One summer, I went up early to open the small family cabin on the lake. Schuyler and the girls would toodle up a few days later once I had evicted the spiders, expelled winter’s must and stocked the shelves.
Soon, the lake would be teaming with kayaks, dinghies and pale-skinned vacationers hungry for the kiss of summer’s sun after the cold lingering winter. But when I arrived, the week before Memorial Day, it was desolate save for a handful of hearty fishermen and old Chadwick, the lakefront’s only year-round denizen. Chadwick was a retired biologist who moved to the lake full-time when his wife passed 4 years back. He’d always struck me as a curmudgeonly old crank who largely kept to himself.
It was late afternoon on my first day when I caught the smell of the most delicious oaky smoke snaking through air. Out of an abundance of caution, I followed it and ended up in front of Chadwick’s cottage. He was the type of old Yankee that stoked a fire even in the summer time.
Apparently, I fluttered to close to the light and I caught his eye through the screen.
“Well, don’t just stand there,” he barked. “Come on in.”
Chadwick sat in a tattered armchair in front of a roaring fire smoking a pipe. He clutched a sweaty tumbler that undoubtedly contained some potent inebriant.
“Sit down,” he motioned toward a sister armchair of tantamount scruff. One could quite easily have imagined Lady Chadwick nestled in it. As I took my place, Chadwick quite laboriously hoisted himself up, groaning with great pomp and circumstance as an indication of the immense sacrifice he was making for me.
A few minutes later, he returned with a beverage of dubious content.
“This, my young man, is a rum-dum.” He handed me the highball with delight.
I sipped cautiously at the top of it. It was damn good.
“Scrumptious!” I exclaimed.
“Of course, it’s scrumptious. I’ve been perfecting the recipe for 50 years.” And, with that, he launched into a meticulous description of the formula in a manner that only a biologist could:
Plenty of ice. Two ounces guava. Two ounces orange juice. One ounce Bacardi rum. Dark! A dash of bitters. A sprinkling of ground nutmeg. A sprig of mint. And topped off with a generous additional shot of Meyer’s rum.
Between tugs on his pipe, Chadwick offered significant supplemental commentary on the elixir’s alkaline-acid balance, its bitter front end and tart finish and its alcohol percentage.
The more I lapped at my rum concoction the more I enjoyed the loquacious ramblings of old Chadwick. Before I knew it, it was well into the evening and I needed to fill my stomach. On my way out, Chadwick begrudgingly invited me to pay another visit.
The next day, I drank my coffee, scribbled a bit in my journal, took a broom to the rafters and exhumed the linens. As late afternoon rolled in so did the smolder from Chadwick’s fireplace. Content for company, I scrounged up two lackluster cheese-tomato sandwiches and headed over.
Chadwick was in his customary spot, the fire raging. My rum-dum was already poured and perspiring on a short table presumably made for such a purpose beside my easy chair. I offered him the sandwich. He was nonplussed but happily received it.
We stared quietly at the fire for some time, hypnotized, as we got our buzz on.
“Do you recognize this fire?” Chadwick broke the silence abruptly.
“Yes, of course,” I replied. “It’s the same fire as yesterday.”
“It does have the same … form,” he accentuated and protracted the last word dramatically. “But do you know what’s happening there?” He queried and drew deeply on his pipe.
“The wood is burning?” I played dumb.
“Of course, the wood is burning, you nincompoop.” He raised his voice with frustration. “But do you know what is happening?”
Sensing a chemistry lecture, I snuggled deeper into my armchair and slugged down the balance of the rum-dum.
“You see there’s a chemical reaction here between oxygen in the air and the fuel source. That blue bit at the bottom is the highest energy, hence the hottest bit. The coolest part of the flame is redder — near the top. And the by-products of this tryst are carbon dioxide, steam, light and heat. This is an exchange. Energy is being transferred from one place to another.”
“You don’t say?” I quipped.
“I do say. But the point is this: you recognize the flame as a form. But there is no stuff to it. All the molecules that contribute to this distinguishable pattern — that you claim to have seen yesterday — have moved on. That’s it. It’s like a waterfall or a whirlpool. Sure … you recognize the pattern … but it all just moves on.”
