Ten years earlier.
Two tents have been pitched at a clearing high in the mountains. It is a day to worship the fall foliage, sunny, the air with a bite to it, crisp, clear, newly cold.
Far below, the farm fields form squares of contrasting green color, fall crops of lettuce and broccoli, waiting to be harvested. Orange pumpkins are piled high near the corner of one of the squares. Another square is brown and orange, half picked and half unpicked.
Ten years younger Michael Russell is a devil with light green, deep-set eyes. Calm and carefree, he hardly resembles the gunman. At 30 Deborah Russell’s striking blonde, still thick, almost hippie curls are the first thing that catch people’s attention. She is petite. She moves like a cat. The children are adorable. Six-year-old Ritchie is quiet and observant, seven-year-old Lisa feisty. They are lucky. They have inherited Deborah’s hair and Michael’s luminescent green eyes. They are graceful like Deborah, with Michael’s energy propelling them.
Michael is eight feet up in a tree. He’s taped his brand new Nikon on a limb above him. Seated on a lower branch, he looks through the eyepiece. He is constructing a family portrait. It’s going to be a great shot.
This shot was planned over a year ago. He told Deborah about it before they arrived. It was hatched while they were making their first visit here and Michael sat on this exact tree trunk. He saw an extraordinary view as he looked down at Ritchie, and wished he had his camera. This time he is prepared.
He screws a cable into his camera he purchased for this picture. The cable will invisibly run to the spot he has designated for himself in the portrait. With the cable, his thumb will physically control the shutter.
He moves them to their places, then plays with the shutter speed. Deborah is beginning to lose her patience. Lisa also has done enough posing.
“Dad, how long do we have to stand here?”
That emboldens Deborah. She gives Michael an “enough already” look.
“Good things come to those who wait.”
He saves fortune cookie advice for the children. And Lisa is never amused. But they both like the ritual of it. This is the tenth time Lisa’s heard it, and the tenth time she’s admonished him with that exact tone of voice.
“One more second.”
He always answers with the same words and it is never a second. Once his stubbornness is aroused he can dig in. He will not be rushed. As he looks through his eyepiece, he is fascinated by how he imagines the picture will look. The four of them will seem surrealistically suspended in air, two thousand feet above the farmland in the valley.
Behind Michael, in front of him, to the right and to the left, is the glory of autumn. Maple trees, birches, and oaks prepare for winter, yellows, oranges and reds, intense pastels, intersected by strong brown tree branches and trunks. Michael likes the beauty of the surrounding foliage, but what he is even more drawn to the immense emptiness in front of him. It beckons him, pulls at him. Once before, on the top of the Empire State Building the same thing happened; again vast nothingness.
He once again feels an urge to jump. He can feel it in his stomach which is poised to react to his leap. Immediately after that impulse comes dread. Like it was a close call. Yet, suicide is not at all on his mind. It never occurs to him. Why that sensation? He read an article that claimed having a desire to jump from a great height is common. So is the quiver of anxiety when the thought registers. Freud took this phenomenon as evidence for one of his most radical speculations. He claimed we have an unconscious wish to die. Fully aware of how crazy it sounded, he nevertheless ranked it with our sexual drive as one of the two fundamental forces shaping our motivation. Despite his anticipation of rejection Freud wouldn’t back down. He felt he had the evidence.
Clearly, this is not a fitting background for a family picture. Why does Michael want to use it? It has nothing to do with his family. The explanation isn’t all that complicated. He’s still young, at an age when novelty can seem exciting, when “originality,” “creativity” are taken as a sign of serious talent. His real talent is plain and simple, his attraction to beauty. But he can’t help noticing the lilt in people’s voice when they describe someone as creative. He would like his photography to be “cool” like that. In fact he likes it a little too much. He has not reached a point where he appreciates how much this kind of vanity interferes with his artistic purposes.
“Okay, everyone stay where you are. Look up.”
Ritchie breaks ranks.
