AS SHE WENT WALKING under the canopy of the giant Douglas-fir trees, these diamond droplets of leftover rainwater still swaying gently from their branches, Lisa noticed how the fallen pine needles at her feet were still soaked from the storm while the grassy ground only a few feet out ahead of her was delicate and bright like a soaring meadow up in the sunlit Austrian alps.
Off to her left sat a green cow pasture. During the winter months this same cow pasture was full of disheveled and windswept snow drifts. Now the muddied up field was full of two dozen or so smelly old dairy cows. The cows all belonged to old-man Partridge, a wild-eyed, long-haired old man who once gave his milk out for free to those in need. Lisa and her two younger siblings, Kyle and Lola, thought he was a weirdo now, because he spent most of his time ranting and raving to his neighbors over supercilious matters of little or no consequence. His diary farm, once pristine, now looked like a rusted, old junkyard. It was embarrassing.
Lisa hesitated as she walked past one of old man Partridge’s rusted out Packard’s. When she got to the edge of his property, about a hundred yards out beyond the fir trees, a strange feeling squeezed firmly around her heart. It stopped her cold in her tracks.
Her hand went up over the left side of her chest.
It was a severe anxiety attack. She had never felt this kind of anxiety before. All she could think was that today was the day the bank was going to auction off her house.
Her father, Sherwood Van Essen, had once been a successful real estate broker in North Conway. Her mother, Pamela, worked at the Eastman Inn, cooking and doing the books. But the boom years in North Conway came to a stretching halt when the 2008 Wall Street economic meltdown came out of nowhere. A credit crunch soon ensued. Banks stopped lending. Houses stopped being sold. The economy shed jobs at a frantic pace. Her dad’s real estate business went from boom to bust. This coincided with all the tourists staying home. That’s when Lisa’s mom got laid off from the Eastman Inn. The subsequent unemployment checks were a help, but now those had run out too.
Lisa stood there on the edge of old man Partridge’s land, her dark green eyes staring intently up at the snow-dusted shoulders of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range off in the distance. She closed her eyes tight. She started to pray to God for the first time in a long time.
When she opened her eyes and looked up at the Presidential Range, she imagined it was where God lived now, because it looked so majestic and ethereal, like somewhere he might go to get away from all those prayers he must have been hearing.
She took a quick breath; just breathe, she thought like she did when she was trying to ace a test. Quickly, she ran out of old man Partridge’s property; and then she ran full tilt along the Conway Scenic Railroad. She was sixteen now. An honor student. A pretty blonde like her mother. A member of the track team. On her iPod she had a playlist that included Weezer, Katy Perry, and Kanye West. She had been reading Jonathan Franzen, but she liked this other writer, Jennifer S. Davis, that she had been reading on the Internet.
The late morning sun blistered against her skin now. As Lisa ran she could feel the sweat snake up and down her spine and into the small of her back.
Her pace quickened as she saw these ghost eyes stare at her from the windows of old Zeb’s General Store. She thought everyone in town must have seen the notice about her house being auctioned off by the bank.
Pushing these thoughts away, she ran across the White Mountain Highway, turned north toward her house, and then after a minute ran up Grove Street, where her parent’s yellow Victorian sat across an open meadow.
When she ran up to the house she just stood there in her driveway, her heart racing, her body saturated in sweat now, her hands falling to her knees as she looked over at this cadre of strangers milling about her front yard.
… There was the man from the bank who always smelled like pee. Over there was the town tax assessor. Over there stood Delmont Jenkins from the Conway Daily Sun, and to his left a small crowd had gathered.
She knew these people were all there to buy the house she had grown up in. Everyone one of them was there to look at her house—at the warm glow coming from the windows, at the red front door Lisa’s mom had once recycled from the front door of the old post office, and at the trellis out front full of purple clematis that had once belonged to Lisa’s grandmother down in New Jersey.
When she noticed Kyle and Lola, 9 and 7 respectively, come running out of the house, Lisa closed her eyes and prayed to God one last time.
Opening her eyes she saw that everyone was still there. And right then she knew that God had nothing to do with what was about to happen to her family.
Her father, Sherwood, and her mom, Pamela, calmly walked out of the front door. Sherwood took with him an old set of golf clubs that had once belong to his dad. Pamela carried out both of their Maltese dogs, Pepper and Cinnamon.
Sherwood quickly shuttled the children over to their maroon mini-van that he had strategically parked down the street.