And with this verbal flourish, he enthusiastically grabbed the fire poker from the inglenook and jabbed violently at the burning logs. His jousting elicited a constellation of sparks, one of which landed precariously near my foot. As the fire calmed, Chadwick slowly retook his seat. And, once again, we sat in silence, mesmerized by the pattern of the flames.
The next day was much like the prior. That’s what I loved about being at the lake. The construct of time seemed to melt away for there was nowhere to go. The redolence of smoke served as my alarm clock and roused me out the door and down to Chadwick’s.
Once, again, there he was. The fire burned. My rum-dum poised on the sidecar. I distributed the sandwiches. We followed form, tranquilly getting soused.
“What are you made of young man?” he started in.
“Are you testing my mettle?” I rejoined feeling emboldened and somewhat feisty.
He chortled. “Come on, you’re young enough to remember some high school biology.”
“Well, I have a liver — increasingly less functional since I met you. I have a cold, diminutive heart resembling a lump of coal. A pancreas, lungs, a brain.”
“You have organs!” he proclaimed.
“What are they made of?” he pressed.
“Cells?” I replied less confidently.
“Right you are. And what are your cells made of?”
He was pushing the edges of my synapses. “Organelles?”
“Very good. You remember … the nucleus, chromatin wrapping the DNA and the cytoplasm with its ribosomes, the endoplasmic reticulum, the golgi apparatus.” He took time to enunciate each one with precise scholarly diction. “… the mitochondria.”
“Oh, yes, the mitochondria.” That rang a bell. “Our bodies’ power plants,” I exclaimed proudly.
“Don’t get too big for your breeches.” he retorted sensing my sudden hubris. And he proceeded to launch into a diatribe on cellular respiration, replete with a primer on the Krebs cycle and the production of NADH.
“You see, highly-charged electrons zip around the transport chain and protons are propelled across the inner membrane of the mitochondria. And this miraculous, improbable process spins off ATP — the animating force of life!”
He slammed his cocktail and sucked vigorously on his pipe.
“But … here’s the thing,” he continued. “You can’t point to anything. The ATP. It’s gone. The electrons on the transport chain. Gone. The mitochondria itself. Gone and, hopefully, replaced. The cell … perhaps gone. The 39 trillion bacteria in and on me … all gone. They’ve all moved on.”
“If you think I’m the same person now as when I mixed this cocktail then you must believe in reincarnation.”
He grabbed an eroded ice cube from his rum-dum and tossed into the fire. The ice cube sizzled. He cackled. The fire crackled.
“You’re not made of anything. You’re a pattern of energy that takes on form. You’re just like that flame.” He thrust his crooked index finger toward the fire.
“You simply move on!”
And, with that, Chadwick heaved his creaky bones out of the threadbare fauteuil. As he stood, he took a long wistful look at me and hauled off to bed.
The next day, I wrote in the morning and then went into town to fetch various supplies and provisions. I returned and sorted the groceries. As the sky dusked, I quite instinctively drifted over to Chadwick’s cottage. Humans form habits so quickly.
However, when I entered, the front room was dim. I looked toward the fireplace but it was absent of the usual pattern of dancing flames. Only a thick layer of ash rest lifelessly upon the hearth.
I called out for Chadwick but received no reply. I wandered into the kitchen and found a note on the counter next to rum-dum fixings. I picked it up. It read, “I’ve gone for a walk.”
It was curiously late in the day for a stroll. I was disappointed not to see Chadwick. I had gotten quite accustomed to our nightly repartee. I traipsed through the kitchen and out the back door which opened unto a small unkept lawn. There was a pathway half-heartedly delineated by a few random pavers. The trail led into the woods behind Chadwick’s cottage. I followed it, but as the copse of oaks thickened, the path dissolved into the underbrush.
I circled back front. The sun was sinking into the lake and the sky was ablaze in orange. A gaggle of geese flew overhead and disappeared behind a gauzy cloud. I looked far out to see the last fishing skiffs vanish around the dogleg of the lake. A profound stillness passed through me.
What lay beyond the path? Where were the geese flying? Where were the boats drifting? Where did Chadwick go? We simply don’t know.
And just as the whole world had momentarily stopped, I heard the inimitable slamming of a car door. I turned on my heels and spied the form of my sprightly little daughter, Micah. She was hurtling herself toward me across the lawn interspersing cartwheels. I dashed for her and we met in each other’s arms. She was warm from the long car ride, my little flame burning bright.
We all just move on.