s stick left and right, and the ailerons at each wing tip responded; then he pushed back and forth on the stick, and Jeff turned back to see the elevator at the tail of the craft flap up and down, as it should, followed by the shimmy of the rudder as Christopher moved his feet on the pedals. All the controls seemed to be in good working order, and Jeff smiled his approval.

The towplane ahead of them began to inch forward, slowly taking up the slack in the rope. Its rudder waggled the pilot’s ‘Ready?’ query, and Jeff answered with a matching right-and-left movement of his own rudder. The Cessna moved down the runway, pulling the sailplane behind it. The wing boy ran alongside, holding the craft level and keeping it headed into the wind. Jeff kept his eyes on the towplane, judging the level of his wings by the horizon line ahead. They picked up speed, the ground crew boy dropped back, and Jeff eased back slightly on the stick; they were airborne.

Out of the corner of his eye Jeff noted low swirls of puffy white clouds near the base of the mountain ahead. Good sign; that meant unstable moist air and thermals already developing. No time to look for them now, though; he stared intently at the towplane and the line, kept the nylon rope rigidly straight, and turned smoothly as the Cessna turned.

They reached altitude, three thousand feet above the lower slopes of the mountains. Jeff pulled the release knob, waited a moment to see the undone tow line snap forward like a rubber band, then went into a climbing turn to the right as the towplane veered off and downward to the left. The Cessna’s engine faded away as it returned to the little airport they had left, and soon there was no sound at all but the smooth rushing of the air against the Plexiglas canopy. They were in steady, powerless flight.

‘God, Jeff! This is great!’

Jeff smiled, nodded as Christopher turned in his seat to look back at him, the boy’s eyes wide and gleaming. He held the sailplane in a long, looping turn, using the leftover energy of their tow speed to gain as much working altitude as possible. The unearthly white cone of Mount Shasta slid by on their left, then reappeared in front of them, a sun-bright beacon urging them ever upward.

Jeff looked back towards the southwest, where the town named after the mountain lay nestled in the great surrounding forest of ponderosa pines. A second single-engine Cessna, towing another white-and-blue sailplane, was approaching. Jeff circled lazily, his speed beginning to drop to normal cruising range of forty to fifty miles per hour, as he waited for the other craft to join him.

When it was a mile or so away, the second glider broke free of its umbilical and swept up and away from the powered tug in a manoeuvre exactly like the one Jeff had just performed. Christopher pressed his face to the side of the clear canopy, watching the new arrival as it swooped towards them and drew alongside in smooth formation.

Pamela smiled and gave a thumbs up from the rear control seat of the other sailplane, and in the front seat Kimberly beamed ecstatically, waving at Jeff and her brother.

Jeff gently touched his left rudder pedal as he banked the wings leftward with the stick, breaking the loop they were in and turning towards the great symmetrical bulk of the mountain. Pamela followed suit, staying just behind and to the right of him.

The snowy treetops on the mountainside seemed to reach for them as they drew nearer and the angle of the slopes beneath them steepened. A lone deer chanced to look up and gave a startled shiver, then stood transfixed, staring at the great soundless birds not far above. Farther on, a quarter of the way around the mountain, Christopher pointed excitedly at a lumbering black bear, oblivious to the strange metal creatures sweeping low through his sky.

They found a bit of ridge lift, a swirling updraught of reflected wind, in front of and above the crest of a jutting cliff on the more rugged backside of the mountain. Jeff and Pamela glided along the ridge for several minutes, back and forth, looking at the silent, untouched snow that seemed so close they might have reached out to scoop up a powdery handful. Then Jeff spotted a thin wisp of cloud just forming against the blue sky slightly east of the mountain. He broke formation, headed for the newborn puff of condensation.

As he reached it, his right wing tip lifted slightly, and he immediately veered in that direction. When he did, the whole plane began to lift, and he slowed into a tight, controlled turn. The sailplane rose dramatically, kept on rising.

Below him, it was clear that Pamela saw what he had found. She turned abruptly away from the gentle upcurrents off the cliff, headed in his direction. Her glider seemed to diminish in size with every second as Jeff and Christopher rode the lifting mass of air higher and higher, locked into a steeply banked turn to stay within the narrow confines of the thermal’s centre.

Pamela flew in looping circles downwind of his position, searching. At last she caught the nebulous warm updraught, and the distance between them closed as her plane lifted swiftly and silently towards his … until, wing tip to wing tip, they soared together in the crisp, clean skies above Mount Shasta’s ageless and enigmatic peak.

Kimberly had stopped crying, was outside picking a bunch of September wild flowers to take with her on the trip east. Christopher was being a man about it. He was fifteen, after all, and had long since begun to emulate Jeff’s attitude of acceptance in the face of adversity and unrestrained joy where joy – as it so frequently had these past few years – became appropriate.

‘My hiking boots won’t fit in the suitcase, Mom.’

‘You won’t really need them in New Rochelle, honey,’ Pamela said.

‘I guess not. Except maybe if Dad takes us up camping in the Berkshires, like he said he would, I could wear them then.’

‘How about if I send them to you?’

‘Well … You don’t have to do that. It’s OK. We’ll be back before Christmas, anyway, and I’d just have to mail them back here again.’

Pamela nodded, turned her head away so her son wouldn’t see her eyes.

‘I know you’d like to have them with you,’ Jeff put in. ‘Why don’t we go ahead and send them along, and we’ll … get you another pair to keep here. We can do that with all your stuff, if you’d like.’

‘Hey, that’d be great!’ Christopher exclaimed with a grin.

‘It makes sense,’ Jeff said.

‘Sure, if I’m gonna be spending half the year with Dad and the other half here with you and Mom … You sure that’d be OK? Mom, is that all right with you?’

