Kirk Klasson

When The Leaves Are Still Green

When The Leaves Are Still Green

by Kirk M. Klasson

Years ago they knew this was coming. The random letters and anniversaries. The e-mails on missed birthdays. The moments they missed but never let go. Year by year the anniversaries would pass. And year by year the glimpse of what they both imagined there might be slowly dissolved. A destiny wrapped in lazy afternoons and a worn blanket with red and green stripes running through a field of cream colored wool, spread upon a horse haired mattress and rope tied bed, taut with good intentions, where intimates shared dreams and dares with the prospect of something larger and more lasting.

It was only just the end of August but the maples had already turned, anxious for the summer to end and exhausted by the heat, they tossed their blazing reflections on the still, dark waters of the lake in hopes of putting them out. The birds had already left to follow the reclining sun, taking their chatter with them, and the morning’s noiseless shadows lingered well into the afternoon. All the coves that harbored cabins stood empty, shuttered for the rest of the season. So as the day began, the only visible guest was a waning gibbous moon slowly floating west on a cloudless sky of blue.

The lake compound was ancestral, a shared family refuge and sanctuary, part of them but not their’s. Built by earlier generations and passed down, it became a trust held by a group of relatives, not that uncommon a practice with lake properties, even for families that grew apart more than together. To them it was a place that they could never own or possess but one that always owned a part of them. Growing up, the family and relations, itinerant friends and occasional stragglers would take turns occupying the main house, auxiliary house and eight surrounding cabins. Different clans would stake claims on holidays or weekends and for each passing generation a rhythm would emerge. In the off season and on rare occasions when the place was vacant a management company was free to rent it out.

Their introduction was one of convenience, a matter of peer based protocols. Everyone around ten years old was mustered into a gaggle as it afforded an economy of occupation and supervision, a burden shared by older siblings, some who even enjoyed the chore. The rule was when you reached your teens you took your turn. And they did as well for several seasons, long enough to become fast friends. It’s true they were related but by such a great distance that the relationship was all but unfathomable. Each year they discovered a little more of themselves and a little more of each other and with time came to like what they learned. Four years after they were first introduced they started writing letters to each other and looked forward to that as much or even more than seeing each other every summer. In their letters of the spring of that last year, in ways both subtle and plain, they each acknowledged that, should the opportunity present itself, they would welcome taking things further.

He thought it was a stroke of luck to be able to rent the auxiliary house just for a couple of days at the very end of what was still considered the active season. The fact that it was even available meant that the the rest of the property would be vacant. Some of the cabins only had one room and though well maintained could be beyond what some considered rustic. But the auxiliary house was quite snug. It was built for year round occupation back when the place could afford a full time care taker. It’s most notable feature was a large center chimney that hosted an antique cast iron stove in the kitchen, an oversized fire place in the main room and two smaller fire places tucked in the bedrooms upstairs. A stairway, open on the first floor, wrapped around the chimney, changing directions with each landing, a generous stained glass window on the second flight of stairs lit the stairwell walls. The chimney was made of water worn stones and the exterior wall of the stairwell was covered with pictures, dozens and dozens of pictures of families who had spent their summers on the lake. Up above on the second floor were two small bedrooms with gabled windows and broad, hand planed floors.

He was checking the appointments of the bedrooms, blankets, towels, soap and such and the closets stocked with cleaning products, toilet paper and abandoned board games. When he came downstairs, in the corner of his eye, he saw a figure in the main room sitting in a chair reading a book. It was as if she had been there all along, head on her hand, feet tucked beneath her, attention firmly fixed, by all accounts both real and yet so still as to be imperceptible to the rest of the living world.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?”, he asked.

And without looking up the apparition said “What?”

“Aren’t you going to say hello?”

“I was getting around to it.”

She clapped the book shut, sprang to her feet, threw open her arms and, laughing, skipped into his embrace, one they were both reluctant to let go.

“Grab your things”, he said, “and choose a bedroom. I don’t care which.”

Coming back she said, “Did you see the one with the kids on “the rock”?”

“You mean the one with the scrawny scare crows standing uncomfortably close in shallow water looking like they all just won a spelling bee?”

“That’s it. Do you think,” she began, “there’s one…”

“with us?” he finished. “It’s been more than thirty years. Those have all been put in boxes. These are meant to be seen by those who still remember when they were taken. But a swim might be just the thing to wash off the road. How about it?”

“I’ll race you to “the rock”.” she dared.

“I’m not sure I could even find it.”

