As I look out over the mountainside at the bright red fall foliage I can't help but shake my head in amazement at the devious, torturous path that led me here.
There were next to no jobs available when I graduated high school in the mid-seventies. I spotted a "help wanted" sign while taking a short-cut getting home one morning after a late night shift as a dish-washer. I grew up in Cicero, a suburb of Chicago--home of Al Capone, one of the largest grave yards in the Midwest and home to one of the most corrupt city governments this side of Detroit. Chicago party politics didn't have ANYTHING on Cicero. If you weren't connected or a union president you were out on your ass.
Nonetheless, there were a lot of rail sidings and heavy industry in town. I could feel the ground shake as I opened the door to the office, looking for the people with the "Help Wanted" sign.
They weren't too enthusiastic about my lack of experience with heavy industrial equipment, but I bargained for that job as if my life depended on it. I agreed to dishwasher's wages for the first four months until I could prove myself. It almost cost me my entire paycheck for union dues, but dad thought that I was doing the right thing. I was planning for the future. Mom wouldn't be happy without grandchildren so she suffered in silence.
After a couple of years working as an operator of a twelve-ton press I went to a Halloween mixer where I met Marge. She and I clicked for some reason. After a year and a half of dating I asked for her hand. Boy, was she tickled. We got married by the local judge because she was Baptist and I was a fence-sitter. Her daddy was connected in city politics. According to him I was a "good boy" because I was in a union and held down a steady job. He sprang for a nice little two bedroom house with a two-car garage, all in a good neighborhood. I put down the initial deposit on a four-door Ford sedan the size of a battleship. It wasn't a sexy little number and it got horrible gas mileage, but it was safe for my honey to drive. Besides, we hardly ever went out of town.
We spent our Sunday afternoons at our parents' houses, shmoozing and looking at old photo albums. I learned a lot about my family that I'd never learned before. For example, I had a great uncle Al that retired from the navy, bought a mountain in south-east Kentucky and turned into a hermit.
We kept trying for children but she kept having miscarriages. After the fifth one she lost heart. Times were pretty bleak in the Baker house around them.
I applied for more training at work and eventually got the coveted tool-and-die slot. It came with one hell of a raise. We started putting away money for retirement.
Marge was tired of sitting around the house watching dismal daytime television. I couldn't blame her. She went back to school on an MBA track. That pretty well defined how we lived for about seven years.
Marge got her MBA. We held a big party and spent way too much on it, but it made Marge happy. Then things started to get rough. She wasn't around when I got home. She wouldn't talk to me any more. I noticed nice new skirts, blouses and shoes in her closet. She asked for separate beds.
I got a real cold feeling in my guts. I hadn't wandered at all while we were married. I didn't have a very high sex drive. Sure, I looked, but I never touched. Hell, I hardly ever flirted, much less talked a girl up. I really wondered if the same could be said for my spouse. I had the feeling that some character at that college had talked her up and got her interested, then promised her the moon. It all came down to the brittle line when I got handed divorce papers. I felt odd, as if someone else was driving my body. I remembered dreams with a lot of screams.
Marge spent a couple days in the hospital, just out of the blue. She was on my insurance from work so there wasn't really a problem. She wouldn't tell me why she needed the attention though. Because I had proof that I was her husband I was able to get a copy of her records.
She'd had another miscarriage. We'd been sleeping in separate beds for two years.
Mom and dad were still alive, if barely hanging on. Dad said that I had to protect myself.
I went to the bank and made damned sure that our retirement account would require both of our signatures to withdraw anything, then I opened an account in an Oak Park bank with half of our checking account. I hired a lawyer--from outside Cicero.
Clyde had been in the divorce business for quite a while. He had a gimmick that reportedly worked well for people that had a civil ceremony rather than one officiated by a member of the clergy. He said it took the right judge to connect the dots, but it was possible. Once he described how he planned for it to work I promised him one quarter of the retirement fund.