‘It sounds like a very good idea,’ Pamela said, forcing a smile. ‘Why don’t you go make a list of all the things you’d like us to send?’

‘OK,’ Christopher said, heading towards the two-bedroom annexe Jeff had built on to the cabin for the boy and his sister. Then he stopped and turned. ‘Can I tell Kimberly? I bet there’s a lot of things she’d like to have back east, too.’

‘Of course,’ Pamela told him, ‘but don’t you two take too long about it. We have to leave for Redding in an hour, or you’ll miss your flight.’

‘We’ll hurry, Mom,’ he said, running outside to fetch his sister.

Pamela turned to Jeff, let flow the tears she’d been holding back. ‘I don’t want them to go. It’s still another month before … before …’

He embraced her, smoothed her hair. ‘We’ve been through all this before,’ he told her gently. ‘It’s best for them to have a few weeks to adjust to being with their father again, to make new friends … That may help them absorb the shock a little.’

‘Jeff,’ she said, sobbing, ‘I’m scared! I don’t want to die! Not … die forever, and –’

He hugged her tightly, rocked her in his arms and felt his own tears trickle down his face. ‘Just think of how we’ve lived. Think of all we’ve done, and let’s try to be grateful for that.’

‘But we could have done so much more. We could have –’

‘Hush,’ he whispered. ‘We did all we could. More than either of us ever dreamed when we were first starting out.’

She leaned back, searched his eyes as if seeing them for the first time, or the last, ‘I know,’ she sighed. ‘It’s just … I got so used to the endless possibilities, the time … never being bound by our mistakes, always knowing we could go back and change things, make them better. But we didn’t, did we? We only made things different.’

A voice droned on interminably in the dim background of Jeff’s consciousness. It didn’t matter who the voice belonged to, or what it might be saying.

Pamela was dead, never to return. The realization washed over him like seawater against an open wound, filled his mind with an all-encompassing grief he had not felt since the loss of his daughter Gretchen. He clenched his fists, lowered his head beneath the weight of the undeniable, the intolerable … and still the voice babbled forth its senseless litany:

‘… see if Charlie can get react from Mayor Koch on Reagan’s Bitburg trip. Looks like this one could really whip up into a firestorm; we’ve got the American Legion coming down on him about it, and Congress is starting to buzz. That’s – Jeff? You OK?’

‘Yeah.’ He glanced up briefly. ‘I’m fine. Go ahead.’

He was in the conference room of WFYI in New York, the all-news radio station where he’d been news director when first he died. He was seated at one end of a long oval table; the morning and midday editors were on either side of him, and the reporters occupied the other chairs. He hadn’t seen these people for decades, but Jeff recognized the place, the situation, instantly. He’d had this same meeting every weekday morning for years: the daily assignment conference, where the structure of the day’s news coverage was planned as best it could be in advance. Gene Collins, the ongoing midday editor, was frowning at him with concern.

‘You sure you’re feeling all right? We could cut this short; there’s not much else to discuss.’

‘Just go ahead, Gene. I’ll be fine.’

‘Well … OK. Anyway, that’s about it for metro stories and local angles. On the national front, we’ve got the shuttle going up this morning, and –’

‘Which one?’ Jeff rasped out.

‘What?’ Gene asked, puzzled.

‘Which shuttle?’

‘Discovery. You know, the one with the senator on board.’

Thank God for that at least; so immediately after Pamela’s final death, Jeff wasn’t sure he could have handled a repeat of the chaos and depression in the newsroom on the day of the Challenger disaster. He should have known better, anyway, if he’d been thinking clearly; Reagan had gone to Bitburg in the spring of 1985. That would make this sometime around April of that year, nine or ten months before the shuttle would explode.

Everyone at the table was looking at him strangely, wondering why he seemed so distraught, so disoriented. To hell with it. Let them think whatever they wanted.

‘Let’s wrap it up, all right, Gene?’

The editor nodded, began gathering the scattered papers he had brought to the meeting. ‘Only other good story developing is this rape-recant thing in Illinois. Dotson’s going back to prison today while his lawyer prepares an appeal. That’s it. Questions, anybody?’

‘The school-board meeting looks like it might run long today,’ one of the reporters said. ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to make this 2:00 P.M. Fire Department awards thing. You want me to dump out of the school board early, or would you rather put somebody else on the awards?’

‘Jeff?’ Collins asked, deferring to him.

‘I don’t care. You decide.’

Gene frowned again, started to say something but didn’t. He turned back to the reporters, who had begun to mumble among themselves. ‘Bill, stick with the school board as long as you need to. Charlie, you hit the Fire Department ceremony after you talk to the mayor. Give us a live shot on Koch and Bitburg at one. Then you can hold off filing until after the awards are over. Oh, and Jim, Mobile Four is in the shop; you’ll be taking Mobile Seven.’

The meeting broke up quietly, with none of the usual wisecracks and raucous laughter. The reporters and the offgoing early-morning editor filed out of the conference room, casting quick, covert glances at Jeff. Gene Collins hung behind, stacking and restacking his sheaf of papers.

‘You want to talk about it?’ he finally said.

Jeff shook his head. ‘Nothing to talk about. I told you, I’ll be all right.’

‘Look, if it’s problems with Linda … I mean, I understand. You know what a rough go of it Carol and I had a couple of years back. You helped me through a lot of that – God knows I bent your ear enough – so anytime you want to sit down over a beer, just let me know.’

‘Thanks, Gene. I appreciate your concern, I really do. But it’s something I have to work out for myself.’

Collins shrugged, stood from the table. ‘That’s up to you,’ he said. ‘But if you ever do feel like unloading your problems, feel free to dump a few in my direction. I owe you.’

Jeff nodded briefly, then Collins left the room, and he was alone again.

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