Michael crossed the state line and left New England behind, entering shiny New York. There had been gateway years in his life thus far that connected two distinct stretches of belief systems. He hoped this would be one of them. Something needed to happen soon. His bills were getting larger and the gambling was getting more frequent. An older part of him was fading but he did not know yet what would come to replace it. He was feeling stuck and this year as he looked around the teacher's lounge at the older, tired faces, he shuddered to realize it possible that nothing would ever change.
Taking a deep breath, he thought of the long discarded snake skins he would find when camping at Lake George. Or the abandoned cocoons hanging from branches at one of his secret island hideaways. There were so many signs of life and rebirth on the lake. That is where he would spend the 4th of July this year. Quietly. Alone in his new Bean tent. Watching silent fireworks sparkle in the distance.
-from Saratoga Silks
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A Story of American Dreamers and Doers
By M. L. Stevens
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 M.L. Stevens
All rights reserved.
Michael, Escape from Portland
In New England, the rain and snow from above runs down the mountains, through the rivers and either returns to the sea or gets trapped in a lake. A strong Nor'easter may shake things up and remind mortals of their fragility and the need to dig out every so often and start again.
May in booming Portland, Maine was heaven to most people. The summer marina crowd began taking their sailboats out to the salty docks for this year's adventures. School children counted the days until their release. Winter storms were all but forgotten and in their place balmy winds and gulf streams blew in the hummingbirds, dolphins and sharks. This night it was an unseasonably cold and rainy Wednesday that Michael Argos Butler bluffed his way to victory in a game of Texas hold'em over five of his childhood friends.
They had history together. The group shared the same memories of grade school, high school and sometime college. There were touchstones of old teachers, coaches, star athletes and glamour girls. Memories lingered of hockey games that were won at the buzzer, hazing rituals at State and the exact moment hearts grew cold after the loss of a friend. The familiarity was comforting but sometimes flat like the cornfields and endless highways of Middle America. If you were not careful you would be lulled to sleep at the wheel.
New white smoke rose over a pile of cigarette ashes they had been building for the last three hours. Michael stared at it and thought it was starting to look like a small volcano about to erupt. He called his best friend's bluff, pocketed the kitty that made up for last week's disaster and called it a night. The Red Sox closed out their own victory on the radio in the background reminding Michael that even epically bad luck should turn eventually. Sometimes it just took one hundred years.
Being a high school teacher had its joys and numbing repetitions. One of the few highlights now to Michael was his summer vacation to chase any whim or dream that entered the tired mind of his once spry rye catcher.
He was a good teacher who loved history and the lessons that it taught. Over the last decade he was consistently well respected by students and parents alike. But somewhere in the last few years, an early idealism had faded and he wondered if twelve years was too long to be in any vocation. Or town. He asked himself too often now if the human spirit was nomadic in nature. If anything endured. Perhaps this was just he lamenting his youth at age thirty-five. But, more frightening to him he wondered if he was now on the wrong path and if he missed an essential turn on a now overgrown trail.
At one time, and for many years, he had thought teaching would be his life long career. Now he was feeling detached from the person going through the motions every day. A poser. He detested posers. Just getting out of bed seemed like more of an effort. The malaise rang like a faint bell in another lifetime.
His best friend Body was content, probably smarter than him in some ways. He made a very nice living as a financial adviser. Somehow he did not seem to need or see the value of two months of downtime each year. Consistently he stated that he went stir crazy when not working. Even complaining at every turn about his long delayed honeymoon three years ago in Paris. He said the food was too rich and he was still paying for the pleasure of being called an ugly American by a hungry street musician.
Michael chalked this up to his friend's need for daily structure and a fondness for familiar surroundings. Perhaps it was a slight lack of imagination. At the poker table Body's tells were amazingly consistent and unique. Sipping water with an index finger on the left eyebrow. He was in doubt. Left hand through his spiked hair then rubbing the back of his neck if he was feeling flush. Body was too focused on his own hand where Michael watched others intently. He liked people and liked learning about them. Then he retreated to his music and hobbies. In the end, the two friends had enough in common with fishing and hockey. Plus in Michael's estimation loyalty was a character trait that was undeveloped in too many people these days. Body had proven to still possess it in spades.
