I don’t recall ever being so afraid at any time in my life, and I hope to god I never am again.Still, stuck as I am now in this wheelchair, which they tell me I will almost certainly never get out of, it seems highly unlikely I could ever again manage to get myself into the sort of pickle that put me here in the first place. Which may turn out to be a mixed blessing, because having been like this for just a few weeks, it occurs to me that in a year or two I may so dread the rest of my life that I will sincerely wish for the ability to end it. Or maybe not—who’s to say? There’s plenty of folks who do this their whole lives and don’t seem any the worse for it, issues of mobility notwithstanding. Just not sure if I’m made of that kind of stuff. Expect I’ll find out soon enough though.
The true and bitter irony of this story is that it came about from nothing more than the decision to do a fellow a good turn. Someone once said those never go unpunished, and I reckon I’m living proof—more or less anyway—of the truth of that hackneyed old adage. In a roundabout way, though, it was my own dumb-ass fault, for if I hadn’t driven off that night with Don’s keys, I’d’ve had no reason to go back later on, and none of this would have come to pass.
It was a Friday afternoon, coming into the first weekend in December. I remember it with absolute clarity because it was the day I took my very last step. I had driven out to Orrs Island on account of I had a truckload of lobster pots that needed to be dropped off down at Pete Boudreau’s boat, following which the work week would be over and I’d be free to commence recreating in whatever manner I felt was suitable. After Pete and I had stood on the pier a good long while, looking out across the bay and jawing about the catch that year, the approaching ice storm, and all the other stuff lobstermen discuss when they aren’t out on the boat, I bid him a good weekend and got back in my car. It was at that point I first noticed the wind starting to pick up like it does when a squall line is within a few hours of reaching you. The temperature had fallen maybe ten degrees over the course of the day, and what had started out as a pretty ordinary thirty-degree day in December was preparing to make good on the weatherman’s forecast that by Saturday morning we’d be in the teens. He had also opined that by late this evening we’d be looking at several hours of freezing rain and sleet. Most of my weekend plans had, thus, taken the form of things I could do in the house, and a good deal of that I assumed would be spent in front of the television.
Having concluded my business with Pete and made my way onto Route 24 back to the mainland, I suddenly found myself inexplicably overcome with a desire to stop by Coombs’ General Store and see what was up with Don. I hadn’t visited him in what I judged an unsuitably long time and seeing as how I was in the neighborhood—or what passes for a neighborhood in coastal Maine—I made the left turn onto Mountain Road, right about where Millie’s Fried Clam stand pops up every summer, and began to make my way over toward Harpswell. It wasn’t but about five miles down a winding road that rises and dips, following the inlet bay, coursing its way through deep pine, and eventually crossing over the old wood bridge that leads onto the outer portion of the peninsula. I hadn’t been on this road in maybe two years, since on those infrequent occasions when I had visited Don in the past, I had come straight out through Brunswick on 123 and so had no reason to traverse this windy connector road. But sure as ever, I eventually made the sweeping turn around the old motor court, climbed the last short hill, and there stood Coombs’ Store, just as it always had.
By the time you reach Don’s place, you’re pretty much at the end of the point, a craggy piece of rock that sticks out into the middle of the Harpswell Sound like a dead tree branch. The entire peninsula at this point isn’t but about two hundred yards wide, and if it wasn’t for the pine trees, you could easily see both sides of the ocean just standing in the gravel parking lot. But the first thing you notice when you get out of your car is that you’re up pretty high above the water, probably a good hundred feet above sea level, by virtue of having driven up that last steep hill before arriving. If you keep on going to the end of the point, the last quarter mile or so will be nearly straight downhill, so that you’ll reach the water just about the time it reaches you. But at Coombs you’re still fairly high up, so much so that the store, which sits back only ten yards or so off the road, is built entirely on enormous piles that stretch far down the uneven cliff and disappear into the slick black rocks that comprise the coast hereabouts.
