It was, as one long-forgotten Sixties’ comic suggested, probably due to all the codeine in the cough syrup. Whatever the cause may have been, the youth of the post-World War II generation had been, for the first dozen years or so, a fairly somnambulant bunch. They were not, like their European brethren, at all likely to storm Parliament or man the barricades; the occasional sorority-house panty raid was as brash as flaming youth would get. Things were, relatively speaking, going rather well for the defenders of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and, beside all that, there was a certain expected level of decorum, as one did not want to reflect badly on the kindly and grandfatherly Ike.
Whatever the reason—Elvis, Sputnik, or perhaps the vague realization that a new decade should be at least somewhat different than the last—there began to appear in the latter part of the Fifties the infrequent deviation from the norm on campuses here and there; young men who would show up in seats in the back of classrooms with their shirts open at the neck, and maybe a little more hair than was considered appropriate; they traveled in small packs, and had little to do with the general run of the undergraduate population or with the long-dulled-to-stimulation full professors, instead casting their lot with the outsiders among the faculty, younger men who turned them on to Coltrane or Miles and, it usually being implicit that they were in no danger of being awarded tenure, acting as go-betweens to supply the students cheap chianti and joints. Invariably, these nonconformists would find fraternity life intellectually stultifying, as well as semi-fascistic and more than a little disturbingly homoerotic, and the prospect of dormitory dwelling among those hopeless souls too socially awkward and personality-deficient to be even remotely attractive to the brothers of Delta Upsilon or Phi Kappa Tau even more distressing. Fortunately, almost every university in the land, faced with a mass of recently discharged vets pounding on the Registrar’s door, G.I. Bill in hand, had, just after the war, made allowances for undergraduate students to live in off-campus housing, and had never bothered to take another look at those policies, giving the new breed of disaffected a chance to escape the aridity of on-campus living.
Martin Cabrera had not only managed to shake off the wet blanket of the in loco parentis of Residential Life, he’d hit the jackpot as far as finding off-campus digs, having found a pragmatic Greek diner owner who ascribed to the belief that, as long as the rent was paid on time and the city police didn’t knock on his door, what he couldn’t see behind closed doors didn’t concern him much. Martin, along with three other like-minded souls who lived on the floor above the diner on Eddy Street, considered the fifteen dollars a month above the going rate that they paid a bargain for the kind of laissez faire attitude their landlord embraced to be a bargain (although, it should be noted, if the plumbing or heat proved cranky enough to require a trip downstairs, his command of English suffered a sudden and mysterious relapse). As such, Martin was free to play his Barreto and Lowell Fulson records with what volume his tiny record player could muster, drink Schaefer or Utica Club in peace, and entertain co-eds and various townie women with (given his mixed heritage, owing a nod to both Belfast and Barbados) his own distinctive combination of lilting singsong voice and pure Irish bullshit.
If you asked her later why she had gone that night—and, more than that, made convoluted plans which involved the complicity (grudging and hand-wringing as it was) of her roommate—she wouldn’t have been able to come up with anything detailed or curiosity-satisfying, nothing at all except to say that she thought that it would feel like something was happening. Mary Djakovic was a beneficiary—or, depending on one’s outlook, a victim—of that rarest of experiments in noblesse oblige and futility, the girl at university on scholarship. She had come from one of those small mill towns just up the Ohio from Pittsburgh, where the street lights often came on at midday as the blast furnaces were working at their peak, and you were resigned to spend a lifetime sweeping the soot off the stoop in front of your row house three or four times a day. Her mother had—God only knows how—acquired some appreciation for the finer things—opera, poetry, the occasional novel—and passed it down to her only child. Mary had done exceptionally well in school, and one of her teachers, in a fortuitous merger of ambition and pity, had finagled her a full scholarship, which she was able to accept only after (pursuant to a long process involving a stew of weeping, door-slamming, and puppy-eyed cajoling) her father had finally relented and grunted his blessing.
If she had believed that her sojourn northward was the first step of gaining entrance to some mystical brotherhood of learning for its own sake that she assumed was part and parcel of the land of brick and ivy, she was soon disabused of that notion. The classes were much of the same droning recitation she had sat through in high school, albeit at a somewhat more pedigreed monotone, the women she worked beside in the dining hall were not unlike the women she knew from home (that is, fat, predominantly Slavic, and preternaturally prone to gossip and general bitchiness) and dorm life essentially a never-ending middle-school sleep over. After three semesters, she had the unpleasant feeling that her chance to experience something, anything, truly new and different was drifting away—and so, when Martin asked her if she would come over to his apartment for dessert and a chance to listen to some of his new albums, she accepted so quickly that she had the feeling that she had been no more than an onlooker to the whole conversation, and that someone else with a voice remarkably like hers had said “Of course!” without canvassing her for an opinion.
