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Mr. Brink’s Junipers (final cut?)
Mr. Miller stood in a parka on the corner of 4th and Downey, looking listlessly into the crosswalk leading away from Manny’s, a local seafood diner. It was a remarkably wintry evening in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Most people can’t pinpoint the place that their lives changed forever, but he can. Around the corner, his nine-year-old son, Jacob, stood watching. Jake had blonde, curly hair and the blue, translucent eyes of his grandfather. He had sensed that something was off lately, and being the curious young man that he was, he resolved to figure out what. Jake confronted his Dad. Shaken, Mr. Miller’s cheeks flushed as a new layer of snow began to come down, and, avoiding questions, ushered his son toward home.
The next morning, Mr. Miller lay in bed, insulated amongst layers of white blankets. As Jake ate breakfast, a Nat King Cole disc played on repeat in a room so definitely white and so sparsely decorated that it was as if any remote suggestion of renovation, change, or nice addition was shunned like the devil. It was a preposterous suggestion, moving on; a capital crime. Nat King Cole became Jake’s favorite musician. In these days of late autumn, Jake would play “Autumn Leaves” over and over. He knew all the words. Jake loved seeing the leaves fall and jumping in them mid-October, when piles lined the streets. The changing colors reminded him that life was always changing, transforming into something new, unexpected and amazing. Packing a sack lunch for her son, Mrs. Miller struck up conversation in the only way she could, asking her son not to play in the local park after dark anymore. Jake whined but accepted grudgingly. Mrs. Miller was a naturally beautiful woman, though noticeably worn around the edges. She approached her son, bent down and kissed him on the forehead, and told him not to miss the bus. She watched as Jake ran out the door, and when he was out of sight, turned and leaned on the kitchen counter, sighing a deep sigh with her head down.
Jake Miller was endlessly inquisitive. After school, he once again found himself near the attic. For months he had been eyeing the latch to the trapdoor, and he decided to finally get up there, soon plundering piles of beige, taped up boxes. Jake came across a box simply labeled, “Emily.” He tore at the tape and found it packed with photos—photos taken on vacations and for Christmas cards, sent to relatives far and wide. As far back as Jake remembered, he had wanted to know who his parents were, inside. This box seemed to bring him closer to an answer. In the photos, Jake noticed a blonde girl with eyes just like his. He didn’t know her, though he felt strange looking at those pictures. He pocketed a photo marked Dec. 1991 and ran downstairs.
At dinner that evening, Jake again sensed that something was wrong. His mother spoke only to ask to ask someone to pass the asparagus, never looking her husband in the eye. Hoping to divert her son from tensions at home, she addressed Jake only to ask that he visit with Mr. Brink, an elderly man and recent widower who lived a few houses down.
Later, as Mr. Miller got himself into bed, he sensed tangible friction in his wife’s silence. “It’s time,” he said. She said nothing. “He’s as old as she was, when it happened…” In the aftermath of the incident, Mr. Miller gestured to the pictures on the walls, to the oak tree with a tire swing outside the window. He embraced and stood behind the house as memory, itself, and something they shouldn’t run away from. He knew he would be no happier anywhere else. At least here, there was history, family, community. Mrs. Miller, on the other hand, found the house a coffin, tied to a life that no longer existed. She wanted to bury it. She had had to face down another coffin, miniaturized, leaving Holy Redeemer Catholic Church on a wave of dolefulness, in the hands of many men. Mr. Miller was a chemist at U Mass and Mrs. Miller was a writer. Both spent their entire lives trying to understand the fundamental properties of our world, but when it came down to it neither could make heads or tails of what had happened to them or why. Mrs. Miller rolled over, and with a hopeless, blank face, Mr. Miller turned off the light.
Meanwhile, Jake went to the bathroom, turned the faucet and enveloped himself in a tub of steaming water, as he did most nights. He was the sort of person for whom ritual and routine were a great solace. In these moments, his thoughts would slide toward death, with perplexing regularity. He was experiencing a sort of existential crisis of the salad days in which he realized that life would eventually end for not only him, but for everyone he loved. Sitting in the tub, he pictured himself in a hole in the ground, or in one of those mahogany boxes he’d seen in movies and on the news.
Saturday morning, on his mother’s prodding, Jake went over to Mr. Brink’s house at the end of the cul-de-sac—the same one he’d lived in for nearly fifty years. It was a dauntingly large home for a man living on his own, especially at his age. Jake came to the front door with a large box of blueberries—a small gesture of goodwill from an unexpected guest. Jake picked a bright yellow flower from the man’s garden, trying to make a good impression. He knocked. Mr. Brink made it to the door, and, seeing what appeared to be a Boy Scout or miniature bible salesman, howled, “I’m not interested. And stay out of my garden!”, slamming the door in the boy’s face.