After high school two of their hockey teammates had joined the marines saying they wanted some adventure and a free pass to school when they came back. Michael had considered joining too. Then his parents told him that it would kill them if their only child joined the service. They pushed him to go right into State University despite the cost and the loans. Only one of his friends returned. Body made sure his old teammate had a job right away at the office while he went to night school. He looked out for him like a brother. He was the oldest of six and accustomed to leading the pack. Their other young friend's name was on a memorial plaque in the center of town. It was easier not to talk about Leo, but sometime a glass was raised in his name.
Michael's gifts at reading faces and fidgets gave him an advantage in life. He breezed through most situations in the classroom, on the hockey rink or at the card table. This had allowed a pattern of semi-reckless behavior outside of work. He had experienced many financial highs and lows and had a large but remote circle of friends and past girlfriends. If called upon he never turned his back on anyone in need. As usual Body made sure he walked a few steps ahead and called Michael by his middle name. They arrived at their cars trading friendly barbs.
Body unlocked his year old Lexus with a chime control and gazed at the faded car next to it. "Argy if you don't trade in that beat up Saab soon you'll be eligible for antique plates. Are you sure saving our nation's youth is worth the humiliation?"
Michael blocked the shot. "Oh it will do for now. Soon you will be begging to take my Ducati for a spin around the block. Just wait until the fall."
"Uh. Huh. Didn't I hear that last year and the year before? Soon we will need damn Ducati wheelchairs Argi." He kept ribbing with a sharp tone. "I know your computer science minor is going to pull down big dividends one day. Break the bank at Saratoga. We will all celebrate in Las Vegas at the big chip table right? I really think you've been counting cards the last few weeks during our games. You are taking too much of my money. Well it maybe it will make up for the thinning hair I noticed tonight at the table. Later Argi."
His silver door slammed and he pulled away with a tire screech for exclamation. For a pained second Michael took note that Body returned home to his wife and young daughter while he ventured back to his small apartment and his quirky greyhound Brandt.
He quickly redirected his thoughts and was excited that in less than three weeks he would be back at his personal heaven on earth, Lake George, New York. Maybe this was the summer that would get him the nest egg to make some changes. He could leave teaching for a while and try something totally new. Who knows, maybe even move out of Portland. Find another coast. Growing up on the ocean he felt land locked if away from the salt for too long. He could not have answered why he felt the need to leave each summer to New York or what he was running to. It was just understood that the pull to go was feeling stronger each year. Whatever It was, the feeling had been leading him to Saratoga and Lake George for the last five summers.
His parents had left Maine to run a small Bed and Breakfast in Greece seven years ago. A dark Irish grandfather and father had been first and second generation shipbuilders for Kennebunk Iron Works. At twenty-two his father married a pretty Greek seamstress and together they worked harder than anyone Michael had ever known.
When his mother had the chance to take over her family's Inn on the island of Paros they jumped at an early retirement. They had asked if Michael wanted to join them, but fresh from the University of Maine and eager to teach at a local prep school he stayed. And stayed. Now over ten years had passed. He was twenty-four then with a Masters degree and half of a PhD in North East American Revolutionary History. He still had a mountain of school debt and was renting the same apartment he lived in now.
He could not say he had ever saved more than a few thousand dollars at a time since he graduated. Bills and setbacks seemed the normal rhythm of his parent's life and now his. Scrimping and saving pennies was a way of life for as long as he could remember. He had worked hard and followed the rules but was stuck. Now needed to find a way to get ahead.
He liked teaching history, coaching the hockey team, playing guitar, parties with his friends and gambling. He would gamble on football, baseball and cards. Sometimes his friends gambled on physical tests of manhood. And for the last five summers the horses at Saratoga. Gambling broke up his monotony and offered legal shots of adrenaline. When he was losing he wondered if he had a problem but when he was winning the doubts were quieted. Betting could set a competitive nature on fire. Three years ago he had even started a computer program to organize certain statistics and variables on the horses and it had improved his summer winnings considerably. Coding was a hobby and something that came easily to him.