“Come on,” he told the kids. He nodded to his wife. “I have twenty dollars burning a hole in my pocket. Why don’t we all go down to Brandli’s and get a pepperoni and black olive pizza?”
Kyle and Lola yelled with great enthusiasm: “Oh, yeah, baby!” And then Kyle, never known for his lack of enthusiasm, blurted out: “And German chocolate cake afterwards, right?”
Lisa watched as her mother and father both gave each other this look. Before this none of the children had ever known the feeling of want.
When Sherwood nodded his head no, this simultaneous “awe” came from the backseat of the mini-van.
Seeing this, Lisa quickly reached down into the drenched front pocket of her white jeans. She smiled when she saw this flash of green.
A second later they were all staring out the right-hand side window of the mini-van.
They watched as their neighbors, friends, and fellow New Hampshirites raised their hands as they all started to bid on the Van Essen house at 17 Grove Street, North Conway, NH, 03860; auction 1371.
Lola waved toward the house. “Goodbye house,” she said very innocent.
When Lisa looked up at her old bedroom window she had to look away. She stared up at the top of Mount Washington off in the distance.
A little while later they all sat inside Brandli’s pizzeria. Lisa ate her two slices with a Coke that she shared with her brother and sister. When she saw Lola eyeing some French fries left on a nearby abandoned tray, Lisa wanted to grab them and give them to her, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
“We’re not going to eat other people’s leftovers,” Lisa scolded her, but inside she felt that they could.
“But Lee-lee. I’m still hungry,” Lola insisted.
Lisa nodded like she understood, but she pushed the red tray of French fries further out of the reach of her younger sister across the table that was right next to them.
After lunch Lisa played with her siblings on the grass out in front of the old train station. She noticed her parents standing not far away. It was the way her mom had her arm around her dad. Her mom kept caressing him like she was trying to comfort his soul. For some reason this really touched Lisa.
As she watched her parents walk around the fertile gardens of the station, full of these blood-red tulips, she grabbed the reluctant hands of her brother and sister. She gave them a hushed, “shhhh, be quiet,” and then guided them down the street.
“Where are we going?” Kyle demanded to know.
Lisa didn’t reply.
She sat both Kyle and Lola down on a dark green bench and looked them square in the eye.
“Listen,” she said. “We’re not going back home anymore.”
“Not ever?” Lola asked.
“But why?” Kyle demanded.
“Because we’re homeless now,” she said. “But listen. From now on our life is like going through a secret door in one of your stories I always read to you.”
“Like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?” Kyle asked.
“Yes. Just like that,” Lisa said.
“I love Aslan,” Lola said, smiling.
“Well,” Lisa continued. “Now our life is just like that. We’re going to have to go through doors we never expected to go through. Doors where we don’t know what’s on the other side.”
She watched their childlike eyes for their reactions.
“And then we get to go home?” Lola asked much to the chagrin of her older sister.
Lisa caressed Lola’s dark brown hair. “Come on,” she said, and she started to lead them down the street over to the Metropolitan Coffee House, where she took out that moist twenty dollar bill she had in her front pocket. She then bought each of them a large slice of German chocolate cake.
For the next two weeks they camped at a remote campsite at nearby Jigger Johnson campground. The father knew none of the kid’s friends would spot them there. They had an old tent from when he had traversed the entire Appalachian Trail, from Mount Katahdin to Springer Mountain down in Georgia back when he was in college. He had been an Army Ranger once; and after eight years in the service he got his honorable discharge and attended Boston College, where he got his degree in finance and liberal arts.
At night the kids did their school work by firelight. Later on their father taught them all about the stars. They all learned their constellations by sight, even figuring out how to spot planets by searching for their gold light in the pristine nighttime sky.
Each morning Sherwood saw to it that the kids had some kind of breakfast. Some mornings it was only a protein bar. Other mornings it was cold cereal. Sometimes it was a mere a cold sandwich other campers had shared with them the day before. Pamela warmed up some water on their Coleman stove and gave the kids warm face cloths to wash themselves up with inside the tent. The good thing was that Jigger Johnson had flush toilets that didn’t stink. They even had a set of showers at the very front of the campground, but in the morning you usually had to take number to get in.
At school, Kyle and Lola went about their business. But Lisa heard the whispers right away. Her girl friends had been telling her that she was good looking and that all the boys in school were noticing her. But didn’t feel it when she looked in the mirror and saw her thin frame and her straight blonde hair that was exactly like her mothers.