A little too emphatically Lisa grabs Ritchie and returns him to his place.
“Ouch” he cries out angrily.
To deaf ears. Lisa looks up at her father. He smiles his ‘we are partners on a mission’ smile. She loves that connection when it is offered.
Still sitting on the limb, Michael positions Ritchie first to the right, then Lisa to the left. Then he moves Ritchie left again. Lisa pulls on her brother. “Ritchie! Over here,” she commands.
“Look into the camera. Deborah, Lift your chin… more…That’s it.”
Exasperated, Lisa admonishes him. “Daddy take the picture already.”
They are very close to perfection. He likes the way Lisa’s arms are thrown around Harry, their mutt. He likes the way Harry is smiling, half giddy, panting away, ready for the next bit of action.
“Just one more minute. Ritchie, you could be up a little higher.”
A look from Deborah warns him. She has a temper. She has complained many times to Michael about his fussiness when he takes pictures. She’s asked him a thousand times. Why does she have to get angry for it to register?
He hears her, or more accurately sees, how pissed Deborah is. He will have to settle for the picture he has now or get nothing at all.
He hurriedly fiddles with the cable one last time, then swings down and hangs by the branch, imitating King Kong.
“Careful,” Deborah shouts.
He drops to the ground almost bouncing up as he lands. Score one for him against the nay-sayers. Extending the cable he joins them.
“Okay everyone, Look up… Cheese.”
They shout, “Carrot juice.” “Carrot juice” has become a tradition since it made them laugh the first time. This time is no exception. Smiling happy Russells-he likes what he sees. Click, click.
“Okay, one more”
It is the signal the kids have been waiting for. They are outta there.
“Wait!” he yells
Lisa yells back ,“No way.”
Ritchie imitates Lisa.
“Yeah. No way.”
Happy noise: laughter, barking, Ritchie emits a wssssss, an airplane sound as he flies his miniature plane. Chin level he wsssses past Lisa. She drops her coat to the ground and spreads her arms wide so that they resemble airplane wings. She takes off with a wssssss. She shouts to Ritchie.
“My plane is bigger. Wsssssss.,” she yells, twice as loud as Ritchie. “Catch me.”
He reverses course and runs with his airplane chasing her. The two planes circle the campfire. Suddenly Ritchie trips and goes down. He has scraped his knee. He tries not to cry.
From the ground, For one last second Ritchie tries to continue his “Wsssss,” but it no longer is coming from a glorious airplane defying gravity. He fights against his tears.
It is no use. The dam breaks. He hopelessly looks up at his daddy. Michael lifts him and scolds the ground with a ditty.
“Oh what did you do to my Ritchie?
My Ritchie did nothing to you.
The next time you hurt my Ritchie.
I’ll caw-awl the policeman on you.”
Michael kicks at the ground twice with his heels as he shouts
His tears gone, Ritchie is put down and, imitating his father, he clumsily kicks the ground himself, twice with his toes.
He again holds his plane in the air and starts running with it. Lisa turns around and with arms still held wide she makes her wsssss sound still louder, more powerful than Ritchie’s. She is soon chasing Ritchie’s airplane with her own. Harry comes into the picture. They smile triumphantly, join forces, two wissssers united, chasing Harry. He gallops far away. Laughing, Lisa shouts for Harry to return. He barks at her from 20 yards away..
She once again runs around the fire. Watching from the distance, Harry continues to bark. Lisa calls to him. He returns to chase her. Finally catching her, he jumps on her back, a perfect tackle. “Harry!” She screams happily as he brings her down. Ritchie simply stands and watches them with a big fat grin.
The campfire is dying down. The sun is low in the sky. The children are still whizzing around, but shortly exhaustion will take over.