I’d been coming out to Coombs’ Store off and on pretty much my whole life. Don and his wife Verna were friends of my mother’s and had lived just down the road from us in Brunswick for as long as I could remember. He actually had two stores, one right there fairly close to his house, maybe half a mile away at Cooks Corner, and the other way out here on Harpswell Point. I never did discuss with Don what motivated him to want to build a second store so far from the house but, whatever the reason, it was much appreciated by the fishermen and other folks who lived out here year-round, as well as the tourists who flocked to the point from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and who disappeared en masse immediately thereafter. Living out on the point year-round is a serious affair and fraught with many inconveniences, including not only having to repaint your house every spring from the salt spray, but also having to endure a twenty-mile drive into Brunswick every time you need groceries. Hence, the general appreciation for Coombs opening his modest establishment out here in Harpswell. Make no mistake though—Don Coombs’ General Store wasn’t Shaw’s or anything of the kind. It wasn’t the place you went to get your family’s groceries for a month. It was really just a convenience store where you could pick up an emergency gallon of milk or six-pack of Narragansett without having to brave forty miles of driving in a snowstorm. Don had a little bit of everything but not too much of anything, if that makes any sense.
The very idea of the place was a throwback to as long ago as the fifties, for there was nothing else like it anywhere in southern Maine, at least in my experience. But for me, Coombs’ place had a more important distinction—one that had stuck with me since early childhood and made the otherwise endless drive out here in my youth an endurable one. In addition to the shelves full of basics that are characteristic of any such establishment, the ancient brass cash register still serving yeoman duty at the front, and the requisite rocking chairs on the porch, Coombs’ Store had, running nearly the full length of the building’s right-hand side, a genuine soda and ice cream counter. Inasmuch as the establishment was already a living tribute to a humbler time and place, stepping up to that ice cream counter was, particularly for a kid, like stepping out of a time machine and into a Norman Rockwell painting.
The counter was thirty feet long, more or less, with a sparkly Formica top of the sort found on kitchen table tops favored by women who haven’t redecorated their homes since the Kennedy administration. Also in that same spirit was the wavy chrome edging, held in place by a row of shining silver rivets. In front of the counter, every four feet or so, stood precisely the sort of circular spinning stools one would expect to find in front of such a counter, clad, of course, in sparkling red vinyl and supported on shining steel posts bolted firmly to the floor. Reinforcing the time travel illusion was the inevitably teenaged soda jerk behind the counter, replete with white apron and folding paper hat, who addressed every customer as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ regardless of age, and who was skilled in the nuances of soda creams, root beer floats, and hot fudge sundaes. But the memory that has stayed with me most strongly, from my earliest recollection to the present day, is the banana boat. It’s an odd distinction, because the confection was, in nearly every respect, precisely what everyone else in the world knows as a banana split. But at Coombs’ it was a banana boat, the moniker earned, presumably, by the fact that the container in which the heaping thing was presented to you was, in fact, a small but unmistakable likeness of a rowing dingy, cast in thin plastic of pale yellow or blue. Part of what makes this such an indelible memory for me is the fact that, as far as I can recall, I never, in all my childhood years, ever once ate a banana split/boat at any establishment other than Coombs’.
Aside from the ice cream counter, and the generally typical assortment of goods displayed on the shelves, there were various other aspects of Coombs establishment that bear mentioning, insofar as they set the mood, if not directly the cause, for the events that followed throughout that weekend. Because the parcel of land on which the store was constructed was nowhere even approximately flat, but rather an alarmingly sloped half-acre of cliff and rock that descended to the bay below, the structure, as a consequence, was constructed entirely on enormous piles, black with creosote along the upper three quarters, green with the twice-daily accumulation of years of high and low tide that crept up and down the posts with lunar regularity. I do not, despite years of walking amongst the great piles upon the rocks beneath, recall the number of them, except to say that they were more than up to the task of supporting the building, which assertion one might have taken cause with after spending a bit of time inside during a particularly strong wind storm. For one of the unexpected sources of the piles’ strength was their willingness to yield, ever so slightly, against the onslaught of wind or ocean. Indeed, standing inside the store during a particularly brisk nor’easter when I was in my late teens, I still recall the distinctly nautical feeling of a slight but regular back and forth movement of the structure. This, combined with the view out the back through the large single-pane windows that looked out over Harpswell Sound, provided the not-inaccurate sensation of actually being at sea. But in all those years of visiting Coombs’ Store, I never had cause to doubt the integrity of the building, for I was aware of no actions Don ever took to improve upon its soundness, save for the obligatory spring repainting that attended every building along the winter coast each spring, skipping the occasional year if the winter had been unexpectedly mild or pecuniary conditions did not allow.
