He dreamed of concrete and asphalt, Plexiglas and steel, and a single blade of grass that he saw from afar. His city dream, for that’s what it was, a reflection of his hard-earned urban persona, was peopled with friends and acquaintances and colleagues; some of whom he’d known for years and others who he’d only just met. A certain few were indistinct, wrapped in shadows that defied the streetlights, but he recognized them nonetheless, as if they were his brothers or his lovers, even his parents. Strangely, they were all cloaked in identical gray robes, and their eyes were smooth, sightless orbs, the perfect glass eyes of mounted deer, or jackalopes.
Mannequin men and mannequin women walked his dream, and he felt ... nothing.
Back in his office he took an energy bar from his briefcase, threw it in a silver bin marked “Refuse,” and ate the wrapper. It was strangely satisfying.
For a while afterwards he brushed his teeth—you can’t be too careful about cavities—and stood next to a parking meter on Seventh Avenue. At some point, the parking meter became a meter maid, and she took out her right eye, her glass eye, and handed it to him.
“But I don’t want your eye.” he told her again and again, as if she might possibly hear him with her ears stopped with concrete.
And in every reflection, mirrored in window glass and in the polished stainless steel of skyscrapers, and, faintly, in the tiny curve of the meter maid’s eye, there was the image of that single blade of grass. Green it grew, the deep intoxicating green of life, and he knew it for what it was—a sign, a talisman.
When he began to emerge from his dream some indeterminate time later, the alarm clock in his mind pulling him from sleep before the clock on his night stand could shatter the morning’s quiet, he searched the reflections for that one blade of grass, tracking backwards towards a mirror-inverted symbol of life. And in that strange and luminous second, that exact, if tenuous, moment when his waking mind and sleeping mind touched each other with the intimacy of lovers caressing in dawn’s first faint light, he sensed the immense possibility of it all. In a single blade of grass.
Colin Timothy O’Shea was crazy. Everyone knew, from his friends on the East Side, to his doorman Marcus, to his partners at Stein, Lazlo & O’Shea on the Street. They all, each and every one, understood with the certitude of martyrs, with the limitless understanding of vow-stricken Trappist monks, that poor Colin was loony toons, bonkers, certifiable.
Here was a man who had it all—money, power, prestige, looks—the whole package. And he was throwing it all away, jumping from a firm that was making people rich, incredibly, undeniably rich, just when it looked like the ride might last forever. My God, they asked each other, the people who knew him best, the people who knew him not at all but who wanted what he had, the coin, the success, the package. My God, how can he just walk away?
Jessica, dear sweet Jessica, who hoped to bear his children and take his name, wept for days when Colin told her, and when she didn’t weep, she screamed, railing at the unfairness of his choice. How could he do this to her?
Colin, of course, didn’t quite see it that way. No, in fact he didn’t see it that way at all, didn’t agree that there was any choice involved. You do what you have to do, and let the chips fall where they may. After all, how do you explain Da Vinci to the blind, how do you describe Hendrix or John Lennon or Billie Holiday to the deaf? How, he wondered, when he had a rare moment to wonder, do you tell people that everything has changed, and that you’re not a mannequin or a number or even a repository for accumulated wealth, but a man. Just a man.
For Colin had been touched by his dream, or as he thought of it, by his epiphany, and even more by the incredible realization that he actually knew what it meant. He’d glimpsed something new, something incredibly fair that beckoned and beguiled within that talismanic symbol of green, and he had no choice. It was time to move on.
Susan, his longtime personal assistant, knew because he’d asked her to do the research. “Find this for me, Sue.” he’d told her, and he ran down the list—a thousand plus acres in the West; trees, mountains, streams; remote, remote, remote. And then, as an afterthought, he’d added bears. Bears and lions and wolves.
Susan was good—she had to be good to be Colin’s assistant, smart, organized and efficient, with a subtle sense of humor and a ready laugh that complemented her freckles and upturned button of a nose—and inside of a week she handed him twenty three files, each one a dossier on a particular piece of property, properties that were scattered from Minnesota to New Mexico. Every file had a map and a portfolio of pictures, as well as information on the land, the surrounding area, and countywide population demographics.
“Mr. O’Shea,” she asked, ignoring for the thousandth time his request that she call him Colin, “I don’t mean to pry, but what’s this land for? Development? A corporate retreat? A conference facility?”