Deborah yells for them to come to her, which they do without protest. It has become a routine. Brushing their teeth. Putting a dab of toothpaste on each toothbrush, she hands the yellow tipped one to Lisa and the green tipped to Ritchie. Lisa holds hers up and inspects it to be sure she’s been given the right toothbrush. From a canteen Deborah pours water on her brush, then does the same for Ritchie. They get to work. Ritchie hums as he goes. Lisa is a more competent brusher. Soon however, they are making more noise than actually brushing.
“Okay enough.” Deborah orders them.
She hands Lisa the canteen for a swig of water. Lisa gargles noisily then spits it out, aiming for the longest distance. She enjoys the idea of spitting on the ground.
It’s Ritchie’s turn. He gargles and spits not nearly as far as Lisa. As compensation Ritchie sticks his toe on Lisa’s wet spot for good measure.
Deborah’s voice breaks through their procrastination. They know perfectly well what comes after brushing their teeth. They deliver their toothbrushes to Deborah. They love the absoluteness of the rules in this routine. Like a game of Monopoly, “Go to Jail, Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.”
The excitement is only possible if you don’t ask why. Why do I have to go to jail? Why can’t I collect $200 dollars? Why? No whys are allowed. No whys are needed. The fun comes from totally living within Monopoly.
“Okay. March to the tent.”
They march. When they get to the entrance she calls to them.
They do so with military precision.
“Wow. Do that again. No wait. Let me call Daddy.”
She shouts from some distance away, “Michael!”
He shouts back, “What?”
Happy marionettes. They repeat their about-face.
He shouts to them. “You want to join the army like me?”
Deborah yells, “I’ll be there soon.”
She turns to the kids, “Okay. In your tent. I’ll come in to kiss you good night in a minute.”
No protest. Sleeping in the tent is a treat. Off they go.
Deborah washes their toothbrushes while listening to the crackling timbers in the fire.
She shouts to Michael. He waves from the distance. She inches her skirt little by little up her long legs.
He loves her legs. He’s told her many times that he married her for her legs. She swims miles at the YMCA pool every other day to keep them that way.
She enters the children’s tent, picks their clothes up and folds them. They are excited. This is a treat. Normally they sleep alone in their rooms at home. They are sitting side by side with their legs in a shared sleeping bag.
Lisa is wearing a ring that Deborah had found in her mother’s attic. It belonged to her grandmother’s great aunt, a beauty who had never married. The ring had been given to her by a young man who was killed in a duel fought over her. She remained true, wore the ring for the rest of her life, never marrying. After she heard the story, Lisa asked for it. Deborah had it sized. Lisa wouldn’t take it off even when she took her bath. Something about that story.
Lisa hands her ring to Ritchie, “Put it on tonight. It means we are married.”
Ritchie counters, “I can’t marry my sister. Right Mommy?”
“Make believe,” Lisa argues.
The boss interrupts.
“Come on guys.”
Lisa ceremoniously puts the ring on his finger. Ritchie lies back, enchanted with the thought of being Lisa’s husband.
Deborah snaps him out of it. She has him slide further into the bag so that she can zip him up on his side. Next Lisa. Deborah looks into her eyes. Her lips are parted. She gives her a juicy kiss which makes her giggle. As Lisa brings her arms inside her bag and Deborah zippers her up they smile at each other, a devil in Lisa’s eyes. Deborah gives Ritchie a kiss. As usual he gives her his yuck face.
There is still a bit of light. Not long after Deborah has left the tent, giggling excitedly, Ritchie and Lisa share a look of complicity. Lisa unzips and flashes her hidden Hershey Bar.
She puts her finger in front of her lips. “Shhh.”
Their arms disappear inside the bags. Ritchie pinches Lisa.
From outside the tent Deborah warns them.
They giggle again. Deborah sticks her head back in the tent. They let out a startled scream. Then more giggles. Deborah pretends she hasn’t seen the chocolate bar. After it disappears under the cover she points her finger at them, teasingly accusing them. A high pitch tweet from them. She gives them their definitive goodnight, a “that’s enough” face. They settle down quickly. The fresh air has had its effect. As their eyes close they are already half asleep.