A week after they started living at the campground, this one boy, Taylor Johnson, came over and sat down next to Lisa during lunch. She slapped him when his hand reached over toward her lap under the table.
Taylor, a tall, sandy-blonde senior who was on the football team, looked at Lisa like she totally misunderstood.
“Hey! Hey!” he clamored.
He tenderly took her hand, the one she had just tried to hit him with, and slipped a fifty-dollar bill into it.
List looked down at it bewildered.
Quickly she stuck it down in her lap so no one else could see. She didn’t understand. She had never even spoken to Taylor Johnson before.
She watched as his face slowly turn red. He leaned in and whispered. “I grew up in Miami before I moved here.”
As he leaned back their eyes met.
“I was homeless before,” he mouthed to her so no one else could hear. And just like that, Taylor Johnson—senior, football player, formerly stuck up, no good, fake, plastic type—nodded to her like they had always been friends.
Three weeks later Lisa’s dad received some money from his sister out in Mesa, Arizona. He also was able to get a 1-night a week job at Vito Marcello’s Italian Bistro, where he cleaned the kitchen on Sunday nights. He only worked 4 hours, but they paid him a whole day’s wage. They also packed him a huge basket of freshly cooked Italian goods to take home with him—veal parmesan, Tuscan veal chops, Joseph’s special lasagna, and rigatoni and meatballs for the kids. Between the restaurant and the money his sister sent, Sherwood managed to get his family out of the campground and into the Stardust Hotel over by the edge of town.
Lisa was shocked to find that there was a school bus stop right there at the hotel every morning. Ten other local families who had been dispossessed from their homes were all quietly living there now too.
Soon the job over at Vito’s turned into a three-night a week gig. Pamela eventually got a part-time job at the Bavarian Chocolate Haus in town. Kyle and Lola stuffed themselves each night with every sort of chocolate. One night when Lisa was looking for her sneakers she found her younger sister’s Cinderella slippers stuffed full of dark pecan turtles, coconut clusters, and dark chocolates dipped in apricot. Lisa didn’t have the heart to say anything to Lola. But it almost made her want to cry.
At night when she couldn’t sleep Lisa would get up and go out jogging. At 11 o’clock one night she quietly got up, crept out the hotel door, and left her family at the Stardust so she could run some of her anxiety off.
Running at night under the stars in the moonlight with the mountain peaks poking through these large holes in the clouds made Lisa feel like she was alive again; far away from the place where she had to exist during the daytime.
She tried to picture her future as she ran. Where she would go to college. What city she would live in. The green color of the eyes of the boy she knew she would marry someday. But the faster she pushed herself, the further away she got from what she was running away from, the more these pictures became abstract and in blocks of blue and gray, disheveled pieces of emotion, distant specks of brown and yellow paint drizzled over her mind until it looked like the wild colors of nest and string in Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948.
Jogging by the empty parking lot at Wal-Mart Lisa noticed these two jacked up white pickup trucks off by the side where the dumpsters resided.
As she ran across the parking lot one of the white pickup trucks lights came on.
The next thing she knew it was driving fast across the parking lot, screeching to a halt in a cloud of smoke right in front of her like in the movies.
Three boys, all juniors, jumped out the windows of the pickup truck.
With great swagger, they came walking over to her.
Tommy Matson was the only one she recognized. He grabbed her by the arm. He then started to pull at her T-shirt like he was playfully trying to rip it off her.
“We’ll give you a ride home … if … you know?” he said. His eyes gazed down at his crotch.
“I don’t want a ride home. Especially from you.”
The next thing she knew Taylor Johnson’s bright yellow 1971 Plymouth Barracuda came driving up fast behind all of them.
All three boys scattered like cockroaches.
Taylor jumped out of his Barracuda, his hands half-making a symbol like a gun as he yelled at the top of his lungs. “You call that a truck? Piece of junk!”
Lisa stood there trembling.
“Thank you,” she said. Her arms wrapped around Taylor as he stared at the three boys who were driving away now.
Quickly, she changed gears and kissed him on the cheek. She noticed his mouth and arms didn’t reciprocate.
She leaned back, mortified, because she thought maybe he thought she was this pathetic, homeless, freak.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean that.”
He looked at her so damn beautiful.
He reached his hand over to her chin, where he gently turned her face so she had to look at him. He then tenderly touched her blonde hair with his other hand.