“Nooo ...,” he answered, pronouncing the word as if he were discovering its meaning for the first time, a newborn thought, an infant idea birthed into the light of day. “I’m looking for ...” and he paused once again, staring out the window at the morning traffic on the Avenue, watching the cars and taxis inch across the cold November pavement, “... someplace away from the city, someplace where I can spend a little time by myself.”
Susan was surprised, in fact she was completely mystified, that Colin wanted to buy a western property while he lived in New York. After all, travel cut down on your flexibility and added the potential for infinite headaches, and everyone knew that real culture faded just west of the Hudson. And why, she wondered to herself, would you ever want mountain lions or wolves on your property? So she jumped right in.
“If it’s for weekends and vacations, then you’ll need to be close to a small airport. In fact, you might even consider buying something upstate, or possibly in Vermont or Maine. Your travel time will go down considerably and you’ll be able to get more use out of your retreat without disrupting your schedule.”
Colin didn’t say anything for a moment, and Susan, though usually sure of herself and comfortable with her role, couldn’t help but wonder if she’d overstepped her bounds. Colin encouraged initiative but he expected it to be tempered by thoughtfulness, and based on his hesitance Susan sensed that she might have crossed one of those invisible boundaries in their relationship. It wasn’t like him to stop mid conversation. And he looked ..., if she had to come up with a word, she would have chosen “pensive”, and that wasn’t like him, either.
He stood there with his arms crossed, unaware of the shards of emotion flitting across his face, and then, after a few more seconds of silence, he answered her.
“I didn’t want to tell you this yet, Sue, but I guess you’ve got a right to know. I’m going to be leaving the firm in a few months and taking an early retirement. I don’t plan on staying in the city. I’m looking for a place to build a home, settle down, and relax. It’s time for me to move on. In fact, it’s been time for a while, and I’m ready.”
“But, but ... Jesus, Mr. O’Shea.” she said, forgetting herself for just a second. “I .... ” Colin nodded. “I know. Me too.”
Five weeks later Colin broke the news to his friends and colleagues, filling them in on his decision and his dreams.
“It looks like I’m going to Montana.” he’d say as they stared at him, wondering what part of his plan he was leaving out. They knew Colin, in fact many of them knew him well, and while he was a man of his word, they also figured there had to be an angle to this ... this fantasy, there had to be a sound, logical, financial reason for his decision to walk away from everything that really mattered.
So they stood there, and at the same time they listened to him say, “I’m buying some property up in the northwest corner of the state, about a hundred miles west of Glacier Park. It’s beautiful country, mountains all around and a dozen, hell, maybe even fifteen different types of conifers, not to mention aspen and cottonwoods. Animals, too. Wild game like you’ve never seen, and ...” they tried to guess what was really going on, and how Colin O’Shea was going to run his financial ship, sail the wild markets, from the backwoods of Montana.
Steve Evans, one of the Marketing VPs, even followed Benjamin Stein—the Benjamin Stein—into the men’s room and asked him what Colin knew that the rest of them didn’t. It was a measure of Stein’s discomfort that the sixty two year old founder of the firm answered him at all. His “I’m not sure,” started five or six different rumors in the next hour, half of them predicated on an imminent market crash and the other half on a coming boom.
Amazingly, not one person at Stein, Lazlo & O’Shea ever considered that Colin might be telling the truth, the whole truth, the “nothing but the truth, so help you God;” that he’d had enough and that it was time for their forty six year old President to be moving on. Which, depending on the way you look at, was either an indication of their sanity or their complete lack thereof.
When Colin told Jessica, his lover and confidant of nineteen months, she slapped him as hard as she could. Maybe even harder. His own hand, surprised, slipped up to his cheek where her palm print glowed red across the side of his face, and then, amazingly, he apologized. He didn’t want to hurt her, he said, but this was something he had to do. He just didn’t have a choice. Jessica told him that she didn’t have a choice either, and then she slapped him again and ran from the room in tears.
The next few days, with Jessica calling both day and night and alternately screaming, sobbing and telling him to go screw himself, were not the best of Colin’s life. Nor did it help that the official office rumor mill count stood at thirteen and rising. Still, the worst eventually passed, as it usually does, and Colin went on with his preparations.
The second week of August dawned warm and sunny in a valley that started high in the mountains of Canada and then followed the upper reaches of the Lost River south across the Montana border. On the American side, both the river and the valley of the same name grew larger, although the Yanks, ever sticklers for economy, shaved off a letter, calling the whole area, including the river, “The Lost.” Which, in and of itself, wasn’t far from the truth. There wasn’t a town of any size for eighty some miles, and when one did straddle the river, hunkering down below the huge, monolithic, electricity-generating concrete dam that pooled blue-green glacial water halfway to the Canadian border, it certainly wasn’t much to talk about.
