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The Conemaugh Gap

An Excerpt Chapter from the Novel in Progress: “The Republic of Jerusalem’s Trumpets”

Sandee Gertz

Carl Lentz was 84, but each day you’d catch him stooped over at a nearly 50-degree angle, puttering around his beige fieldstone garage.  Such a curve of spine would often convey fatigue or ill-health, but for Carl, the forward-leaning stance imbued him with an air of determined purpose — as though in the bending of his body, he was gaining ground on an ever further moving target.  His hands were always full, and his garage door was the kind that remained open all day long, full of catalogued tools, shelves with numbers and earnestly made labels with careful block letters. Spare parts of things sat glistening on a worktable positioned in the middle of the room, hulking over it with heavy metal or wood projects: either waiting for a second coat of paint or to be shined with a buff cloth with his tanned, and only minorly arthritic hands.  At daybreak each day at 444 Spangler Street, Geistown, Johsntown, when the Allegheny Mountain air seemed most fresh and full of promise, Carl finished his cup of steamed coffee, placed it, rinsed and dried, in the porcelain sink, and then set out to the garage to open the doors for the day’s work. There was a vintage Coke machine just outside the black iron grated doors that shone with cleanliness in the early sun, and Carl would stop there for a moment with a clean cloth to wipe down any of the past day’s grime. And thus, would begin the day of hovering around the lawn with clippers, sometimes roto-tilling the flower beds around to replace aging hydrangeas and various ferns, and repairing tools or cataloguing parts.   

From there he worked and imagined, traipsing back and forth from the garage to the little stone cottage of a house he’d bought 60 years prior. His wife was a shining new bride then, with rouged cheeks and a tall, athletic build, formed further from swimming for the Westmont High Swim team. In her day, she held the record for the butterfly stroke and struck quite the noticeable figure as she toweled off at the side of the sterile pool complex at the state meet, which is where Carl had first seen her. He was a Shay graduate, where swimming and any sport other than football and basketball was unheard of. But his best buddy was dating a Westmont girl — a swim team member— and so there it began. 

Carl was eternally aware of the differences between them: he a Shay grunt-kid who tended chickens in the back yard for his father who worked in the blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel, throwing hot nuggets all day into a giant pit. His childhood home was deep in the valley of Shay and Evelyn’s was on the hill: stately and with extra rooms where no one seemed to do anything but pose on Sundays after dinner with gin and tonics, carelessly, as though swimming through large rooms and looking up into endless ceilings and laughing was the most natural thing in the world.  In those days, Carl followed Evelyn’s family into the billiards room when he visited with a nervous stomach, careful not to bump the crystal vases on marble tables, aware of his starchless shirt and the white stiffness of his girlfriend’s father’s and brother’s shirts: the iron-branded creases of their trousers and polished shoes. The men of the family were polite and dealt him cards for 5-card stud, while Evelyn’s father, a long-time executive at the mill, lit a pipe and handed him a rolled cigarette, ensconced away from the woman folk as they retired to other parlors for bridge and female conversation. 

But ever since Evelyn’s father had given his consent to marry his daughter, Carl knew it was his purpose and his most important job to take care of her and shield her from the harsher elements of the mill town. He chose Geistown, on the opposite hill, for their home for several reasons: it was not the old money Westmont of Evelyn’s childhood, but was also not the gritty setting of Shay where mending chicken coops and finding newborn kittens in his underwear drawers in the morning before school was a long-ago memory. He had bettered himself and knew the value of things, partially from his humble upbringing in Shay during the depression, but also from being married to a woman who was at once vibrant and full of life, but also as innocent as on their first dates at the local Dairy Dell, where they sat awkwardly on chrome stools and asked the Soda Jerk for vanilla sundaes.  He had done his best to give her the security of her Westmont upbringing — the level certainty of streets without hopscotch diagrams or men who danced to work, or even mothers and daughters who pulled wagons and walked looking at the ground as in Shay. Their house was made of stone, and it was sturdy and situated in a particular slant upon the hill exactly to the specifications that Carl had drawn for the architect who drew up plans for the house immediately after their marriage at Susquehanna Country Club, where Evelyn’s father handed his blushing first born girl over to a man with impossibly wavy hair and steel blue eyes, with which he knew and recognized there was no purpose to fight. As the rented Bentley pulled away from the club, nestled between the Allegheny and Cresson Mountains and the forested cemetery of the flood dead memorial graves of the 1889 flood on its way to their New York honeymoon, he caught a pastel streamer in the wind as it lifted from the back of the black vehicle and swirled, air-filled, as the couple waved at the assemblage of stiff guests (there were few of Carl’s Shay friends who felt bold enough to take the invite into the Susquehanna’s mahogany interiors, or to walk on its plush carpets— some claimed they wouldn’t know which forks to use and didn’t want to bother to study up) growing further and further away from their view. 

