After teaching an afternoon class at the college, he’d relax with a beer on his little porch in the woods. Even in the cold months he sat there to gaze across the narrow valley to the long ramble of mountain ridge, where the slopes turned a milky blue at twilight and the sky ripened to an incredible deep sapphire. Atop the ridge a line of wind turbines poked up, an odd human intrusion, their pale blades rotating slowly even when the valley air hung motionless.
By late winter, six months into his exile, he decided the isolation here was curing him, and he shelved the pills from his shrink. Body and mind were clean now, so why trade one crutch for another?
Most mornings, from the two-story hillside shack he rented by the month for what he used to spend at Whole Foods in a week, he watched mist rising like shreds of a ghost from the hidden creek in the valley. It was kind of ethereal. And late at night, twin eyes would emerge now and then near the base of the mountain, wiggle up and down, disappear, blink on again, snake right and left, accompanied at last by a low growl like a mysterious animal warning intruders. Just a truck on the sinuous road to town, probably with supplies for the one supermarket, but in its own way evocative, almost mystical. Who could guess what the driver was thinking? What actual wild creatures might be watching?
There was plenty of homeliness too: the scraggly trees on the rocky slope of his tiny yard, the splintery old telephone poles, the ragged brambles lining the gravel of the access road, the rusty mailbox. Not to mention what he saw on his drive into town: The rural front yards with six deceased cars in the weeds. The main drag with its cluster of fast-food joints and cruddy garages and dead-end bars with faded signs. The students who must frequent the worst barbershop and scummiest tattoo parlor east of the Mississippi.
And yet the campus had modern buildings and, he was told, decent labs for the science courses. Assignments were completed and grades tracked via an online learning management system. One restaurant in town offered a hip vegetarian menu.
This mix, the cheek-by-jowl marriage of spectacular and mundane, traditional and new, felt more genuine, more grounded, than his previous life in the city. Those sleek windmills on the ridge were a perfect example, an archaic technology repurposed for the modern age. Probably installed by West Coast technie entrepreneurs, they looked like the toys of a mythical Dutch giant, but somehow they fit the place.
At age 37 he himself was being redesigned and repurposed here in the not-quite-primeval woods. He didn’t miss his 17th-floor job as a research analyst for a DC Beltway think tank, where after eight years he’d advanced to a more lucrative but not more interesting position. Ambition wasn’t his thing anyway. Nor did he pine for office towers, traffic jams or a wide choice of overpriced muffins. He did miss his son, but once his ex got full custody—claiming his use of opioids made him unreliable—he hadn’t seen the boy much anyway.
Her accusations still made him rage. It wasn’t like he was crippled or crazy. In fact, he’d gone to work every day and concealed his addiction from everyone else. Starting with a pain prescription when he hurt his back assembling an IKEA crib—of all the stupid ways to get injured!—the thing, as he called it, had been manageable for years, and though he’d mixed street suppliers with legal ones, he’d never taken to shooting up. Only her intolerance—shit, just once had he forgotten to pick up the boy from daycare, one time!
After she locked him out, he’d wanted to slap her black-and-blue, set her car on fire, grab the child and disappear … not good thoughts. Instead, recognizing his anger as part of the disease, he got clean—by himself, sheer will power!—and moved hundreds of miles away, into the Pennsylvania mountains. With his master’s degrees in both economics and public policy, plus his teaching experience back in graduate school, his resume looked good to a small two-year college. And the change had worked, so far. Though he knew these little bucolic towns oozed drugs of all sorts—and he’d spotted several likely vendors—he resisted temptation, sailing past all that like the clouds scudding along the mountain.
Of course it was lonely. The female faculty members were either too committed, too old, too unattractive or too colossally boring. He had to remind himself not to ogle the 19-year-olds in his Econ 112 class. As for the townies—not that an ex-addict’s standards should be high, but he wasn’t ready to date someone whose idea of a great time was sharing an Onion Loaf at Carl’s Steak & Sea House. This might be a stereotype, he admitted, but it was how he felt.
So he accepted the loneliness with only an occasional cramp in his chest or nervous twitch in his legs. Watching the mountain ridge at twilight, he breathed the super-saturated blue like calming incense. He saw how the slim silver blades of the turbines responded to a hidden breeze as if the Dutch giant moved them with invisible fingers. In January he thought he’d never experienced anything as perfect as the long unbroken snowfields on the way to town. In late February he watched the first new growth poke up around his shanty. It was then that he stopped taking the antidepressant pills. He felt whole.
In March, though, the mailbox bore an envelope with the despicable name of his ex-wife’s law firm. Still deep in debt from his losing fight for shared custody of their son, he needed considerable self-control, and two thumbs of Scotch, to rip the envelope at the flap rather than through the middle.
She required money for child support, the letter said. Though she knew he’d practically gone bankrupt. Though she earned twice what he did. Court papers had been filed, the letter said.
He hurled the whiskey glass across the room, where it shattered against the rickety bookcase he’d bought at a yard sale.
It was only a couple of days later that he saw the woman in the department office. Shoulder-length, glossy brown hair with a slight curl at the end. A soft curve to her cheek, kind of a saucy nose. Firm arms, slim hips, long calves. Early thirties? His heart leapt while his groin stirred.
She was talking with the department secretary, whom she seemed to know well. As he approached to check his mail slot, he slowed to allow for an introduction, and when the secretary didn’t acknowledge him, he waved a hand and murmured, “Hi, Rhonda.”