Liberty. Liberty, Montana.
Two gas stations with their obligatory video casinos, a post office, an old movie theater, a hardware store, one decent sized grocery store, a sporting goods shop, a car dealership, a handful of bars and fast food joints and touristy knickknack retailers. The Mill, the County High School, the Clinic, the Courthouse, the Jail, the Lost River USFS Ranger Station, Len’s Scenic River and Fishing Outfitters, and the Washington County dirt strip airfield—no, Liberty wasn’t all afire with 1980s style post-Industrialism, much less the social, technological and communication-based revolutions of 2018.
And up on the Lost, in the forty odd miles north of the reservoir but south of the border, the hundred and twenty people spread out across the valley didn’t even call it Liberty. It was simply “Town.”
As in, “Damn, looks like I might have to go into town next week.”
It was in this valley, in this idyllic, if perhaps backwards, setting, that Colin Timothy O’Shea stood under the warm Montana sun and surveyed his property, his land, his new log home, his trees and river bank and meadows, the sum and total of what he had so recently acquired in the pursuit of his singular dream.
Amazingly, Jessica, she of the cosmopolitan world he’d left behind, might not have recognized Colin as he stood there in the clear morning light. His dark hair, usually so neatly trimmed and moused, had grown long, and it rushed down his neck in an unruly cascade that flared wide around his collar. He wore a beard, too, though it was less an affectation of backwoods Montana than an oversight. He simply hadn’t thought to shave. There were too many other things to do, and time, even with fourteen hours of daylight, was of the essence.
Still, he stood there dressed in jeans, an oil stained t-shirt, and, incongruously, in a pair of Wesley Richard's Cape Buffalo boots that would have been perfectly at home on safari in Botswana, and he took the time to look—no, to see—everything around him. His lush emerald meadow stretched down to the Lost River some three hundred yards distant, and his eyes picked out the soft boundary between knee high grass and milky aquamarine glacial melt. There were a dozen Canada geese feeding near the bottom of the meadow and a distant whitetail doe grazed in apparent serenity a few yards from the encircling forest’s far edge.
Closer in, honeybees flew their secret roundabout missions while robins hopped, heads tilted in the most quizzical of poses, as they searched here and there for their breakfast. A lone giant of a raven gave voice as he flew by—whsshh, whsshh, whsshh, his wings beating counterpoint to his raucous “grraaaaww”—and Colin watched as the bird disappeared in the golden hued distance. Then he turned and walked toward the forest, and towards the mountains that rose up behind him against the vast western sky.
He carried a legal pad in his left hand, yellow and lined, and as he walked, he thought about taking notes. It was all so ... different. So alive. And the woods, these woods, didn’t exude the cultivated homogeneous symmetry of a wheat field or an apple orchard. Instead, each tree was distinct, with a character as real and vivid as the people he’d known in the city.
The Larch, he decided after some lengthy consideration, were statesmen of the old school, the Ponderosa Pine were teachers, the Englemann Spruce were street vendors and cab drivers, the Aspen were laughing school girls, the Douglas Fir were cops on the beat, the low sprawling Alders were hookers, the White Pine were lawyers, the Cottonwoods were construction workers, the Lodgepole Pine were investment bankers—he wandered on and on, his imagination taking hold and running wild as he inventoried and cataloged his new home.
He was gone for a long time, missing lunch, and when he returned it was with the rain. An afternoon thunderstorm blew in, dark and fierce with the elements, and he sat on his wide porch, alone, no other human being for miles. Then, with no forethought, with almost no conscious thought, he walked back out into the storm, the words of Emerson coming unbidden to his lips.
"Nothing can bring you peace but yourself; nothing, but the triumph of principles."
All around him, life beckoned; life veiled in sheets of mist and rain. Colin knelt down and stroked the lush meadow grass with his fingertips, feeling the individual blades bend and flex beneath his touch, and then he stood and lifted his face to the storm. After a few minutes he smiled, a small smile—though from his heart—and headed back toward the forest, drawn by his need to know.
In his mind, three words swirled round and round, and while they were an indictment of his past, accusing him of wasted time, of energy spent without real meaning, they were also his hope for the future. Three short words, but oh so true for a man who would be caretaker in Paradise.
This. Is. Real.