“The rock” was a submerged boulder some 30 to 40 yards off the end of the dock. And if you reached it you could stand on it and still be in shallow water. But it could be hard to find and it only fit so many. They retired to their rooms to change and came back slightly more self conscious of the intervening years. Mindful of the footing, they ambled to the lake on the makeshift path that they used to race to see who might be first in the water. Once on the dock, they set their towels to one side and threw their legs over the other.

“So how about it?”, she said.

“How about what?”

“How about a race to the rock. Last one there buys dinner.”

“How about you race out there and I’ll meet you here.”

“You mean you’d let me drown?”, she chided.

“Not intentionally. After all, it is your idea. Besides, I’ve never known you to miss a free meal.”

“Did you ever wonder why?”, she asked.

“Why what?”

“Why it took so long for this to happen?”

He looked across the lake as the wind began to stiffen, carrying leaves well out over the water. A steady parade of flat bottomed clouds had suddenly appeared and the lake rose to greet them with feigned familiarity and tousled their reflections into bits of white and blue, dancing here and there.

“In a way I always thought it was inevitable. There was bound to be a wake or a funeral. And there were many. But as was often the case, I wasn’t around. And even if I were, I thought that whatever the chances were of seeing each other, I didn’t want some mawkish eulogy to be the last time we saw each other. I didn’t want that to be my memory. So what did you think would happen?”

“I thought it would happen. Not because of our connections but because there wasn’t any last goodbye. You just left.”

“It wasn’t my choice but you knew I was leaving, we talked about it the day that we agreed to meet. Circumstances just moved things up a bit.”

“You could have found me,” she insisted.

“Why? I waited an entire afternoon. It wasn’t up to me to explain.” His gaze went back to the lake and the clouds. “By the way, what were you reading back there?”

“Wuthering Heights. It used to be one of my favorites and it was the first thing I found on the shelf.”

“Do you know why people leave books like that in places like these?”, he asked.

“Because they’re a good two week read?,” she guessed.

“It’s because no one ever takes them with them when they leave,” he said getting to his feet, “What do you say we head back, clean up and settle in? I think we’re about to get some weather.”

He could still make out the girl he remembered. A little careworn around the eyes but still curious, playful and quick to laugh, lean, with the posture and gait of a dancer, easily acquiring motion, effortlessly sustaining it and weightless when coming to rest. And she still recognized his intensity, as if every moment were a riddle to be solved. Only now, he seemed serious about everything except himself, which he held in something of a bemused regard, almost as if he were a by-stander observing a stranger with an expression of “I can’t believe you just did that”, wryly written in his smile. He’d kept most of his looks but wasn’t nearly as fast to his feet as he used to be and almost every move he made appeared to come with some deliberation. In some ways they both seemed the same, almost as if, apart from growing older, very little had changed. And it seemed they were mostly who they were before or perhaps they’d merely reached a point where being grown up had simply lost its utility. Her taunts were still playful yet tinged with a hint bitterness and his replies were still evasive, neither acknowledging her teasing or revealing what it might be after.

The afternoon’s parade of clouds slowed and gathered, growing sullen and insistent. The wind in the higher boughs suddenly paused and then withdrew, leaving behind a stillness that blossomed like the song of a lone cicada, soft then slowly deafening, a longing without words. In the distance thunder crept between the mountains and spilled into the lake.

She came back to the main room with her hair pulled back wearing a burgundy shirt with a delicate deep blue plaid and kaki shorts and sat in her chair. Her book was still on the end table where she left it. She went to open it again and realized the room was too dark to read so she turned on the lamp on the table next to the book. He returned a moment later and occupied the corner of the couch immediately next to the table with the lamp. He had on the same t-shirt and jeans that he wore when they embraced only now he added a worn out cardigan. The sun and her shirt put a flush on her face and a touch of auburn in her hair and he thought twenty years ago this would have been her color. She looked at his sweater and thought that couldn’t be comfortable given the humidity, that along with he didn’t even change his clothes so either he was hopelessly oblivious or he wasn’t even trying.

Before either one could speak, a bolt burst just south of the house and then clapped against the mountains like the bow of a bell, returning again and again, unable to leave the lake, unable to leave the house, unable to leave the room and they both fell apart in laughter, startled beyond embarrassment. Seconds later a slow steady rain became a roof hammering din.

“So,” he began, “where were we?”

“You left without saying goodbye.”

“Ah yes, that part.”

“I thought you understood”, she said.


“That it was only a hiatus.”

“Only “I hate us.” Yes, I got that part”, he laughed, “But even dogs only wait so long.”

“Very funny. We were young. Maybe too young for some things but not too young to want something different, something new.”

“Of course, but back then wasn’t that inevitable? We couldn’t stay where we had grown up any longer. It was expected we would leave, in fact, we had no choice. Those plans had already been put in place.”