His love affair with Saratoga had started as a weekend road trip with Body before his marriage. Then it had turned into a yearly personal pilgrimage. He was hooked on the colors, scents and diversity of people that flocked to the track in the summer. The Adirondacks provided nature's relief in between. Then in September it was time to return home perhaps with empty pockets. Usually breaking even. He always felt richer with experience and new ideas to beat the system next year. For five weeks the horses ran every day but Tuesday. Michael would usually pick the best four days of the week and was one of the first at the track to watch the warm-up.
He had found the perfect summer cabin on Lake George and worked for the owner's restaurant in downtown Saratoga some nights. Many days were free to swim, fish, camp, code and gamble. He was aware that he was searching for something but it was also a magical place. Perhaps he would find his pot of gold as his gruff County Cork grandfather would sarcastically say. Or maybe he was simply soothing his gypsy soul passed down from his Greek Aunt. Stories of her wandering travels to nowhere were legendary in the family.
The answers would have to wait.
For now this summer vacation would keep him from falling into that comfortable fog he thought too common in Maine. Too common in some granite headed, old New Englanders.
The last day of school in June was 92 degrees. Michael briefly remembered how hot it could get the last two weeks when he was a cagey student at his marked desk in the public school four blocks away. The fresh, salty sea breezes drifting in the open windows were always a saving grace. Now at St. Francis' prep school students were cooled by air conditioning while sitting in navy blazers.
Michael looked around at his Junior homeroom and smiled at the joyous anticipation painting their faces. He started his send off. "You have been one of my most vocal and creative home rooms. Make sure to begin your summer reading list early or August will be a bear. And, you can be sure that I will call you each out in September. Yes I mean you Jose."
"I recommend you start with the 'History of the Seven Nations', to get you in a summer bonfire frame of mind and then finish with the biography of Benedict Arnold. In September we will discuss if he was really the villain most frame him to be. And Carolyn here is your cell phone back. Tell your parents a one-week suspension of the iPhone was a fair punishment for the crime. Their plea to have Principal Petan ship me out to Portland Memorial - although failing this time- may have merit next year if you keep texting during my classes."
"Holden practice your slap shot. You'll never make the Bruins with that senior citizen golf swing you have now. And fyi class there are no Cliff Notes for the three books I have assigned. So, so. ... sorry for that. Not really. Make sure your three page book reports with key dates are ready to be recited the first day of class next semester in case you lose my 50/50 bucket lottery. I will be collecting them all after class for 20 percent of your midterm grade. Yes, that was 20 percent. You are now dismissed and enjoy your summer."
The typically disciplined teenagers practically ran out of the classroom. Michael exhaled a full semester of stress. Finally, the school year was behind him.
He still found occasional rewards interacting with students even if the parents and principle were becoming a drain. The constant testing, measurement and red tape seemed to be tipping the scales of payback downward as the years passed. The students in recent years seemed more stressed out than excited. They were being taught to cry foul at every turn instead of finding the right solution. It trickled down from some parents.
It would be two more weeks until he left for his cabin on Lake George for July and August. The "Queen of American Lakes" had charmed him in more ways than one. Saratoga racing season lasted for six weeks starting at the end of July. Although wagering was a primary motivation to head to New York he had grown to love the camping, hiking and islands around Lake George during his stay.
He had made a few friends at the pub restaurant he worked at and would spend time with them while fine tuning his racing program with past season simulations. His weighting system was down to 14 criteria honed during the last five seasons of play. He was borderline obsessed with the possibility of predicting each outcome. With some research of parentage, track history, stable, trainer and jockey he thought it possible to figure out the Rubik's cube and get the grand prize. And then? And then maybe some freedom from loans. Some possibilities.
The next few weeks he helped out with Body's new boat and practiced his golf swing at the local driving range. Brandt watched from behind with enthusiasm and usually barked at his better drives. Just like Rory he thought to himself every twenty strokes.