This same bride, his dear Evelyn, was now sitting just inside the kitchen where he could safely see her in the widow; same rouged cheeks, perfectly dressed and bathed, but with the brutal knocks of dementia rattling around in her frontal lobe.  As she gazed out the window, hair set and curled by her loving husband each morning, she wondered whether she needed to go to the store, when dinner was, or had she just had breakfast? And who was that man with the gray-glazed curly hair — graced with the kind of waves that fall over the forehead — the hair of a much younger man, perhaps 45.  She moved her hands with a foreign lust over the Formica of the kitchen countertop as she stared at him puttering around the cobblestone drive. He was mysterious to her, attractive; and she named him Wavy Hair Man. She knew she should know him, but at times he seemed as unfamiliar as the pill bottles that appeared in front of her each morning, with black typing of words she could not recognize or pronounce. Sometimes this man kissed her forehead and she blushed, lowering her head to gaze at her lap, at the yellow slacks someone had picked out for her to wear, and down to her shoes she marveled over because she did not remember placing them on her feet. She felt a flushing sense when he kissed her in this way, and she smelled a wafting wash of a scent she could only call “blue.” It was nautical and fresh, and she wondered if this man was a sea captain like the ones she read of in books as a child. She always aspired to marry a sea captain or a yachting type, though she knew this would be difficult in landlocked Johnstown where many people never saw the ocean until an appointed time when some car, some station wagon, would lift them onto a family vacation outing along many highways that stretched for days and overnight hotel stops to place them finally at the end of some bland road where you’d hear a foreign roar and rush and walk, then run, to investigate — until you’d see the blue and white, the rippling tides you’d only read about in books. And though she doused her entire body, hair and all, at once in the vast blue, not done up in some cap like other meeker girls, into the water’s fierce rush, and felt the waves that first time fill the inside of her bathing suit and carry her along as she swam the lengths of rope that were measured for safety, she knew she would most certainly never meet a sea captain in Johnstown.  She would likely have to meet someone from the Navy to make her dreams come to life, as she always imagined as a young girl in the yellowed classrooms of Westmont Middle School. She spoke of this from time to time to a young blonde woman with crooked teeth and a thin green nurse’s top who came and bathed her and fixed her hair once a week. It was someone Wavy Hair Man hired to help, but yet she longed for her company to grace her more often, especially for baths.

She wasn’t sure it was proper when this man, whom she watched diligently each day in the driveway, walking from garage to garden, from hedges to some interior worktable she couldn’t quite see, stooped and bent, would do those same things as the woman, though she had grown to allow it and had learned how to situate herself, or her mind for that matter, in another place— another compartment of herself while he lifted her body she could feel was sagging and no longer firm, to the tub: Wavy Hair Man removing first her blue blouse, button by button, the flush in her cheeks threatening to rise, and then again the calming she trained herself to do, gazing hard at her lap, while he kissed her at the sides of her face. 

