When I called Jon in Massachusetts to ask for directions to his house, he asked what time I expected to arrive. I reckoned I’d be there around 6.30 – 7.00pm.
He said that it would be better if I could either get there an hour earlier or an hour later. They needed to go to a dinner with some colleagues of his wife’s, and would be leaving around 5.30. They reckoned they’d be back by eight. I told him that I’d be there by five.
I hit the road south towards Rockland. It was a grim gray day with the wind and rain lashing in from the Atlantic. The route through Brunswick afforded far fewer direct sightings of the ocean than the map suggested I might get. The wind was vicious though, as I discovered when I wound down the window for a cigarette and had my face sandblasted by the crosswind whipping off the distant beaches.
I continued on the Maine Turnpike, bracing myself for the only scheduled re-entering of a state on my itinerary. With Maine landlocked by New Hampshire, I had no choice but to skip across the southern tip of the Granite State where it touched the Atlantic. It only lasted twelve minutes, during which time I closed my eyes, put my fingers in my ears and sang “la la la” continuously at the top of my voice. Fortunately, I wasn’t seen by the Highway Patrol. Live free or die.
Once into Massachusetts, I motored on to the Peabody exit. Given the brevity of time I had spent outside the car that morning because of the inclement weather, I reckoned I had plenty left for a visit to Salem. I knew about Salem from the notorious witch trials of 1692, and I had studied The Crucible for my English Lit ‘O’ Level back in the depths of the last century.
According to the guidebooks, Salem had had enough of people going on about the trials and wanted the outside world to know about all the other things it had to offer. You could have fooled me.
Despite the genuine history surrounding this long-established community, it came across as even more “flim-flam” than Eureka Springs AR. It was one big tourist ride. It took forty minutes of the hour I had allocated just to find somewhere to park. The Salem Witch Museum looked about as serious as the Waxworks on Southend seafront, but had queues stretching around the block.
The site of the burnings had been consumed by a building site, and was nowhere easy to be seen. The streets were teeming with adults dressed up as spooks and looking like a troupe of over-eager method actors sent out on a trick or treat spree. And the shops sold nothing but occult tat and joke souvenirs.
I bought a pack of cards with a silhouette of a witch on a broomstick on them, and wondered whether similar souvenirs from the Inquisition were available in Spain. Perhaps folks in the 25th Century will look back on some of the horrors of our last hundred years as just a bit of fun to be made light of.
Passing up the opportunity of a tour of the city in a black stretch limo that was being touted by a guy in a Dracula outfit, I hurried back to my car. I could see little value hanging around here any longer.
Getting out of Salem was no easy matter. It was not quite as hard as leaving Oklahoma, but it came close. Although I had been back behind the wheel by four, it was gone five by the time I eventually managed to find the Interstate. The signs just kept running out. The choice at each junction became a matter of trial and plenty of error.
I wanged round the Interstate at about eighty and reached the Wellesley exit just after 5.25pm. Jon’s house, at the end of a leafy and cul-de-sac, was easily found and I pulled up outside about a minute after the deadline. It was a huge house, with a big oak door and wide driveway. With no lights on and no car in the drive, it didn’t look good.
A note to me was taped to the inside of the window, saying that they had had to leave, that the key was with the neighbor, and that they’d be back by 8.30. I was to go in and make myself at home.
The easy bit was getting the key and letting myself in. From that point, I found myself almost paralysed in the hallway. It was not only a very grand home, but it was also utterly pristine. The sterilized atmosphere would have put many an operating theater to shame.
There wasn’t even dust in the air, let alone on any surfaces, and none of the usual ephemera evidencing human habitation. No shoes. No coats. No bits of paper. No boxes of stuff. No cups or jars on the sideboard. I tiptoed across the plush white pile through the hall into what turned out to be the kitchen. About 500 square feet of living room lay off to its side. There wasn’t even a kettle or TV set in sight, and the furniture didn’t look like it had ever been sat on.