When Jake returned home, his father Mr. Miller was quickly upon him, asking if he’d like to go for a walk. He reticently declined. The last time his Dad wanted to take a walk, he gave him the talk, and he certainly wanted no more of that. But the intonation in his voice this time was different, and equally forbidding. He just had a bad feeling. The next thing he knew they were walking down toward the marina. Mr. Miller told his son about Emily. Jake had an immediate flashback to the box—to the images that existed only in duct-taped boxes and locked deep within the hearts of a few people. He wanted to know this girl, this ghost. His father told him about the accident—the one that had irreversibly thrown their lives in a new direction. “She was your sister, Jakey. Your big sister.” It seemed strange to him, calling her that, because she never saw a day the other side of ten. She never got to sprout up to the sky, to drive a car, to look down at the penciled in height markings that still remained on the walls, marking her in time, in a moment. In his mind, he saw Emily, smiling, admiring the tanks of lobsters with their rubber-banded, enormous scarlet claws. He saw the flash of white light that enveloped everything. At Manny’s diner that December, a happy family celebrated the tenth birthday of their beloved daughter. George envisioned the sparkling candles on the birthday cake. She was still at that age when you could really surprise her. Leaving the restaurant and crossing the street, Emily slipped away. Emily ran ahead of her father, thinking only of presents and caught up in her own excitement. Then it was too late. Emily was on the ground, bowled over by a drunk driver that the checkpoints missed. He preferred to keep Emily in his memory because it reminded him of a time when things were beautiful—of times when he had experienced a magnetic, powerful, though ephemeral beauty. It gave him hope that if he chased after this serenity long enough, he’d find it once more.
Eventually, father and son arrived at a dock pointing out to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. The signs read “Avery Point”, and a white lighthouse stood proudly, sending out gleams of light. Mr. Miller told him how Emily had once stood in this very spot—how she had always loved that lighthouse, which remained on at all times of year, sending out a warm light for those who needed it. He shared with his son a tale he’d picked up from his own father. He told of a young New Englander whose father owned a string of fishing boats.. One day, the father had to attend to his ailing wife, and lacking the luxury of ignoring the income of even one day’s load, he asked his son to take charge. As dusk loomed on the horizon, the boy asked another man to watch the wheel while he used the john below deck. Perhaps due to the man’s negligence or just the low visibility that day, the man ran the boat straight into a buoy. The mariner’s son had never been forced to deal with such a scenario, but he dealt with it, finding life jackets for the people on board and shooting off a flare, which lead to their rescue. “You see, Jakey,” he said, “A few times in every man’s life, he finds himself in a sinking ship. Things won’t be going well, and it won’t be his fault, but he’ll have to deal with it anyhow. It doesn’t help anything to sulk over loss as if you were the only one who encountered it. You have to find strength in what remains behind.” And that’s what Mr. Miller was trying to do. Mrs. Miller preferred to remain alone in her grief, an island unto herself. This was hubris—a sort of arrogance, as if Death stopped only at her doorstep. Mr. Miller stood behind his son, holding onto him with both hands.
The next day, Jake ran to the call of a knock at the door, and curiously, he found Mr. Brink. Mrs. Miller had called him to make explanation, and thereafter, Brink came over to invite the boy for a meal. He had on the humble grin of those who have come to terms with the fact that they are just a person, like any other—prone to life, and its side effects. As dinner wrapped up, Jake innocently asked Mr. Brink what he thought happens after we die. “I believe that our loved ones stay with us, long after they’re gone.” Mr. Brink smiled. “You noticed the junipers?” He motioned to the front yard, where spectacular yellow flowers bloomed in the middle of winter. “A special breed. My wife found them on our honeymoon in China so many years ago…One of the only species that thrives even in the coldest time of year…Lovely, aren’t they?” Jake nodded. “They are.” “Sometimes, I visit Mary—my wife. I leave a few junipers with her…These people in our lives are never really gone, my boy. Never forget that,” he said with conviction. After dinner, Jake looked through Brink’s old photo albums. He felt somehow connected to history—to people he never knew and would never know.
Christmas came around. While his folks had a cathartic moment of their own next to a roaring fireplace, allowing themselves to find joy in one another, Jake took a tray of holiday treats over to Mr. Brink’s. He knocked on the door and got no answer. Turning around, a FOR SALE sign came into focus. Running home, he asked his mother what happened. She grasped for words, and he knew. Jake paused for a moment. Then Jake went back outside and watered Mr. Brink’s junipers.
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