A quick smile flashed up on his face.
“You’re beautiful, Lisa Van Essen,” he told her. “No matter where you live. It doesn’t even matter.”
He leaned forward and gently kissed her on the mouth; and then they kissed a little longer until she leaned back, because she was terribly embarrassed at how dripping wet she was from having been jogging earlier.
As she took a deep breath Lisa watched him start to back away.
When he got to his open front door he nodded for her to get in his yellow Barracuda. “I’ll take you back to your hotel,” he said.
She felt sick.
“You know where I live?” she asked. There was disappointment in her voice now.
Taylor nodded his head yes. “Everyone knows,” he said. He shrugged his shoulders like it was no big deal to him. “It means nothing, Lisa. Trust me. I know.
“Home is in here,” he said. His hand pointed at his head, and then at his heart.
This pain ebbed through her chest. She felt sick and excited and turned on all in the same breath. She nodded her head, yes, because she wanted so much to believe what he was telling her.
“Maybe we can go out some time,” she blurted out. Almost immediately she felt regret saying it.
Taylor seemed to laugh it off.
“What?” she said half smiling.
“It’s just no girl has ever asked me out before,” he said. There was this serious look on his face.
“No. Not once.”
“Well other girls are idiots then.”
A warm, relaxed smile came to his handsome face.
“I can cook, too, you know,” she said; her shoulders got all this bravado in them.
“I believe it.”
He had this beautiful smile on his face as he slid back down into his yellow Barracuda. She watched as he seemed to wait a second to see if she would change her mind about that ride back to the Stardust; and when she stood there without moving, actually frozen in place, Taylor politely nodded, didn’t mention anything about their date, and he smiled as he very boyishly spun the tires of his yellow Barracuda by stepping on the gas and holding down the brake.
This blue-gray smoke came from his tires as his car screwed a hundred miles per hour out of the parking lot, going sideways down the road until his taillights traveled fast up White Mountain Highway back toward town and Mount Washington where God lived.
A little while later she quietly snuck back into the hotel room with her parent’s none the wiser about what had transpired that night up in the White Mountains.
As she lie there on her air mattress staring at the swirls in the hotel ceiling, she couldn’t stop thinking about him now. Over and over she wondered how he could like her when her own best friend at school, Stacy Bianchi, would only say “hi” to Lisa now and wouldn’t even sit with her at lunch anymore. After repeating this in her head over and over she finally fell asleep; dreaming that she was back in her old bedroom in the house she grew up in.
As the months passed Lisa and her brother and sister finished the school year on the honor roll. Her parents took any job they could, but still they had to go to the North Conway food bank, where they received as many staples as they could, but Lisa hated the place, because it was right next to the girl’s high school soccer field.
As the cool nights of the New Hampshire spring turned into these lush, hot summer nights, Lisa started to hang out with Taylor and his friends up at Echo Lake. There they peeled off their clothes and went swimming to cool off from the incessant heat of the Bermuda high. Some of his friends, especially the older ones, drank Budweiser and smoked pot, but after trying it and not feeling much of anything Lisa started to say no by telling everyone that pot gave her a headache. Some nights her and Taylor would put their sneakers on and walk around the scenic trail that traversed the lake. Other nights they would take all their cars and go up the mile-long auto road all the way to the top of 700-foot high Cathedral Ledge that overlooked Echo Lake and all of North Conway.
Atop the pristine pine topped ledge, Lisa and Taylor talked all night about their dreams and hopes and plans and assumptions about how life would turn out. Each knew exactly what type of house they would live in, how many kids they would have, their names, the color of the dog they would own, how many cars they would have, and exactly how much they would earn at that dream job, because you had to love what you did for a living, otherwise why do it?
Without him even knowing it he taught her how to kiss a million different ways; and for the first time in her life she felt as though she loved somebody.
Toward the end of that summer, on an especially hot summer night, Lisa went with Taylor and his friends up to the lake. Like usual, Lisa and Taylor told everyone they were going to make a pass around the lake. Instead, they found a spot together, where there was a small white catboat. They got in it, Taylor, pulled up the mast, and they sailed out into the center of the lake.
Specs of light glittered upon the black surface of the lake as it mirrored the tapestry of stars pinched into the sky all above them.
“There’s something I’ve got to tell ya,” Taylor said as they sat there motionless in the boat. He looked up over at White Horse Ledge. “I got accepted to Cal-Tech,” he said.
