Shortcuts

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

When I was little I spent the summers at my grandparents’ house in Connecticut. Every other week we’d drive from their home near Hartford to the tiny fishing cottage my grandfather built in the 1940s on the edge of Bashan Lake.

One of the best parts about “going down the lake” was that my second cousins lived three cottages down. We’d spend all day building forts, hiding in the woods, and swimming, moving between their cottage and ours like they were swappable goods.

Up the dirt road from their cottage was a place we called “the Professor’s House.” It was nicer than the others, with a perfectly trimmed yard bordered by a straight line of cinder blocks to separate it from the dusty path. We often played near there, and it would have been easier to cut across this lawn than to walk around it. But we never, ever took this shortcut. My cousin Billy had told us about the day he took one step over the cinder-block wall; the elderly professor had come running out of his house shaking his fist and screaming for Billy to get off his lawn. I had recently read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the idea of a Boo Radley-type figure, rarely seen, chasing me down, was enough to keep me off that property every summer I was there.

After my son Rio was born five years ago, we started returning to the lake. Despite the passing of thirty years, the Professor’s house was still pin-neat, and the yard looked the same. I began telling Rio the story about my cousin and the Professor.

(I tell Rio two original stories every night after I tuck him in. It keeps my improvisation skills sharp, and it has become such a valued resource to Rio that taking away stories as a punishment is the one loss sure to make him cry.

It’s exhausting “being on” for a final performance after hours with the kid, but if I try to fake it, Rio always knows. In fact, just tonight I tried to skimp on one of my stories by telling him about the Bermuda Triangle; after I finished, he sat up in bed and declared, “That wasn’t a story! You just described the place! There wasn’t any ‘once up a time’ or anything that happened!” Soon thereafter, there was a laser beam coming from the depths of Atlantis that sliced an overhead spaceship in half.)

But back to the Professor. To keep things fresh, I started adjusting the story: sometimes my cousin would trip over the wall and barely escape the Professor’s grasp. Other times, the main actors were Rio and his cousin Milo, and they would run full speed to our cabin with the Professor hot on their trail. In the final rendition, the Professor finally finds Rio and Milo under a picnic table and ends up only wanting to offer them a cookie, after all.

Last summer, Rio and I saw someone down at the Professor’s house and walked down to chat. The man standing there was the Professor’s godson, and he offered me a beer as Rio ran down to play with the man’s teenage son on the dock. I told the man about our childhood lore, and he laughed, saying that the Professor was in fact very particular about his lawn. He called the Professor a “good man” but really didn’t say much more than that. I left a little disappointed that there was no dramatic end to the story; I’d hoped for some intrigue, some mystery, something about the Professor that was as monumental as the myth. But instead he was just a math professor from New York who liked to garden and come up to the lake on weekends. But in my story, he will always loom large; who knows, tonight he might come up with the math equation needed to transform flashlights into light sabers.

5 thoughts on “Shortcuts

  1. Sounds to me like Rio already has a fundamental grasp of narrative: not just a description; things have to happen. Took me a while to wrap my head around that one. Maybe he’ll wind up leading writing workshops at the elementary school!

  2. I just went back and caught up with your recent writing. Brilliant writing, Tio. You are really taking it to another level. Keep it coming!

  3. @Brent. Shit, you’re right. Rio’s gotten so good at weaving his own tales, in fact, that he sometimes gets carried away with his imagination and his friends look over at me mid-story and say, “Is this true?”

    @Rudolf: Thank you. I’m just trying to, as Ginsberg said, “put my shoulder to wheel.”

    @Sharon: I love twisting the stories on Rio sometimes. I’ve launched into a new Professor series with Rio where he comes up with some new invention and gives it away to all the local kids. The catch is that the invention reverts to its original shape (the kid-sized car becomes a rock again, for instance) if the kids misuse the gift!

  4. Tim- Your story brought back childhood memories of my own as I spent endless summer days with my grandparents at their cottage just a few properties from “the Professor’s” He did have a beautiful yard at a time when the rest were very rustic and like you- we never stepped foot on it. We still enjoy the lake- now with our grown children and still have our original Starcraft fishing boat identical to the one in your photo above.

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