When he bathed her, she could not look into the secure yellow of her slacks, but instead saw her nakedness there. It was difficult to look at her flesh and know this man with the curly gray hair and steel blue eyes was seeing it too. He was polite and looked away and trained his eyes to only her face, almost absently rubbing the washcloth over her legs and thighs and then, the public bones and skin that peeked out from her tensed up and closed off legs. He always wagged the cloth just a little to get her to open up there, businesslike, so as not to offend. The young woman who came to the house on Thursdays did this so differently and she did not mind opening her legs to her washing; but with this man, this oddly unfamiliar and so intimately alluring man, she was what she could call “shy.” She could see the letters spelled out in her mind’s eye: S H Y. She knew that word still and what it meant. There were others she still knew as well: F E A R. P- L- E- A- S -U- R- E. She felt those sometimes sitting in the confines of her yellow-painted kitchen — often at the same time — as the hands of her musical clock Wavy Hair Man had bought her at the local Boscov’s when a circular coupon came along in the mail attached to the daily Tribune Democrat. They had admired it for years on their Saturday browsings at the Galleria Mall, a place timing out its own marked and finite life before Big Box stores on the Strip and online sales. The clock, now proudly hung on her plaster-cream walls, ticked off the impossible movements of seconds nearly silently: one movement, two movements, three: but perceptible if you were patient and watched them all — which Evelyn did -- often the entire way around the circle, happy to catch when the tip of the sharp hand actually flickered and moved. It was not easy to do— one had to be fully given to the task to see it’s rigid forward march. But yet she also knew F E A R when she couldn’t follow the bent form of this man who called himself Carl down the length of the driveway. She thought of moving her body to follow him or leave her chair, but how? How did one move to another place? Walk? W A L K was no longer in her recognition.  A lost word. There were so many that left in the steam of morning kettles boiling yet another cup of tea. Tea and toast. Tea in the afternoon. Tea at lunch. There was only so much one could do sitting in a yellow kitchen atop the hills of Johnstown and most would find that tedious. But Evelyn didn’t see it that way. Words, once they were lost, allowed more meaning to enter for the others that were floating around in the ether of the cool room those summer days when her husband affixed a white humming machine to her kitchen window. She P L E A S U R E D in the cool breeze it brought to her limbs. The humidity was a worsening burden to her memory, it seemed, and so he did all he could to preserve the woman whose hazel eyes shone back at him some 60 years ago at the Zion Lutheran Church altar. 

Yes, there were only so many ways one could spend time in a stone house counting cabinets, but Evelyn still had numbers. At least one through ten. She counted the metal cabinets that Carl painted every five years since being married and living in their wedding house and then started over because eleven had left in the tea kettle steam of some months ago, or was it years? There was an adrenaline in the counting and stirring of spoons of milk into tea, in the waiting on the intriguing man stooped over tools in the garage, with the door he left wide open all day long so that Evelyn could watch him from her seat. No matter how many hours she sat there, still, in the faint breeze of the hilltops of Johnstown, she could always discern a thread of feeling, or maybe it was a thought, in the spiderweb of things that wove in patterns throughout her foggy gray matter that something of import was nearly about to happen, and she held tight to this one last sliver of  recognized (or not) anticipation. 

And well she did, because there was still one place left where there was J O Y: a word she still knew well. In the late afternoon and into the sunset formed evenings of Johnstown, Wavy Hair Man lifted her from her chair and walked her to the living room’s picture window and settled her into a comfy chair with pillows and laid an afghan with many holes across her shrinking lap until it covered her like stretching Swiss cheese. He placed a glass with ice and some fizzy liquid she did not recognize next to her on an end table and took his seat next to her. He pulled the long, floor length curtains apart and divided them to each side of the picture window. And outside, in the far off landscape, but not so far off that it was not distinct, Wavy Hair Man pointed to the vista that sat there like a finely brushed realist painting: a distinct, deep greenish-blue V was formed and it was surrounded by streaks of fuchsia and peach sky, stretching across the etched horizon. “Tell me what this is again?” she said each evening to the Wavy Hair Man.  “It’s the Conemaugh Gap,” he told her without a hint of distain as he’d been repeating it now for several years as they settled in to watch the show of color and darkening light. “And remember, Evelyn, I once flew straight through that portal, right through that V, and came out the other side to Pittsburgh, skimming through the Cressons, the Laurels, and the craggy Alleghenies,” he said. The woman caught a glint of something sparkling in Wavy Hair Man’s eyes when he said these words. Had she heard them before, she wondered? They seemed familiar and yet so tingly to her, and the shining in his steel eyes conveyed something of import that she grasped for like a child lunging for a butterfly. It was colorful, this thing, this vista. It was important, though she could not solidify why, and like a child in a yard full of elusive flying things of great beauty, she could not cup her hands to capture it. 

For Evelyn did not ever meet nor marry a sea captain, but she did marry a pilot: Air Force Sargent Captain First Corporal, Division 5 Carl Lentz. “Oh, tell me about it again,” she’d say. And this was her J O Y. These are the letters she saw stretched out across the vision before her from her stone cottage at 444 Spangler Drive, Johnstown, Pennsylvania in the Borough of Geistown. This is what she saw and felt, and as she took a sip of the fizzy drink on ice, she saw the Wavy Hair Man look deeply into her eyes, and she did not divert her gaze.

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