The schedule had long been set. He had been told to buy new clothes if he must, that it would be an important season. Ernie said he wanted no more shenanigans. It hadn’t stopped the sections in his life from colliding. He smiled when the network suits spoke to him, and felt like he was still falling to earth.
The Scottsdale patio was quiet. Dying embers in the grill. Voices and laughter drifted up from the greens below. A young couple had managed to sneak on after dark, counting fireflies. Craig sat in his Adirondack, feeling as if time had passed him by. Anne spoke from the shadows by the slider. She had been watching his silhouette.
“You’re leaving again, aren’t you?”
Sager didn’t answer. A glass came out of nowhere, splintered against the leg of the grill, a million tiny pieces flying.
“Fuck you, Craig!” She turned and went back inside. Sager smiled grimly. Beware the dancer.
Three days driving, crumbled farms and outlet malls. He’d taken the RAV4 out of mothballs, taped favorite photos and clippings to the dash. Sunflower seeds in the ashtray and songs inside his head. He crossed the border, Saskatchewan was calling.
Walter and Doris stood in the doorway, blinking. “You’re back.”
Sages pushed his way past, a duffel slung over his shoulder. He was damned tired and sweaty. “Yes, mother. Your powers of observation are undiminished.” The overpowering stench as he opened his door. “Dammit! What is always with the fucking peat moss!?”
Doris’s voice drifted and wavered. “We needed your room for the peat moss.”
Craig tossed his duffel into a free corner, turned and stalked back up the hallway with its warped wood paneling. And stared evenly at his father.
The father sighed and followed the son. And they each put 40lb bags on their shoulders and walked single file into the crisp night air and after they deposited each bag they turned and retraced a timeworn trail, and the ritual took place over and again and they said not a word. And after, Craig opened his windows and vacuumed the floor and borrowed candles from the mother, scented of apple. And took a shower and was clean again.
It was late. Sager was wearing sweats and eating crackers. He pulled sagging cardboard boxes from the closet and looked through them. He put the cassette of ‘Suzanne’ on the portable tape player. There was a wooden cigar box with cards and curios and he rocked from side to side with the music and called out now and then, “Mom! Is there any pudding?”
He revisited the old haunts but it felt like the last time he was here and he was conscious of the stares and whispers. He thought he remembered school and his parents and his friends and the way the fake fur felt on his skin when he was Willie the Wildcat. He followed an old girl friend to the park and watched as she pushed her son on the swing. And she turned and hissed at him, “I told you last time, I never really liked you. I’m married now!”
And he looked and asked her, “Was I ever really here before?”
And she took her son and hustled him away. She didn’t need this crap.
Craig sat at the dining room table with Walter and Doris. “This is good meatloaf, mom. You always made a good meatloaf.”
Walter viewed the world in terms of essential goods, needs and services. “Isn’t basketball season beginning soon?”
Sager nodded carefully as he chewed, wondered if there was desert, knew better than to ask.
Walter pondered. There was not enough room in the shed for the bags of peat moss. Some of them were sitting outside, in the damp night air. “Nobody ever gave me nothing, boy. Worked at the coat factory for long hours to put food on the table. The bits of fiber stick in your lungs and fester. They don’t tell you that when you start.”
Craig narrowed his eyes, swallowed the last bite. He would come back to the kitchen later for more to eat. After the parents were asleep. “Well, thank you for that. I need to go to my room and make some business calls now. The season will be starting soon, you know.” He pushed his bulk from the table and made his exit.
Doris patted her husband’s arm. “That went well, I think.”
Walter nodded. He hoped so. The boy had never been quite right. The music and clothes and questions about interpersonal relationships. The fact that he named his children after woodland creatures.
Inside his room, Craig rewound the cassette to his favorite spot. He opened the wooden box and arranged things inside it. All his memories were there.
Craig was sitting on his rock by the stream, filled with wonderment. Chipper or a beaver that certainly looked like Chipper, was carefully constructing a dam. Could it really be the same beloved animal from so many years ago? Could he return to a place in time?
“Hey Chip, hey buddy. Remember me?”
