WITH ALL DUE RESPECT
The innkeeper’s left ear is heavily bandaged. Some of the blood has dried brick red, but there are still blots of fresh leakage. Cheryl is registering us and, while the credit card machine beeps away, she asks him what happened.
“An accident,” he says in a tone that thwarts any further discussion, then points us up the front stairs to the Rufus Porter room, second on the right. When Cheryl asks for the key, he smugly announces that none are needed here at The Riverbend Bed and Breakfast; however there is a privacy bolt on the inside. Our room, the best of the three in the inn he and his wife own and operate, has two great views, one of Middlebury, Vermont and the other, to the west, is of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks. It’s mid-week. We are the only guests so our hot breakfast can be anytime we want. Cheryl thinks 8:00 a.m. will be fine.
I am writing a biography of Calvin Coolidge. I have a PhD in American Studies, but my books are targeted for the eight-to-fourteen age group. They have bright covers, are no more than two-hundred pages with many drawings and easy-to-read print. Cheryl, my ex-wife, has illustrated all my books. We have been divorced for five years but get along well. Neither of us has thought about remarrying, either to someone else or each other. We have never told our publisher about the split. The book jackets still have the two of us posed in a country setting replete with a tail-wagging black lab. We borrowed the stupid dog for the photo shoot. We both agree that pets are a bloody nuisance. We’ve contracted for three books this year, President Coolidge being the last. Two months ago we finished Franklin Pierce. Chester Alan Arthur was done weeks before that. This stop finishes our summer odyssey of covering the Vermont and New Hampshire presidents.
When we travel I let Cheryl select where we stay. I am cheap. If I were running the show we’d be in a $65.00 room at the Econo-Lodge outside of Rutland. She likes New England inns or bed-and-breakfasts, especially ones, being an amateur chef, which feature haute cuisine. Of the ten or so weeks we’re together there’s often a chance for her to paint a few landscapes which she can sell at craft shows or at the artist league she belongs to back in Ohio.
We have spent the past week in and around Plymouth, Vermont, where she sketched Coolidge’s birthplace and many of the buildings in his small home town. I took hundreds of pictures to help her memory when she gets back to her studio. Most of my historical research was done long ago. I will take the rough draft to a sixth-grade class close to my Akron, Ohio home for critiquing as to vocabulary, level of interest, etc., and then turn it in.
Cheryl thinks the room is lovely. She bounces on the bed and discovers that it has memory foam, posture-pedic mattresses with individual settings which she has considered buying. She is in love with the window seat and nearly bursts into song when exploring the bathroom, taking note of the many little touches. She emerges with two small bottles. “Look at this, Aveda, high class spas feature this stuff. These people really go all out.”
There is a polite knock on the door. Cheryl and I freeze for a moment, but then realize that we are both decent. I answer it and am met by a mildly pretty woman holding a tinkling pitcher of lemonade and some oatmeal cookies, our late afternoon “welcome” snack to tide us over until dinner. She has a folder which lists some Middlebury-area restaurants and sample menus. When she tries to smile I notice the upper right side of her face and lower lip are puffy; her speech coming across as if she is recovering from Novocain. Cheryl is effusive in her praise about how nice the room and views are and says that she has always wanted to own an inn. “You are so lucky to live in such a beautiful home in so scenic a state. I’ll bet this area is a Mecca for artists and craft people”
The woman nods, wishes us a pleasant afternoon but not before introducing herself as Inez Cartier. Just call her or her husband Edward if we need anything.
We have sex. It is the lazy, indolent kind that veteran partners have. When we are done, we lie there munching on cookies and lemonade both of which disappoint Cheryl because they are made from a mix. We talk shop. Coolidge had a young son, Calvin Jr., who died at sixteen of blood poisoning. My books are happy books; the skullduggery of politics is absent. Positive American virtues of hard work and honesty are on display. Cheryl has drawn the Coolidge family of four at Sunday dinner. Do we want to mention the boy’s tragic death at all? Cheryl has some sketches of a grieving Grace and Calvin Sr. praying at their son’s bedside which she thinks will add an emotional dimension to the book. I’m not too keen about including the event at all. We debate for twenty minutes, at times heatedly, and to the degree that visions of the fights we had when we were married begin to flash before us, I compromise by suggesting the publisher should decide. Then we have sex again.