He had not been lying (and Mary would have not have been particularly surprised if he had been) about dessert; indeed, not only had he provided dessert, he’d actually made it himself. Martin had actually prepared a flan cubana which not only showed a certain culinary dexterity but, given the state of the stove in the ancient, jerry-built kitchenette, a modicum of bravery as well. He also produced, as promised, several new—or at least, new-to-him—albums, which proved to be new to her as well: the record player pushed, through tinny little speakers (the sound of which was not exactly aided by the windows being rattled by the gale of a full-blown February evening), Dr. Isaiah Ross, Mose Allison, and Little Walter to her ears for the first time. He’d also, in addition to dessert, offered her some pot, which she had gracefully declined (there was, in her mind, limits to adventurousness), and some cold Rheingold, which she accepted gratefully, as her dad, determined to mold her into the son she was not (nor the one her mother had never produced) had pushed the occasional cup of beer—as well as a daily review of box scores from the Pirates games in the morning paper—on her as soon as she reached her teens; indeed, her ability to weigh in on the relative merits of Bobby Del Greco, Dick Groat, and Vern Law had softened her father considerably toward going off to school in the first place. In between sips from one of the inverted triangles at the top of the can and thumps of the bass from the phonograph, they’d talked about any number of things—the horrors of Greek life, the merits and foibles of various professors, the way that freshmen classes were set up to academically and physically (it seemed that every freshmen’s schedule required two or three forced marches up and down Libe Slope each day) cull the herd of first-year students. It was only when she happened to glance at the small plastic clock that sat, somewhat cock-eyed, next to the refrigerator that she realized it was just past one in the morning, some two-plus hours later than the time she and her roommate had agreed upon her returning to their dorm room. “Oh, my Lord,” she fussed, rolling her eyes in anticipation of the mountain of guilt, spoken and unspoken, her roommate had been accumulating, “I have to get back to campus and now.” Martin stood up and glanced out the snow that moved nearly horizontally past the window. “Ah, my wee girl, that walk back to campus will be as a walk across mountaintops, and it’s no dead cert that your roommate is going to be having a lamp in the window for you. I’d be no sort of a man to let you out there on your own, and I’d be lying if I said I was of a mind to try such a trip up and back.” “Well,” Mary half-laughed and half-snapped, “It’s not like I can stay here.” Martin continued to look out the window, staying motionless for perhaps a full minute, until he said “I don’t know, girl; it was on a night like this that my Uncle Zebby told me he would have died if not for the wolves.” She had her right arm into her coat and was swinging over her left shoulder when she stopped, looking slightly heavenward and sighing. “I hate myself for asking, but what do mean ‘would have died if not for the wolves.’” Martin turned away from the window with the slightest of smiles playing on his face. “Didn’t I tell you story of Uncle Zebulon, then? Look, dear girl, you’ll need at least a cup of tea before you head out into that maelstrom. It’ll take me the briefest of moments to boil up some water, and no longer than that to tell you the tale.” He proceeded to rummage around a cupboard, producing a small pan and some loose tea in relatively short order, and, after some ingenious fussing with some knobs on the stovetop and some equally inventive Latino-Celtic cursing, he soon had the burner going, and soon came over to the ancient lumpy sleeper-sofa with two cups of English Breakfast. “Now, about dear old Uncle Zebby then…”
Uncle Zebulon was, for lack of a better term, a mountain man. He lived well back in the woods outside of Upper Jay. He’d often say that he knew every last square inch of the Adirondack Park—indeed, he’d climbed all the high peaks; he was a Forty-Sixer before there was such a thing—but, given the few thousand or so square miles that entails, that was the kind of boast you needed the mix of romance and blarney unique to Uncle Zebby to make. He knew the ins and outs of life in the woods, that was certainly not open to debate, but, as he was a dreamer, a romantic, he occasionally allowed himself to be bit sloppy, a bit slipshod in his preparation—but, to this point, it hadn’t ever cost him anything but some very minor frostbite on a couple of occasions, as if some guardian angel had as his particular mission to make sure Zebby maintained a full set of fingers and toes as well as his pulse. There eventually came a day, however, where my dear uncle pushed it a wee bit too far. He was hiking up around Keene, on one of those rare days in mid-March when you think that the coming of Spring may be more than mere myth—“blackberry winter”, they call it down South—and he’d let a flight of fancy get the better of him. He hadn’t dressed or brought with him enough layers of clothing for the possibility of colder temperatures or getting wet from wading into a particularly deep snow drift. He’d been so taken with the sunshine and the gurgling of snow melt into newly-opened streams that his instincts were overridden, and he hadn’t been paying attention to the shrinking distance between the sun and the horizon, nor had he noticed an unhealthy blanket of clouds blowing up from the southeast.