“Exactly what I’m taking about. Those plans were simply a refection of the expectations we’d grown up with. Not just ours but those who raised us.”

“So you believed that sneaking to a cabin back then to be together that last time was part of some larger plot, some secret expectation?”

“Not entirely. But it would have become one, as predictable as the next stop on a commuter train. And I wasn’t ready for that.”

“Commuter trains built this place. And being here now is what?”, he asked, ”Port Washington?”

Her eyes searched the cabin for a response but nothing she found offered her any. Outside the rain had begun to ease and the thunder had found its way south.

“Face it,” he smiled, “I’m not Heathcliff and you’re not Catherine.”

“What’s that suppose mean?” she asked.

“We aren’t some star crossed protagonists, awkwardly late to the party but courageous and enchanting, destined to haunt each other through eternity without the benefit of knowing why. Consider it an advantage.”

He glanced in her direction, measuring the silence, then continued, “OK, so ladies first, let’s have it. What happened after that summer?”

“Well, after school, I joined the corp, a fashionable internship for those who lacked immediate prospects, two years in Latin America teaching english, community organization. It wasn’t all bad but it was certainly enough. And the re-entry wasn’t what I expected. When I got back it was as if I hadn’t left at all. It was as if I had spent two years traveling in a great big circle and ended up exactly where I started. So, in a way, grad school became more than just attractive, it was more like my only option.

I found a good program in cultural anthropology which I thought I could parlay into a career in some kind of social services but fortunately a friend talked me out of it. He suggested political science because it would combine my instincts for organization while affording me an opportunity to find my own voice as an advocate. I was grateful for the advise as well as flattered that he knew me as well as he did. We kept in touch and after graduating he got me my first paid position on a state wide campaign. It wasn’t much, wasn’t enough to cover my rent but it was something. A year later we were married. I think it had more to do with the timing than some shared dream because 10 months later we were filing for divorce. He wanted to be a candidate more than a partner. The last I heard he had become mayor of some small town in Wisconsin.”

“So I take it you no longer keep in touch?”, he asked.

“Not in years. So I went back to sorting it out. I was about to take a job teaching ESL when my dad introduced me to a class mate of his who was launching a campaign for the second district, recently vacant due to retirement. He needed a chief of staff, we hit it off and just like that I was back to politics. That was my first taste of DC. Four years later he tried for state wide office and two years after that the senate.

I couldn’t fathom my naivete. But there were those who helped along the way. Early on I met a member of the leadership staff who took me aside and simply laid it out. She said, “It’s all a game of of spigots and spillways, lobbyist and lawyers. The lobbyists write the bills. They define the sources and uses of funding, the contours and topology where the money collects and pools, where dams and spigots can be placed. Lawyers define the spillways, the entities that transfer the means to the ends, whether those be personal, corporate or political. Our job is to stay out of their way and sell it.”

“That seems pretty cynical”

“Sure. But you don’t get to be in leadership if you don’t understand the game. Then came several years of committee chicanery, banking and granting favors, earning goodwill and extending credit. Grinding the sausage that makes DC so alluring. Along the way I got to meet some of the most powerful people in the country, not just those in politics but those whose names you never hear, the ones with the means to craft the agenda and, as was often the case, their families and friends.”

“So, you could have been a somebody’s somebody.” he smiled.

“In some ways I came close in everything but name, instead I became the anonymous custodian of a public persona. I manned the walls and kept the gates in the halls of power, a name and a number that needed knowing, all for a chance to make a difference. But then the campaign season would begin again and emotional ties would give way to the urgency of winning and after a few cycles the prospect of being a public political companion started to fade as my resume no longer made sense in the brochure. Turns out its not the person, place or agenda that matters, it’s the moment.”

“The moment? I’m not sure what that means.”

“It’s when circumstance and possibility afford you a glimpse of something new, an opportunity to stop what you’re doing and change direction, a chance to have a life that hadn’t previously been imagined. But the moment never materialized. Instead an endless parade of obscure conferences in post card locations with private jets and complimentary accommodations became a regular routine. All of it paid for by the Association for the Preservation of the Saudi Arabian Wilderness or some other equally worthy cause. All of it couched in the shibboleths of virtue, where doing good sometimes required living well beyond your means for extended lengths of time.

