THE OLD MAN OF NORTH NECK
by Jim Woodgate
The little truck started eagerly in the morning air. Jim flipped on his headlights and within moments was heading home. Daybreak was still probably a half hour away.
It was a mid-sized hospital, and it had been one of those nights on the switchboard, the kind that make you breathe a sigh of relief when you walk out of the door in the morning. Around 1am some drunk had burst into the main lobby screaming obscenities, had promptly puked on the front desk, and then had passed out onto the floor, leaving a bit of a bloody mess. A quick STAT page brought assistance, and the unfortunate gentleman was carted off unceremoniously to the Emergency Room where his immediate difficulties were addressed. The whole night had kind of gone like that. One crazy thing after another. Housekeeping is probably in the lobby right now trying to get the blood stains out of the carpeting, Jim thought. Not only would it be a biohazard, but appearances and image are very important in the business world these days.
Pulling out of the parking lot, Jim was in no hurry to get home. He was feeling very much alone and a bit depressed. Maybe a walk along the beach would snap him out of it. It would not be the first time. He jumped off the highway at the next exit and coasted into the little coastal hamlet of North Neck. North Neck was a picturesque little place, not far from Midville. It was mainly a little resort town, but a lot of artists had set up shop there, too. It was not uncommon for Jim to stop by there on the way home. Most of the time it would be in the early morning just after he got out of work. He'd drive down to the public boat ramp, park his truck next to the phone booth, and just go walking up the shore. The sand and the smell of the sea were somehow very relaxing. There was a slight chill in the air, but a light hooded jacket would suffice. It was uncharacteristically foggy that morning near the ocean. Oddly so.
He was currently seeing a psychiatrist on a regular basis. He enjoyed seeing her and a pleasant rapport had been established, but lately she noted that things had become rather stagnant. A sort of log jam existed; an unseen barrier to further progress. Her response to this was to make three suggestions, one of which was for Jim to write a short story. As he walked down the sand in the foggy morning air he thought about what in the world he could possible write about. He had absolutely no idea. He paused briefly to flip over a horseshoe crab and watch it inch its way back into the surf. My life is completely boring, he said to himself.
Suddenly there was a voice near him in the fog. "Good morning young man." He turned and looked in the direction from which the voice had come. There before him stood an old man leaning slightly on a walking stick.
"I hope I didn't startle you," the old man said, "you seemed pretty deep in thought. My name is Otto. What's yours?"
"My name is Jim. I work at the hospital down in Midville. I just got off work this morning and thought I'd come over here and see how the ocean was doing, sort of. Well, actually I just needed to think, I guess. Coming here seems to help me do that."
"A lot of people find that to be true. That's one of the things that brought ME here years ago. Besides, I told them to send me some place where there weren't any cactus. I never wanted to see a cactus again."
"Are you retired?"
"Yes, you could say that. I used to work for the government, but they put me out to pasture, so to speak. Seems some of the stresses were too much for me."
"What do you mean?"
"Say, would you like some breakfast? My cabin is just the other side of the dunes here. Come on in and visit for a bit. You look like you could use it. It's not far. Follow me."
Normally Jim would have politely declined such a request, but for some reason he found himself saying OK, let's go, and the two of them slowly ambled through the dune grass towards Otto's humble abode, talking as they went. Otto seemed like a gentle, amiable chap, yet there was something odd about him. He seemed somehow slightly out of place. He had just a trace of a foreign accent. The cabin was small, and there was no driveway, only a footpath that led up to the main house out by the road. Presumably the house belonged to the owner of the property. Propped against the wall by the door stood an old bicycle with a big square wire basket on the front. It had apparently seen many years of service as it had been bent and straightened many times.
"Make yourself comfortable and pardon the mess. I never was a very good housekeeper." It was warm and cozy inside. Books and papers were piled everywhere. An old beat up typewriter sat on a makeshift desk by a window. "Hope you don't mind spaghetti for breakfast, it's left over from last night." Without waiting for Jim's reply, Otto dished out some spaghetti simmering on the stove onto two plates. It smelled very good.
"I made it myself, I think you'll like it," Otto said. After handing Jim his plate, he accidentally dragged his sleeve through the spaghetti sauce on his own plate. The spaghetti tasted as good as it smelled.
"Here, have some Parmesan, you want any coffee?"
"No thanks," said Jim, "I have to sleep when I get home. I work the night shift down at the hospital in Midville." After they finished the spaghetti Otto leaned back and began sipping his coffee. They both just sat and relaxed for a bit.
"So you come out here to think?" asked Otto.
"Yeah, just to walk along the beach and think. I've gotten back into psychotherapy lately. It's kind of a long story."
"Well...psychotherapy...yes..." A brief look of sadness passed through Otto's eyes, but then they brightened a bit and said, "You know, it's much more acceptable nowadays than it used to be. Used to be you were considered crazy if you had to go to a...how do you say it in America...a shrink."
"Have you ever done it?" asked Jim.
"Yes. Many years ago, on account of what happened during the war. It was in late 1945, back before you were born." Once again that same look of sadness passed over his eyes.