Smiling, Deborah walks away and settles by the fire. She listens to crackling twigs and sparks flying out from the fire. She stares at a log luminescent orange framed by grey ash. She is soon absorbed by the constancy of the flames and sparks. She grew up with a fireplace. She misses it in their New York apartment.
Every once in a while, she thinks she hears an animal stepping on a stick behind her. A cougar jumps out of the dark woods! A quick look in that direction. It’s Harry settling down. She feels a chill. She puts on a sweatshirt and gets closer to the fire. Sitting on a boulder, she lights a joint, unwinds, stares into space, finally calm with the darkness all around.
After 10 minutes she reenters the children’s tent. They are sleeping peacefully. Her eyes embrace them as she listens to their gentle breathing. Lisa coughs. Deborah continues to listen. Her breathing is a bit nasal. She finally convinces herself that it is nothing, as Michael invariably tells her. As she parts the door flap of the tent to leave she can make out Michael sixty yards away.
He is seated where they took the picture, on the edge of the cliff thousands of feet above the valley. The ledge is tilted slightly downward. Deborah appears. She is feeling the marijuana, grinning like a happy child.
Approaching carefully, she grips the rock with her strong fingernails for traction as she slides next to him.
She slips anyway, but quickly recovers.
“Whoa. That was close,” Michael says.
“I’m all right.” She examines her finger. “I broke a nail.”
In the quiet she sits close to him, both of them looking straight out into the emptiness.
“How is your book going? How’s Cornelius?”
“Amazing- as always. He refused to quit.”
“I still don’t get what’s so interesting about Vanderbilt?”
“He came from nothing and died the richest man in the world. Believe me there is a story there.”
“But two years on this guy. It’s like he’s part of our family. Truthfully I think he’s a macho schmuck.”
“You don’t know anything about him.”
“Is that what you really wanted to be, a macho guy who wins all the time? You know that means everyone else loses?”
“Yeah, but it must be nice to win all the time.”
“Don’t know how I landed up with someone like you… an ex army sharpshooter” she teases. She loves his competitiveness. She hates his competitiveness.
“You don’t want to win?”
“ Not really.” She lies. Yeah I hate to lose, but win. I don’t think about it much.” She hesitates, then continues, “Michael. You have a bad case of it.” She tells him with a superior tone, a tone that bugs him every time he hears it.
“Thanks,” he utters in a warning tenor.
They both stop. Time out. They are quiet. She chews on her lip. Both look straight ahead.
The quiet is at first a way to get away, to hide from the preceding moment. But it soon takes over. They came here hoping to be captured. It is happening.
The sunset has begun. Dreamily her eyes drift to the clouds, now painted with glowing colors. Beyond she can make out the distant line where the sky touches the ground.. They listen to the soft whistling wind occasionally punctuated by ospreys screaming out dominance over the valley below. Ca, Ca, Ca. They don’t let up.
They both start to smile.
“Nirvana.” He states sweetly.
“Shush you’ll chase it away,” she whispers. “No talking.”
She’s right. He feels it in his fingers which seem light, in the air going in and out of his lungs, but mainly in what he sees, which excites both of them- the sky saturated with deepening colors. No sunset is exactly the same.
” This is our fourth year. Can’t remember how we found this place?”
“Joe told me about it.”
“Well he’s good for something. Is he still giving you a hard time about your Exxon story?”
“Not as much.”
“Doesn’t surprise me. It’s a good story.”
Again they are silent until Deborah laughs to herself.
“Something Amy said.”
“She said in a past life you must have been Japanese. Always trying to take it to the next level.”
“Do you think so?”
They both know it is true. Neither understands it. He is forever on a quest for perfection. “Live Now. Live now.” the drugstore gurus urge. Working towards tomorrow’s possibilities guarantees disappointment. You never quite get there. Perfect is the enemy of the good. Enjoy things for what they are. Grab what you can while it can be had. The good, the good, the good is best.”