Right about then I had a growing sense that it was over. I started eyeing the exits angling for some kind of sponsored sinecure, the preferred way to retire without ever leaving, hard to come by these days. It was about then that I met him at one of these conferences, he was a fellow guardian of the galaxy, a peer in the employ of a rival, slightly younger but polished and poised nonetheless, thoroughly engaged with the enthusiasm that only those new to the game could sustain, not that any of that mattered. We worked on several committees, coordinated several drafts, rallied through all nighters and found ourselves involved. It was intoxicating. But I was never quite sure if it was the person, the places, the secrecy or the cause. There was only one catch. He was married. But that wasn’t the end of it. That came later. I ended up on a draft education bill, billions more in programs, billions more in bureaucracy, when I realized that I had seen the language once before, 20 years before, when I worked on a similar bill with similar programs and similar bureaucracy that was still in place, still being funded but had never worked.”

“So then what?”

“So then my mother passed and I got out.”

“Because it seemed so futile?”

“It wasn’t that. A worthy cause is never futile. And besides, it wasn’t my money so why should I care? I had lost the connection. Emotionally and physically.” she added, “In politics, there are no loose ends. They are waste of time. Without connection, there is no value and without value there is no reason to be there. Down there, it’s theater, merely make believe. The players are the audience and the audience the players, a cotillion of blind ambition masquerading as benign intent. So it was time. And what about you? What about your great adventure?”

He took a moment, weighing her story and pondering what version of his own might suit the occasion, then brushed back what was left of his hair, stared at the floor, cleared his throat and began.

“There’s not that much to tell. I had a knack for engineering. Almost finished school but got bored and decided to take a job with a communications company. Back then there were a slew of them, a new one being started every week. Early on I found a knack. Accidental, mostly. It seems somewhat corny now. Merely helping people find inspiration in what’s in front of them. Most people spend years doing the same thing, well past the point of boredom. Then they wake up and think what the hell an I doing here? With you? With this?

All I did was to suggest, “Be a part of this. See yourself in it. Do this and watch what happens. To you, to us, to your family and friends.” And when they did, things happened. It wasn’t selfless. It wasn’t heroic. It wasn’t like some pentecostal snake show that cured the halt and healed the lame but it made several ordinary people wealthy and most of them disappeared. I don’t know where they went but I believe wherever they ended up they looked at what was in front of them and thought, do this and watch what happens.

In some ways I guess that was why it worked. After a couple of years a friend introduced me to another engineer who had come up with an ingenious way to cram enormous amounts of data into the tiniest slivers of bandwidth. Turns out, it was truly an astonishing innovation with profound implications for the industry, a leap of such magnitude that he had a hard time trying to explain it. But anyway, I became convinced that the only way to get it launched was to build a modest proof of concept. It helped that we were engaged in a brand new business, in a brand new industry, where demand was practically insatiable, where you could afford to make mistakes and then move on, without concerns about whether your prospects would be irreparably damaged.”

“But it seems you did quite well. And that would explain why.”

“Haven’t we all? Only a fool mistakes his circumstances for his accomplishments and ours were beyond good. We even had the luxury of complaining about them. Something our parents couldn’t afford.”

She shook her head as if to agree, acknowledging the sacrifice involved.

“The me you want has come and gone. And it wasn’t as much fun as it seems. I saw more middle seats and chicken Cesar salads than probably any other human being living or dead. Along the way, I found familiar things. The Il Fornaio, the Ark in Kensington, the Casa di Delfo. And places whose only gift was that of sleep. The Garden Court, the Baur au Lac, the Eden. And on rare occasions a chance to find some mementos. Yavai’s bicycles on Montmartre, furoshiki in the Oedo market, gilded olive trees in the shops of Athens. I gathered them like keepsakes when they were really only artifacts of a life less lived. Like some people collect depression glass. Kind of kitsch. An inside joke.You had to be there and it just so happened I was.”

“But you must have had opportunities.”

“Opportunities? You mean for relationships? Sure, there were opportunities. And with each there were concessions and considerations, unspoken and unknowable. Commitments like that aren’t trivial, they require every ounce of energy, every moment of grace, every murmured prayer that you can muster if they are to be sustained and the moment you become distracted, the instant you lose that thought and look away, they vanish before you even know they are gone. Look around here. Those pictures are worthless without the memories that sustain them. Merely abandoned ephemera. What’s a memory without the reason for the moment?

In the parks around Paris there used to be these miniature carousels where the littlest of children could go for a ride. And I used to watch them wait, bursting with anticipation, until their parents could dutifully place them on a horse or a duck and then watch them spur their chosen steed as if their wish alone could make it fly and then watch as they slowly dissolved into existential anguish the moment the music began and their parents stepped away. I wasn’t that kid. I knew that the next three minutes on that duck were going to be better than the next three weeks, three years, three life times waiting for another chance to get on that ride. I was the kid that wouldn’t get off, no matter how many others were waiting. I was the kid the other kids hated. Until they actually got on the ride.