We dine “early bird” at Hampstead House, a prix-fixe dinner for fifty bucks. I have lamb which I rarely eat. Cheryl has a homemade pasta dish which takes a dozen adjectives and three lines on the menu to describe. We are back at The Riverbend by seven, tired and a bit glib from a bottle of Chateau Margeaux we splurged on. We no sooner get through the front door than we are met by an anxious Inez.
“Oh Doctor, thank god you are here. My husband is not well.”
I glare at Cheryl. She has a tendency to use my academic degree, Dr. and Mrs. Fraley, when reserving tables in fancy restaurants or, in this case, registering at the inn. She thinks it adds some cachet to how we are treated. She has been admonished more than once. I explain to Inez that I am not a medical doctor, have no knowledge of illnesses whatsoever, and offer to drive her husband to the nearest medical office.
We are led through the kitchen back to their living area. Edward, his ear still bandaged, is sitting on a small couch, legs crossed with a magazine in his lap. He seems okay to me.
Inez yells at him to quit acting as if he was fine. Then she turns to us and says that he can’t walk without losing his balance and sometimes blanks out in the middle of a sentence. As if on cue, Edward topples over sideways into the crushed velour. Cheryl rushes to him, pulling his face out of the couch seat so he can breathe. His eyes are open but he is unresponsive. Cheryl tries to lift him upright, but can’t so she and Inez do the next best thing and wrestle him flat on his back.
“You need to call 911. His pupils aren’t reacting to light. Did he fall or have a recent head injury?” Inez does not respond immediately. It’s as if she needs to rehearse.
“We had a fight this morning.” She finally responds while holding Edward’s head lovingly in her lap. “He punched me so I hit him with a baseball bat.” She begins crying. “If he dies I don’t want to live.”
I dial 911. When the connection is made I have some difficulty in describing the situation. When I explain it somewhat, the next issue is whether we are closer to Vergennes or Brandon. I take a stab and say Brandon because Cheryl and I drove through it this afternoon. They are on their way, but it will take up to fifteen minutes.
Cheryl comforts Inez. A thousand spousal abuse shows on Oprah provide a backdrop for her babbling. They were so happy the first few years here, but taxes have gone up and insurance is terrible. Last year a man fell on the stairs and sued them and got a $250,000 settlement. Edward hates it and wants a job where he can have weekends off and not be nice to people all the time. When they fight she cries uncontrollably at the hateful things he says, so he slaps her to make her stop. Today she got angry when he swore at her about the bed linen expense. They had a tussle and she hit him in the head once or twice with the bat. He always wore an earring. It tore off and he bled. She thought that was the extent of his injuries. They made up and she bandaged him, but then he began acting funny when he tried to get up or just forgot what he was doing.
The EMTs arrive and take over. An unresponsive Edward is neck braced and strapped onto a gurney. Inez runs back to their bedroom to grab his pajamas and her coat. She gets into the ambulance with Edward and a police officer. Another cop begins interviewing Cheryl and me as to what we know. We ask what is going to happen. It doesn’t look good for Edward. His brain is swelling. He’ll need surgery. Inez will be booked for assault and possibly manslaughter if he doesn’t make it.
By 9:30 p.m. everyone has gone and we have the place to ourselves. We check out the other rooms and decide that ours is the best. We investigate the
Cartier living quarters and can’t believe the mess. Cheryl checks the fridge and pulls out microwave pancakes and French toast sticks.
“This is what our breakfast would have been, the nerve at $155 a night!”
The front desk phone rings. It is someone from Connecticut wondering if The Riverbend offers AARP discounts. I tell them we hate old people and don’t allow them to stay here, and hang up. Cheryl comes at me with a printout.
“They have no reservations until Friday, and then they’re full up for the weekend.”
She cocks her head expecting me to comment. I take the bull by the horns. “We’ll make calls and explain in vague terms what happened. Maybe create a burst water pipe or kitchen fire story.”
“You don’t want to fill in for a short while? Just to see what it’s like running a place like this. Vermont is heaven compared to our apartments back in Ohio. I could do a better breakfast with my eyes closed. If he dies and she goes to jail, we could get this place for a song. But it needs a marketing plan big-time. When it’s quiet during the week you could write that series on the Virginia presidents..We could sell your books and my landscapes in a gift shop. How great is that!?”
I give her a long, cold stare.
“Okay, I lost my head. Just another reminder why we’re divorced.”
“But somehow still together,” I said.
“Bizarre, isn’t it,” she said looking wistfully at the mountains from the large picture window.
Click here for D.E. Fredd's bio