Some nights he was coding. Other nights he would find a poker game downtown. Finally it was time to leave for the cabin. That weekend he went to a friend's 35th birthday party which started at golf course and ended at the local watering hole which always had great live music on the weekends. Although he had his vices drinking was never one of them. He had seen first hand with his father and uncle what the bottle could do unchecked. It would not be his undoing. His father had long since calmed his demons. They grew quieter after he quit working his long shifts at the shipyard.
Michael would switch early to tonic water and lime. He wanted to be fresh for his trip the next morning. He lost some money on a golf wager that involved hitting the back of Simone Catrell's custom pink golf cart. Michael shook it off with the high hopes he had for his racing program this summer. That last night the live music seeped into his veins as he closed his eyes and day dreamed of his deep blue lake with all of its mysterious inlets and islands.
At seven a.m. that Sunday before driving the long six hours to New York, Michael and Brandt took their usual bike ride around the harbor and through the state park. It was the best way to exercise the athletic dog and clear his own head for the day. The smart greyhound was trained to stay beside the bike at all times. Long ago he had bet at the dog track with friends, but gradually found it the least tasteful of gambling venues now. He had formed the opinion that dogs were more social animals and did not evolve to handle the long stretches of the confined downtime most endured.
Thoroughbreds were naturally independent, grazed for hours and were treated like royalty at the better tracks. They seemed to relish the pageantry and victories almost like human athletes. After considerable thought he believed that he had ruled out anthropomorphism on this point. He was aware of the controversies in racing but felt that they could be found in every sport and with most athletic pursuits.
Life was fragile. Living was a gamble. Risks were part of a life well lived. He believed this subconsciously but the sentiment was sometimes so hard to put into practice when there was rent and school loans to pay off.
Some things about Saratoga were purely visceral like how glorious and shining the equine athletes appeared in rosary on a sunny day. It was also gritty. All muscle, sweat and track dirt straining to cross the line first in a rough and tumble blur of color. He admired and sometimes envied the gutsy jockeys attempting to ride the wind. The romance of the sport was not lost on him despite his hard and cold dissection of the statistics at hand.
He peddled harder and Brandt followed. They passed the old bronze Minerva goddess statue in Portland's downtown. Michael always liked to take a moment to nod at her message of wisdom.
Packing for two months was never a difficult chore for the footloose teacher. Three pairs of shorts, two pairs of khakis and jeans, a navy blazer and five t-shirts would get him though most of his vacation and there was a Target not too far from downtown Saratoga. He threw his fishing pole and bike onto the top of his dusty green Saab and finally whistled for Brandt to join him from his nap in the kitchen.
Excerpted from Saratoga Silks by M. L. Stevens. Copyright © 2015 M.L. Stevens. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI. Pilgrims and Natives on the Hudson,
One - Michael, Escape from Portland,
Two - Kari, Comforts of Home,
Three - Elio, Rowboat from Hell,
Four - Jackson, The American Dreamer,
II. Opening Ceremonies,
Five - Sires and Sapphires,
Six - Degrees and Desire,
Seven - Lavender and Honey,
III. Our Town,
Eight - Actors and Producers,
Nine - Silk Roads,
Ten - Biting the Big Apple,
IV. Maine Streets,
Eleven - Tin Soldiers,
Twelve - Lucky Seven,
Thirteen - To Rent or Own,
V. Birthday Candles,
Fourteen - Night at SPAC,
Fifteen - For Love or Money,
Sixteen - False Modesty,
VI. Heavenly Rises and Falls,
Seventeen - Angels Hair,
Eighteen - Black Tuesday,
VII. Old Military Roads,
Nineteen - Home Stretch,
Twenty - Petrified Gardens,
Twenty-one - Owl Eyes,
VIII. Party of the Summer,
Twenty-two - Freedom Fighters,
Twenty-three - Ancient Dances,
Twenty-four - Pool of Life,
Twenty-five - Morning After,
VIIII. Native Dancers,
Twenty-six - Losing your Shirt,
Twenty-seven - Breaking. Even.,
Twenty-eight - Paint on the Canoe,
Twenty-nine - Yaddo Time,
XI. Closing Ceremonies,
Thirty - Semester Abroad,