“Oh,” the secretary finally said. “Carol, this is the man that took over your classes.”
Which confused him because he hadn’t been told he was taking anyone’s classes, though it stood to reason that someone had taught them before. He stepped up to shake the woman’s hand, and as he did so noticed the stroller behind the counter. A blonde-haired baby in cotton cat-print jammies wiggled its toes at him.
Carol smiled warmly. “Thank you so much for filling in. Around here it’s difficult to find a good person.”
They had a nice chat, and as he was leaving he heard Carol tell the secretary that she was checking into child care options so she could return to work in the fall. The baby gurgled.
Through his afternoon class this incident festered in the back of his mind until, home on the porch, beer in hand, he looked at it squarely. His contract ran through the end of term, and there’d been no promises beyond that. On the other hand, there’d been no signal that he was merely “filling in.” Did he want to stay? Yeah, he wasn’t ready to leave, not yet—and he didn’t want to be forced out. And with the legal attack dogs snarling after him for blood money, loss of his job would mean bankruptcy for sure.
Should he start a frantic search for a new position? Why hadn’t he prepared for next year already—where was his economic common sense? His stomach jittered with awareness that he’d let things slide. But wait: At this little college his department covered a lot of traditional disciplines, and with his background he could easily manage an intro course in politics, statistics, whatever. On the other hand, it wasn’t a good sign that the secretary, who’d always been friendly in the past, had introduced him as “the man that took over your classes,” not bothering with his name.
Muddled with this back-and-forth, he decided to talk with the department chair to clarify his prospects. Then he drifted into a daydream of sharing courses with Carol, discussing the best ways to present disequilibrium and CPI calculations, discovering she wasn’t married, comforting her on the breakup of her relationship … Meanwhile he saw the declining sun wink off the turbine blades atop the ridge. Gray-blue shadows streaked the valley, and gleaming threads of fog wove through the trees along the hidden creek.
The next weeks did not go well. The chair evaded his requests for a meeting. Additional legal papers arrived, a thicket of abstruse cant specifying a hearing date in June. His students, only modestly attentive at best, tuned out more and more as spring advanced, and he wondered if he’d be blamed for their lapses. As he turned around from the whiteboard one morning, he saw a flash at the classroom door. Was somebody peeking in to count the number of kids playing on their phones? Later, as he entered grades, he wondered if the chair could spy on him through the online management system. The threats seemed to gather into an amoeba-like blob with concealed spikes.
One day a torrential storm washed mud across the road and crashed a tree onto the main bridge to town. After driving 14 miles out of the way, he tromped with sloshing shoes into his classroom to find only two students there. He dismissed class early and spent three hours in a bar eating greasy chicken wings, guzzling bottled lager and watching sports talk shows on TV.
In the following days, his equilibrium broken, he began to indulge in revenge fantasies, inventing complex scenarios to humiliate his ex and her lawyers. He drank more beer and replenished his supply of cheap Scotch. Oddly the back trouble that had started him on drugs, a pain cured years ago, returned to send twinges up his spine.
On April 18, checking his calendar, he realized that in his distraction he’d forgotten his son’s fifth birthday on April 16. No present from Dad. No reminder that Dad still existed. Nothing to counter whatever lies the child’s mother was propagating. Was he deluding himself about his merits as a father? No, he argued, thinking of their walks together in a park, the times they’d put those little wooden puzzles together, the times that— He should phone right now—but no, there was no point in trying, the bitch’d refuse to let him talk to the boy.
All that day he cursed her, sometimes so hard he didn’t know if he yelled the words aloud. Oblivious, he splashed straight through the puddles left by another rainstorm, then wondered why his pants were wet. Were people on campus glancing at him sideways?
That evening as darkness fell, he felt the hankering he knew so well, the yearning for sweet relief, the thing. Right now he needed that sense of floating in a warm stream, the all-over bliss, the tingling like a mild but lingering orgasm. This fucking Scotch was a poor substitute; no matter how much he drank, it didn’t fill the hollow. It didn’t even dull the throbs in his back.
He sat on the porch shivering in a thin jacket as he polished off the latest bottle. Over the ridge a huge rising moon picked out high ribbons of mist but failed to penetrate the fog-congested basin. Tomorrow he would do something, something—try to call his son, force the department chair to speak with him. Could he wangle a prescription from a town doctor? Or should he corner one of the students he’d identified as a likely source?
Wait, what was happening across the valley? Starkly outlined by the moon behind them, the wind turbines loomed far too large for objects half a dozen miles away and high up the mountain. Those weren’t mere toys of a giant. In the weird backlight they’d grown monumental themselves, their sails like immense rotating swords. He closed his eyes a moment, and when he looked again his body jerked.
The windmills had come nearer—like they were sneaking up on him, their techno-primitive legs tiptoeing across the bed of mist below. As they advanced, the blades kept turning, slowly, relentlessly, in their invisible breeze.
He rubbed his eyes, stared, shrank in the chair. After all the progress he’d made, was he flipping out now?
Silence. Silence pulsing through the valley.
The gigantic blades crept closer. Shouldn’t he be able to hear them now? Why did they make no sound?
Sam Gridley is the author of the novels THE SHAME OF WHAT WE ARE and THE BIG HAPPINESS. His fiction and satire have appeared in more than fifty magazines and anthologies. He has received two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and neurotic dog and hangs out at the website Gridleyville.blog.