It was just before sunset when it began to snow, and, when it started, it did so in earnest from the outset, with the wind kicking up to the point that visibility went to near zero very quickly, which may have helped to explain how he hadn’t noticed the slope in the surrounding terrain announcing a quick drop off. He’d stumbled into a little gully that he never saw, and found himself armpit-deep in snow, which left him plenty wet and cold, which, in combination with the onset of darkness and the relative lack of shelter, caused him to be a wee bit disoriented and a great deal frightened. He sat down in a small coppice of scrub trees and, in his own mind, waited for the inevitable. It was not long after that he first heard the wolves.
“Now just a minute,” Mary interrupted. “You told me that your uncle told you this story himself.”
“Indeed he did. Every word is Uncle Zebulon’s.”
“So…what? I suppose the angels themselves fly down from Heaven to rescue him? Or, and God help you if pull this, the wee folk come to his aid?”
“Now, hush, my dear girl, and drink your tea. All will be apparent in due course.”
You would think that, if you were staring the prospect of death itself squarely in the face, every moment would pass very slowly, that every movement, every breath of air around you would become stark and diamond-sharp—and, indeed, for a time Uncle Zebulon said that is exactly what was. He could see every minute movement of the branches of the thicket of bush around him like skeletal fingers, he could calculate in his mind how much closer the wolves had moved almost to the inch. Still, when a man is cold, hungry, and resigned to the finality of his situation, he loses focus fairly quickly. Uncle Zebby wasn’t sure how long it was before he fell asleep. When he awoke—again, he really couldn’t say how much later—he was aware of a surprising warmth against him, and he didn’t need to open his eyes to know that he was in the company of wolves. There were, in fact, three of them, and he knew from the short yips and grunts that passed between them that they were awake the entire time they were with them, and he knew that, if they had stayed in one spot that long, they were powerfully hungry themselves—and yet he never felt (indeed, he somehow just knew) that he was never in any danger. For some reason, the wolves had—and again, these are Uncle Zebby’s words—taken pity on him, and had made it their business to see he survived the night.
When, at last, it became light enough for a body to see where he might be going, the wolves, growling and baring their fangs at him as they backed away to let him know there’d be no scratching them behind their ears like they were Rin Tin Tin or any of that nonsense. Uncle Zebby was not, however, out of the woods yet—literally or figuratively—but the plain old dumb luck that had carried him along for all his adult life did not fail him now; he hadn’t gone more than a few hundred yards before he happened upon an abandoned outbuilding that had been part of a lumber camp, and that, along with the now near-springlike weather, allowed him to warm up and dry out in fairly short order, and, hungry and dog-tired as he was, he shambled his way to a main road, where he was able to flag down a farmer, who, taking pity on the decidedly haggard figure that was Uncle Zebby at that moment, took him all the way back to his cabin, even though it was well out of the farmer’s way. Uncle Zebulon always said that he was a changed man after that—somehow more aware, more in tune, with his surroundings and yet living in the moment as well. Those wolves hadn’t just saved his life, he claimed; they’d allowed him to begin life anew.
She laughed, softly, so reminiscent of wind chimes that Martin had smiled as well, almost in spite of himself. “Well, I don’t believe it, Mr. Cabrera, not a word of it. It’s a lovely story, but if a speck of it is true, then I’m the Queen of England. So, Martin, just what is the point of your little fable, besides keeping a girl out to all hours?”
Martin grinned. “Well, and I’ll ignore your hurtful commentary, I’m not one for great lessons or cautionary tales. Maybe that it takes the ability to rise above instinct to truly live, but I’ll leave the morality plays to professors and pontiffs. I am thinking, dear girl, that you’ll need a refill on that tea.”
He returned from the stove with the two cups, and sat beside her on the sofa as she nestled closer, laying her head on his shoulder. “Now, about my dear Aunt Jacinta’s voyage to the States in no more than a bamboo raft…”