The beaver continued to work methodically, churning up mud with his front paws. Another beaver floated nearby, watching.
“Is that Mrs. Sleek? Oh my gosh. That is really something.”
“Why are you talking to those animals?”
Sager whipped his head around, instinctively put his hand over a baggie of graham crackers. They were his. A young boy was standing not far away, his head cocked to one side. Sager relaxed a little, smiled toothily.
“Hey sport. These are woodland friends of mine. We go back a long ways.”
“The kid’s eyes narrowed. “You’re Craig Sager.”
Sager smiled. “Yes, I am.”
“Why aren’t you stateside? The season’s starting soon.”
“I am finding solace from mother nature. Have you ever listened to Leonard Cohen?”
“No, I don’t know what that is. Are you any good with advanced metrics?”
Craig summoned his patience. Where had the simple beauty gone? “No. I don’t do that. I’m a sideline reporter. I communicate with people. That’s what I do.”
The kid was not impressed. “You wear ugly clothing, that’s what you do. So awkward. If I can’t see it in the stats I don’t give a rat’s ass.”
Sager frowned. “I don’t think I like your tone young man. What are you, ten?”
“Hey fuck you! Shots fired! You’re just a stupid old dinosaur. Fourteen or fight!”
There comes a time in a man’s life when the old ways return. Preservation of the species is tantamount. Craig bent down and found a good-sized rock and whipped it at straight at the little ass-mouth. It bounced off the kid’s shin.
“Hey what the fuck, asshole!”
Craig picked up another rock and took careful aim. This time it hit the boy-creature right on his flawless young forehead. A bloody welt formed immediately and the boy began to cry, and ran away. “Go back to Batavia, creep!”
Craig threw another rock at the kid’s back, just to be sure. He took a deep cleansing breath and turned back to his animal friends, who had been watching curiously. Chip resumed his building efforts. The rain and strong currents would be coming soon. Craig sat back down and took a graham cracker out of the baggie. He had his primitive cassette recorder with him, and rocked back and forth with the music.
It was nighttime when Sager returned to his parents’ house. He could see flashing lights and stayed in the shadows. Two Royal Canadian Mounties were taking notes. Sager couldn’t tell if his parents were covering for him, or simply mystified by what they were hearing. The mounties finally nodded and left, after extracting personal pledges of responsibility.
Long after the mounties had left and the house had gone dark, Sager crept back in and assembled his clothing and a few personal belongings. He climbed into the RAV4 and drove away. Nighttime miles melted away, dark clouds drifting overhead. He practiced lines that he would use on the sidelines and listened to the iconic warbles of a countryman. “Blue, blue windows behind the stars, yellow moon on the rise.”
The elevator dinged softly. Sages got out, polished white loafers on the plush carpet. He walked confidently into Ernie Johnson’s office. Johnson looked up over his rimless glasses.
“I hear there was a spot of trouble in the old familial provinces?”
Sager shook his head, “Nope, no problems at all.”
“You didn’t give some kid six stitches in the head?”
“No my friend. Been working on my golf game in Scottsdale.”
Ernie stared owlishly. “And if I were to say that he’s one of our's?”
Craig’s mouth set. “Webworks sector? I would say my mail runs ten to one better than anyone else here and my contract’s coming up.”
Ernie Johnson sighed heavily. He never got the easy ones. “Okay then. Got your itinerary?”
Sager patted his pocket. “I always have my itinerary.”
The two men stared, twenty feet of carpet and countless years between them. They didn’t blink as a body fell past the window. Sages finally separated and turned toward the door.
Ernie called after him, a peace offering. “How’s Anne and the kids?”
Sager didn’t look back. “They’re super. Anne’s been working out like a maniac.”
Craig Bartholomew Sager walked on down the hall, shoulders straight and proud. The elevators waited, the quiet broken by the occasional soft chime. A figure stepped out from around a corner, watching. There was a bandage on the boy’s forehead and his eyes were clear and pale. His time would come. Sager entered an elevator, pressed the button. The doors closed silently.
Big birds flying across the sky. Throwing shadows on our eyes.