Clyde played the game and got the judge he wanted by working the schedule. Clyde tried to get the whole ball of wax by claiming that since we'd entered into a civil arrangement that it was a contract. By contractual law the party dissolving the contract had no claim on the assets of the corporation.
The judge didn't buy it this time. Things were getting tense. She gave the okay for her lawyer to drop the boom on me and skin me for every last cent and possession that I owned. I stood up. "I didn't want to present this, and my lawyer has no knowledge of it. I didn't want to drag her through the mud. But now it's time." I handed the copy of her medical records to the bailiff. "The last entry is for bed rest following a miscarriage. We've been sleeping in separate beds for two years. Please make note of the entry date."
Bam. I didn't feel sorry for her. Her papa was worth several million. She'd never go hungry or homeless. I paid her dad a visit after the trial.
"Boy, you've got balls showing up here."
I shook my head. "I know that she'll never want for a home or food. She's your daughter. I came to offer the house back to you. It was a wedding gift."
He sat back in his chair and looked me over. "I was right the first time. You're a good boy. You keep it. Do what you want."
"I'll end up selling the place. I've been burned bad. I'm moving down to my great-uncle's mountain in Kentucky. I don't think I'll ever want to see a woman again as long as I live."
He put his heavy hand on my shoulder. "I'll pay you fifty grand over market. It's a nice little place with good schools close. I've got friends that could use it." We shook hands. I'd be out within a week.
The hardest thing to do was getting the retirement account modified to accept my signature only. The marriage dissolution decree papers did it. That got the lawyer paid. I traded the Ford in on a long-bed Econoline van. It needed some suspension work, new tires, a new exhaust and all the high-voltage stuff under the hood replaced, but it turned into a nice ride. Nobody that had owned it smoked so the interior was a lot better than it could have been. The little AM/FM radio worked. I loaded my bed, a table, two chairs, a filled dresser and a lot of kitchen stuff into it. I had to get the rear shocks replaced by a set of air shocks. There wasn't much more that I wanted out of the place except my clothes, towels and bedding. I rolled up the rugs and filled the voids in the van's cargo space with them. My suitcase rode in the passenger seat along with a cooler.
I was forty years old and it was early in 1988. I had seventy thousand in the bank and a promissory note for a hundred and seventy thousand for the house. I moved in with my mom and dad for a while until the note cleared.
I was really down on women in general. I refused to even go through a grocery store checkout line if there was a woman at the register. I was angry in places that I didn't even know that I had.
Mom and dad were going downhill fast. They knew it and didn't begrudge the fact. They helped me find all the information they could on Uncle Al's place--Bloody Mountain. The story was that half the mountain was lit up by flame bush every fall so that in the evening light it looked like the entire mountainside was covered in blood.
The family had been paying the trivial property tax on it for the last thirty-some years since he'd died. They dug the property deed out of the family's safe deposit box for me, along with all the receipts for tax payments. All we had describing the place was a journal which I read carefully.
The place appeared to be a tiny little cabin in a crease in the mountain. Uncle Al bought the place because he'd found a cave. The cabin was built in front of the cave entrance. By all accounts it was a pretty damned NICE cave by the time he'd finished up with it. It had running water and he'd done some blasting work in the fifties to level out the floor, clean up the walls and generally make it more habitable. His journal noted that one little fire in the stove kept the place comfortable year round. I figured that I'd better get a chain saw or two, a chain sharpening jig and someone to teach me how to use it. I'd be needing a lot of firewood.
I stopped into the biggest damned Lowe's that I could find. Once I got someone's attention I actually got a class on the care and feeding of a chain saw, including how not to cut my leg off. Sharpening a chain turned out to be pretty easy once I learned how to use a jig. I bought two Stihl 420 chainsaws with twenty inch bars and a spool of chain. I had no idea what I'd be walking into since nobody but local hunters had been on the property for some thirty-odd years. I bought a chain hoist, a brace and bits, some hinges, a tarp and a cot to sleep on until I got the cabin in shape.
.... There is more of this story ...