Once more I froze, uncertain of what to do next. I wasn’t sure what would be the best policy regarding my feet. Thankfully my boots had clean soles, but it didn’t seem like the sort of house where outdoor footwear was tolerated. I would have taken them off, but I was vaguely aware of the state of my socks and thought that they would be even more likely to pollute the carpets and tiles if they were allowed to come into contact.
The situation wasn’t great. I had never met Jon before, and had only gathered by inference that he was even married. At least Wyoming John and North Dakota Kathleen had been there to show me into their houses. Here I was in someone’s extremely well-kept and luxurious home, and the only thing about him that I knew was his name.
That was it. If a burglar had pitched up there and then and introduced himself as Jon, explaining that he just needed to take some stuff down the road, I would probably have helped him load up the car.
With the widest strides that I could manage – so as to minimize the number of times that my feet had to come into contact with the carpet – I returned to the sanctuary of the mat by the front door. A very fat, blue-grey cat came down the stairs to investigate but seemed unimpressed and waddled off into the kitchen.
With my back to the door, I noticed a glow from the room off to my left. In the twilight, I could see the outline of a computer that had been left on. I reached around the wall to find a light-switch, and then had to check that I’d not left any grubby paw prints. I touched the mouse and some sort of medical website sprang up in place of the screen saver.
Judging by the volumes that filled the shelves, this was the study of someone who was a doctor, quite possibly a paediatrician. Judging by the certificate of graduation from Harvard that was framed on the wall with the name Elizabeth on it, that person was Jon’s wife.
Nervously I sat at the desk, and clicked through to check my e-mail. With a fair amount in my box, I spent half an hour of reading and replying. It was still not even seven when I tried to return the computer to the site on which I had found it and ended up closing down the Internet connection altogether. Wincing, I at least remembered to put the mouse back to its left-hand position.
I went out to the car to get some books, and to have a cigarette. It was obviously out of the question to smoke in the house, but I wouldn’t have even felt right drinking a beer in there. I cracked open a can out on the street and started to sup. After a couple of swigs, it occurred to me that my behavior was somewhat lowering the tone of a very pleasant neighborhood and I migrated up the driveway and into the back yard.
I finished my beer, put the cigarette butt in the can, and returned it to the car. My boots were now muddy from walking across the lawn. If I wanted to return to the house, I would have to do something. I rummaged in my trunk and found some shoes and a passably clean pair of socks. I sat on my rear bumper and put them on. My suspicions about the state of the socks I had been wearing were vindicated, as small animals in the undergrowth could be heard running for cover when I peeled them off.
Back in the house, I began to read. Around 9.15pm, the phone rang. It was Jon, calling to apologize but to say that they were just leaving. It would take half an hour for them to get home.
It was only now that it dawned on me what a mistake this arrangement had been. I had initially told Adam that I would be in town on Sunday, because I had assumed that I would have used up my contingency day by now. Jon and his wife had clearly arranged to go out to dinner this evening, but had felt obliged to honor their offer of putting me up when I’d called in the week.
Due to this courtesy, both our evenings had been compromised. They had had to cut short their dinner, and I had spent my last Saturday night sat in a chair alone in somebody else’s study.
I waited twenty minutes and went outside for a last cigarette. I didn’t really want them to catch me smoking, and would have felt more comfortable being outside when they arrived. I waited until the cold began to bite and went back in. The door of the downstairs bathroom had been left open, presumably so that I could find it easily. As part of my general policy of touching as little as possible in their house, I went for a quick leak and left it open.
In mid-flow, voices from the kitchen told me that someone was home. Alarmed, I carried on as I heard my name being called out. This really was not going to create a good first impression. I finished up as quickly as I could and went to introduce myself with the flush audibly wheshing in the background.
Abashed, I was at least relieved that it was two people called Jon and Elizabeth who seemed to know their way around the house. I took it as confirmation that they were indeed who they pretended to be.