But it’s simply not in him. Perhaps you have to be born that way, able to live now. Able to be satisfied with the moment. Deborah complains that his quest makes him too critical. She sees it in his expectations of the children. Why can’t he see exactly how perfect they are? Deborah’s sister complains about the same thing with her husband. They tell each other that it is just the way men are. Michael should understand. He’s always felt that he disappointed his father. They never talked about it before his father died. But he knew. He could see it in his father’s eyes.
Wanting, expecting perfection makes him critical of what he has. Living in the future means that when Michael gets where he wanted to go, even if it was very hard to get there, the satisfaction disappears and he soon dreams a new dream. A better one. “Why not?” he asks. “If you are alive why not want the best there is, just so that you know what that is like?” Greed she calls it. Deprivation, he counters, but understanding will not change it. It is simply a given.
Except when it comes to a sunset. It is not compared to other sunsets. A sunset cannot be improved. Just followed quietly.
The sun is huge, the sky orange with hints of red. Beyond the farms, high grasses define a creek that leads to an inlet. Even without pot Michael is there with Deborah. He thinks of Maine and the sea grasses.
Off to the right, leaves dance in the fading orange light, which, ever so slowly, is changing to a reddish hue. Very, very far away a tractor, looking like a toy, moves slowly along, leaving mounds of dirt looking like anthills. Its driver is a tiny dot.
Deborah’s body feels buoyant, like she is floating. A cool crisp breeze blows across their foreheads, as a sliver of red sun shimmers at the very edge of the horizon. Then it disappears. They exhale in appreciation. He hands her a plastic cup of wine. He is excited by a new thought.
“I can see why they used to worship the sun.”
“Who are they?” He is too easy a target. She loves to tweak him when he becomes contemplative and speculative. He is like a child.
“Ancient people. People who lived outside. Not knowing how things work, not learning about it in books, in school. Just what’s in front of them, the sun, huge, hot. Or cold on a winter day. Completely gone on a cloudy day. Can you imagine that?”
She is elsewhere.
He doesn’t pause for a breath.
“For someone in that state of mind the sun is a mighty god. If you’re trying to make sense of things, worshipping it makes perfect sense. What else is a god if not something powerful, unworldly?”
She stays silent.
His voice raises, inspired by still another of his thoughts. “Except you can see the sun! It’s actually there. That sure beats Jehovah. I’d worship it if I lived back then.”
She says nothing. He is stirred up, his voice loud. Michael and God. Not the makings of a peaceful evening, but not always unpleasant.
A Jew is not allowed to flirt with ancient gods. Michael hasn’t been righteous since his teen years. He’s long since blasted away at God in his mind and in conversations. His heart is unmoved by the rituals his parents practiced. But he’s close to blasphemy and he knows it. Blasphemy is blasphemy. Taunting Jehovah makes him giddy, which must be stopped. His voice becomes quiet and respectful, almost humble.
“God’s done a pretty good job here,” he tells Deborah.
She smiles, acknowledging the thought. Saying that calms him a bit. He feels better when he is on better terms with Yahweh, the God he’s certain doesn’t exist.
He holds up his cup. In a few weeks it will be Rosh Hashanah.
“To the big guy in the sky.”
He points his wine glass at Deborah” Shana Tova”
“Shana Tova” she repeats.
Deborah holds her cup up, points to where the sun has descended. “To the Sun God.”
He gulps the wine. She sips it. The` howling wind can be heard in the distance. Leaves fly in the air in front of them. A moment later stillness returns. They smile at each other contentedly, lucky to be a witness to “His” magic.
She points skyward straight above his head. A sliver of the moon is already visible. He turns around.
She whispers, “To the god who owns the night. With a whisper.”
“Only one god allowed.”
“If there is a sun god there is a moon god,”.
He smiles at her logic
She opens her arms.
“Come here Mr. Vanderbilt.”