So there were opportunities. And, sure, there were some regrets. But I stayed on the ride for as long as I could. In some ways, it was the kindest thing I’ve ever done. And it ended as I always knew it would. Suddenly. Abruptly. The things I believed no longer mattered. The values that sustained me were no longer relevant. They still mattered to me but not to those who still mattered. And when it ended there was more gratitude than remorse. I thought it would be hard. But it wasn’t. I thought that I would miss it. But I didn’t. And as far as the eulogy is concerned, the anecdotes aren’t all that compelling to begin with and, besides, no one would be there to hear them anyway.”

She can’t see it, he thought. She had not moved on but merely misplaced a moment and thought that by rummaging through the attic it might turn up again. That last summer she wanted the exciting, the new; different people, places, possibilities, not a reunion of distant relatives regardless of how close they had grown. In the end she might have found more middle seats and more pointless destinations than he had.

Outside the rain had stopped. Far to the south the rumble of thunder continued.

“Do you remember the rain?” he asked, “It rained like this that afternoon.”

Remember the rain? She could scarcely remember the boy. They had only just been introduced. He was athletic, witty and inappropriately familiar. The first time they were alone he all but flat out said that she would like it. His friend’s parents had already left and he was leaving in the morning for his final year of college.The mere prospect consumed every ounce of her attention. And he wasn’t wrong. It was expedient, discrete, thrilling and over.

“Come on,” he said, “ I want to show you something.”

She held the door as he grabbed two lanterns. He turned them both on as they stepped into the dusk. The storm had passed, the sky had cleared and the last bit of twilight still lingered above. The smell of rain rose from the woods like a grateful sigh, gruntled and relieved, summer’s torpid idles finally quenched. They made their way back to the dock, descending on the path the roots and rocks allowed, tree frogs pausing and resuming their calls as they made their way to the water.

“It’s getting really cold so this had better be worth it.” she scowled.

“This won’t take long, just a few minutes.”

He placed a lantern at the end of the dock and raised the other with is left arm and with his right took her hand and steadied her into the rear of the boat. Then holding a pier he lowered himself in the middle. He turned and released the lanyard and then place the lamp on the floor behind his bench. He pushed an oar against the dock to give them space to leave.

“The afternoon we were going to meet was just like this. A rain that broke the heat. I remember waiting for the thunder to stop to go back out on the lake for one last look. You could still feel the sun in the water and watch the mist rise from the lake like breath on morning air. I’m not sure why but I knew even then that I wouldn’t be back.”

“Why was that?”, she asked.

“I couldn’t think that there would ever be a reason. I suspect you felt the same. We were heading in different directions and this particular place we’d never have reason to see again.”

“Yet, here we are.”

They passed the next several strokes in silence. The lantern lit the mist and the plumes of vapor became a veiled host guiding them to some remembered destination. And although they were only a few feet apart, they could barely see each other, her face hidden by his shadow and his eclipsed by the light from the lamp behind him. He paused and raised the oars to get his bearings.

“This is about as far as we dare go, unless we want to find our way back at dawn.”

He let go the oars and slowly the boat lost all momentum and silently came to rest atop a shallow knoll of a sleeping lake. Shrouded by night, surrounded by mist, they waited.

“So”, she demanded.

“So?”, he replied.

“There’s nothing to see here”, she said.

He turned, reached behind and shut the lantern off.

“Nothing unless you look up”, he said.

For a moment there was only black, a senseless nothingness, opaque and impenetrable, a moment filled with memories never made, a monument to lives never shared.

And then, in a flash, the sky filled with stars.

She felt the breath leave her body like the night they first kissed and she reached for her bench to steady herself from the dizzying spectacle slowly turning above. Suddenly it all came back. His touch on her skin. The smell of the blanket. The whispered dreams and dares.

It was if the night had swallowed them like a giant snake, boundless in every direction, without beginning or end, now or then, before or after, meaningless concepts of no consequence, no what ifs, no what thens, no imagined anguish of the memories that might have been.

He left the lantern off as he grasped the oars and slowly turned the boat around.

“The light we see is very old. So old that some of those stars no longer exist,” he whispered, “and if it weren’t for their distance we wouldn’t see them at all.”

She heard the oars complain and in the light from above saw her breath hang in the air and felt the fog against her face with the lurch of each new stroke. Perhaps now, she thought, there was an us, the rain, the lake, the stars, maybe this was meant to be our moment, this was our beginning, there was still time, we could come back next year when the leaves are still green or find some place new that’s our own, perhaps this is what was meant to be, or maybe, she thought, there was never any us at all.


Copyright©Kirk M Klasson 2023

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