Jon was disproportionately friendly, behaving as if he owed me some great debt from a former life. He listened with enthusiasm to what I had been doing, opened up a bottle of red wine to share, and put pizzas in the oven for me to eat.
Elizabeth seemed a little less impressed by the situation. She had probably wanted to stay at the party and was irritated that they had to leave early to come back for some English guy who had foisted himself on them and whom neither of them had ever even met. And who didn’t bother closing the restroom door when he urinated.
She sat away from Jon and me as we chatted, and read a book. I felt a mixture of guilt and awkwardness, and found myself slipping into apology overdrive. It turned out that Elizabeth was a doctor and that Jon was a student and teacher at Harvard, but with the emphasis on the former.
As with Adam in Tucson AZ, I marvelled at the standard of living they had. Perhaps their wives made inordinate amounts of money, but both their lifestyles certainly outstripped anything I knew from the world of British studenthood.
As was to be expected, Jon was fiercely academic and I had difficulty following a lot of his discussion and arguments, particularly when it came to September 11th. I was unable to counter anything he said. None of his points was just opinion, they were all backed up by a wealth of facts drawn from his far more comprehensive knowledge of world history and politics. I don’t know if he sensed this, but he mentioned that he and Adam had written an article in the week following September 11th, which they had unsuccessfully touted to the New York Times and the Boston Globe.
He showed it to me and I found it easier to follow than some of his conversation. It made its points in comparatively everyman language, but no doubt would have been dismissed by Michael Savage as another example of “left wing intellectual liberalism from those who hate America”. It was certainly more rational than it was emotional.
I asked Jon whether he thought that the east coast had been affected qualitatively more than the rest of the country. He agreed that the immediacy of the disaster had obviously been felt more acutely by those directly involved, but that this wasn’t the real legacy. He cited a statistic that 80 people a day in the US suffer spinal injuries that result in a permanent quadriplegic condition. His point was that bad things had continued to happen every day since September 11th, and caused profound distress wherever they occurred. Those mourning the deaths of loved ones from the terrorist attacks weren’t more sad or bereaved than these others who were also suffering.
The real legacy, in his view, was what the attack represented and in this respect, everyone in America (and arguably the western world) had been affected equally. The reason why the British were upset wasn’t because there had been two or three hundred of their citizens in the towers. They would have been upset if not a single Brit had died.
The deaths were tragic and rightly angered people, but the harsh truth was that it wasn’t the deaths themselves that were exceptional. The exceptional thing was an unexpected and random terrorist attack on the US mainland on such a scale and by such a method. In turn, the exceptional response wasn’t the grief (this was to be expected) but the reappraisal of so many things previously taken for granted.
I tried to wrestle things onto a different subject, and asked where he thought I should go the next day in Boston. Beyond the usual sights, he thought it would be good to go and see where they were sinking Interstate 93 below the ground in the center of town. It was currently an unsightly flyover that blighted the skyline of the now fashionable business district, but was being rebuilt as an underground tunnel.
It was, naturally, the world’s most expensive highway construction project ever. Ashamedly, I said that I’d also like to go and see the Cheers bar. Jon laughed and drew me a map showing where to find it, but pointed out that it was only the outside that was used in the opening credits of the show. The episodes were all shot in LA, and the inside of the bar in Boston didn’t look anything like the set for TV. Jon also gave me directions for getting to Concord and Lexington, both of which were nearby.
I had been picking at pizza but had made little headway. Jon had cooked two and neither of them wanted any. He probably assumed that a man of my girth must have an American appetite. The wine had been finished some time, when Jon started to make noises about bedtime. He had to go for a run the next morning and so couldn’t have a late night as he had to leave by 7.30am.
He clearly shared the passion for early morning jogs that Adam and Rebecca back in Arizona had. I asked him how long he thought he would be, and whether Elizabeth would be going with him. He smiled and said that the run was taking place across town and he’d be gone most of the morning. It was a 24-mile race, a warm up for his next marathon.
No wonder he didn’t want more wine.