Lisa felt this sharp pain in her heart, but she didn’t say anything at first. She could feel herself start to hyperventilate.
“But what about me?” she asked. There was pain in her voice now.
“You’ll come to see me.”
She nodded her head.
“I’m happy for you. I honestly am.”
He stared at her from the other end of the boat.
“You’re not angry?”
“No,” she lied. “Let’s not talk about it.”
She carefully moved across the boat and turned and sat with her back up against him, so that he was holding her as she stared up at the outline of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range. She watched as satellites flashed across the sky and then disappeared. They talked for a while after that, and she even kissed him, but she suddenly felt far away from him now.
The next morning, Lisa was curt and abrupt with her parents. When her mom asked her to pick her clothes up off the hotel room floor, Lisa looked at her, and then over at her father, who looked exhausted from working all night.
“I’m sick of it here!” Lisa shouted. “I want to be normal again.”
She threw her clothes into a black trash bag and stood there in the middle of the hotel room with her younger brother and sister playing with their Star Wars LEGO’s on the bed.
“Can’t someone help us?” Lisa begged. “Can’t we live in an apartment? Isn’t there someplace else we can go? It has to be your fault. It has to be.” She stared at her parents. “How can it not be your fault? You’re grownups?”
Her dad came over to her as she started to sob.
Her face, dull and red and full of these tears she didn’t want to feel anymore, contorted as she threw herself into her father’s arms and wept bitterly. “I’m going to fix this, hon,” he said to her. “Don’t worry. I can fix this. It’s only a matter of time.”
Two weeks later, on August 25th, she was standing there at corner of Mechanic Street where Taylor lived with his mom. Lisa stood there alone for a long time as she stared at his old yellow Barracuda now up on blocks and covered by a green-gray nylon tarp.
Later, Taylor hugged her out in front of his house, where his mother’s light-blue Chrysler 300 was parked right out in the street. He had given Lisa a card with a hundred-dollar bill in it and a note telling her how she was his best friend. “I wasn’t even sure I was your girlfriend,” she whispered to him.
Lisa watched Taylor as he wiped a single tear from of his eye. He gave her a guilty smile, took a deep breath, and then told her he would see her in a few months.
She kissed him right in front of his mother, trying to give him this broke-hearted kiss he would remember for the rest of his life.
But when she saw him get into his mother’s car, he casually waved goodbye like it was any other day, and she knew she had kissed Taylor Johnson for the last time.
The last week of summer in North Conway was this quiet, existential existence amid a hullabaloo of life that was going on all around her.
Lisa watched as other families she knew bought these brand new sparkling red cars, spruced up their already nice homes, planted new lawns next to other new lawns, bought their kids all these fantastic new clothes, and went on as they normally did, never really knowing how lucky they were. Lisa was actually happy for them. All she could think was that she never wanted anyone else to ever have to feel the way she had been made to feel.
She began to baby-sit, jogging the two miles every other night to the Olszewki’s house to watch their eight-month old son, Conner. She gave the twenty-dollars she made each night to her parents to put aside to help them find someplace else to live other than the Stardust hotel.
When school started up again in the fall, every once in a while Lisa would jog down to Echo Lake and sit around the rocks and dream that she could see the ghost of herself with Taylor like they had been only the summer before.
Around October, when the sugar maples all turned red, and the yellow maples and sallow colored leaves of the aspen and birch burned a bright and fiery yellow, Lisa went down to the lake one last time before the winter set in. She sat there dressed in her brand new winter coat that her crazy red-headed aunt Linda shipped to each member of the family from her home on Long Island.
She sat there on a lichen covered rock, staring up at the heights atop Cathedral Ledge. Her mother and father still only had part-time jobs, all of them stuck living down there at the Stardust Hotel, their old house on Grove Street filled with the laughter and voices and love of some new family. Suddenly, Lisa felt far away from everyone she had ever known. What was happening all around the rest of the country didn’t even matter to her now. What was happening on television didn’t matter. It was as though she had been transported to some faraway planet; and everything that she had ever known was alien to her now. Pain ceased to feel like pain. It was simply this profound sadness that she felt; and she understood why people got drunk now. And as Lisa stared up at the stars in the heavens all around Echo Lake, and she half-smiled when she saw the snow covered peaks of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range as they emerged from out behind a smattering of cloud, she could not help but feel that somehow she had been left behind too.