"I'm sorry," said Otto, "I didn't think it would still seem so real. I still have difficulty talking about it. Tell me, Mr Jim, what do you think is more important, logic and intellect, or emotions?"
"I'm not sure. I guess maybe they go together. You need to use them both, I suppose. I find emotions much harder to deal with, more mysterious and scary, harder to get at and unravel. That's what I'm dealing with now."
"Exactly," Otto continued. "Being smart is easy, but facing shame and your deepest fears is the most frightening thing a person can ever do. Some people cannot even bring themselves to attempt it. It is very difficult. Once you get down to a certain level in your consciousness, words tend to lose their usefulness. As you descend into the darkness you are forced to give up words. This can be very frightening, especially if you are all alone and lost in the darkness. It is frightening to be alone, is it not?"
A strange silence descended on the room where they sat. An eerie feeling came over Jim. Otto suddenly became very serious. "Lad, you must come face to face with your deepest fear. You must walk into Mordor, into the valley of the shadow of death, stand at the edge of the abyss, and face your deepest fear." It was almost as if Otto wasn't speaking the words at all, they seemed to be flowing through him from somewhere else. Then the words seemed to become indistinct, and it was suddenly like larger and larger fragments of information were passing between them. Whole thoughts and concepts winked into existence in the blink of an eye. It was an odd sensation. It went on for an undetermined period of time. Suddenly Otto's words seemed to become distinctly audible again, "Go searching for your greatest fear, and there you will find the key. You are not here by accident Mr Jim."
Minutes passed. It was like awakening from a dream. Finally Jim spoke. "Thank you." Suddenly he again became aware of the sound of the surf outside, and birds chattering in the nearby trees.
"Here, just a moment, I have something for you Jim." Otto tossed a coin across the table. Jim caught it in midair. It was a 1945 silver dollar. "Keep it, it's yours. I won it in a bet. I bet a dollar that the damned thing would work, and it did. I won the bet, although I came to wish that I hadn't. You look tired. Perhaps it's time to head for home and get some sleep. I think we will see each other again some day."
Jim smiled and put the coin in his pocket. "Thanks for inviting me in."
"It was my pleasure," replied Otto. "Now go quickly before the fog lifts. You are a good man Mr Jim. Do not be afraid of what awaits you." Then he smiled the mischievous grin he had.
Jim made it back to his truck and headed for home. The fog was still pretty thick, but it dissipated quickly as he drove inland. A couple days later he decided to drive out to North Neck and see if he could find Otto. It was a nice day and he had that night off work. He parked his truck on the dead-end lane leading to the big house near Otto's cabin, went to the door and rang the bell.
An old woman answered the door. "Yes, can I help you?"
"Howdy, I'm a friend of Otto's. I'm looking for him. Is he here?"
The woman looked puzzled. "Otto? Do you mean Doctor Frisch?"
"Well maybe, I just know him as Otto. Is he here?"
"I'm sorry young man, but he's not here." She seemed a little set back by his request, and looked at him suspiciously. "He used to live here in our little cabin up the path there, but he died about ten years ago." She eye-balled him again. "He had cancer. He always said that's how he would go. He had worked with a lot of radioactive materials out West during the war. I'm sorry you have to learn about it like this." She suddenly seemed to feel sorry for the young man.
"I'm sorry, I guess I don't understand," Jim replied.
"He was one of the physicists involved in making the atomic bomb. You know, in 1945 at Los Alamos in New Mexico? It had a code name. I think it was called Trinity, yes that's what he said, Trinity. He never talked about it a whole lot. I believe he said he had been in charge of something he called 'tickling the dragon's tail.' Of course the war was going on and it was all very secret stuff. He liked his work, but he said it exposed him to a lot of radiation. No one really understood the true dangers back then. After the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he said he became severely depressed. Couldn't eat, couldn't sleep. He had a lot of nightmares. He felt responsible for bringing the bomb into existence, even though it saved a great many lives by ending the war. I guess they made him go to a psychiatrist for a while. It wasn't long afterwards that he chose to retire, and of all places he moved here to North Neck. He wanted nothing more to do with the desert. He liked music, he wou..."
"Excuse me, may I see the cabin where he stayed?"
"Yes of course," she said, looking somewhat bewildered, " it's up the path. Be careful if you go inside. It's not very sturdy anymore. We were going to have it torn down last summer..."
Jim nodded and started up the path, rounding the first turn he broke into a dead run. It didn't take long to reach the cabin. His heart was pounding in his chest. He was not prepared for the sight that greeted him. The roof had large holes torn in it and was partially collapsed. The inside was half open to the elements, and there was no furniture whatsoever. It had obviously not been occupied for a long time. A kind of numbness set in. Now he knew what the project was that Otto had mentioned to him. It was the very first atomic bomb. Otto had bet one of his colleages a buck that it would work, and it did. That's how he won the silver dollar. Frantically, Jim started searching through his own coat pockets. Suddenly he found it. It was still there! He pulled it out and looked at it closely. Someone with a very fine point and a steady hand had scratched "July 16" just above the "1945" date on the coin.
Trinity...the day they let the genie out of the bottle. "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds..."
c.1993 Jim Woodgate
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Last Updated: 27 aug 98