In truth, I spent more of my childhood beneath the store than I did inside it. The marveling at and consumption of legions of banana boats notwithstanding, the real fascination of the place for an adolescent lay in the mysteries waiting to be discovered beneath the floor, in that forty-odd feet of space from under the floor joists to the slippery, seaweed-covered rocks of the shoreline, up through which rose majestically the supporting piles already described. There were two ways down to the water. The more hazardous, indeed borderline suicidal, path was to walk around to either side of the building, and then make your precarious way down the cliff side hand over hand until you reached the rocks below. The more practical way down was through the expedient of simply taking the long zigzagging staircase that stood at the rear of the structure, which, while plenty vertigo-inducing in its own right, presented not nearly the hazard of the alternative approach. Once down those meandering steps (of which there were precisely eighty-seven, a statistic etched in my mind long before I became a teenager), you were near the water’s edge, just how near being a function of what state the tide was in. As it happened, at the peak of high tide you’d’ve stepped off the last step of the stairway into about a foot of water, whereas at the nadir of low tide you could have walked a hundred feet or so from the end of the step before you reached the water’s edge.
Of course the joy of it for an adolescent, aside from being down there in the first place against the wishes of any rational parent, was the exploring. It was a wonderland of great round boulders, slippery with seaweed, never more than twelve hours away from a fresh rebirth by the slapping waters of the bay. You could kick a bundle of seaweed to one side (taking great care not to fall on your ass in the process) and watch dozens of small crabs scuttle sideways in search of new cover. You could kneel before tidal pools, as small as your hand or as expansive as a car hood, within which swam brine shrimp and tiny fish, darting and translucent, around and between barnacles, starfish, and sea urchins. No two were the same, each refreshed in its turn by the rising and falling sea, as if setting in motion with each cycle of the tide a renewal of life itself, a metaphor for that very first creation, albeit with Eden microcosmic and submerged.
It was an awe-inspiring thing to stand directly beneath the store, in that great shadow it cast upon the rocks, and gaze upward along the lengths of the monstrous black piles, timbers that had stood the test of hurricanes and the incessant beating of the waves at high tide, sometimes so ferocious as to splash water upward to the very bottom of the store’s floorboards some forty feet above. I remember thinking to my adolescent self that this place, with its primeval forest of pilings and the great cliff as backdrop, was not the sort of place one would care to injure oneself, for I could imagine days or weeks passing without so much as a soul venturing down in search of you. In the end, I might have paid a bit more heed to my own apprehension.
It was that evening, following my delivery of the pots to Pete, that I walked into Coombs’ Store, not having set foot in the place for several months prior. I clapped my hands together vigorously against the growing cold and drew the heavy door closed behind me. It was plenty warm inside, despite the occasional rattle from the panoramic back windows as the cold Atlantic wind beat relentlessly upon them. There at first appeared to be not a soul inside. Only then, in response to the tinkle of the bell over the door, came a guttural grunt followed by the gradual appearance of Don’s large and hairless head as it rose from behind the canned goods aisle, the lower reaches of which he had been busily stocking with green beans and tomato sauce at the moment of my arrival.
“Hidey-ho, stranger,” he said, his version of irony, seeing as how he’d known me since I was in diapers. “I didn’t expect I was ever going to see you in these parts again.”
“Good to see you too, Mister Coombs,” I responded. Didn’t matter none that I was grown up and all. Once you spend a couple of decades calling somebody something, you tend to stick with it. Least ways, I do. “Sounds like we got us a big one on the way.”
“I expect you’re right about that,” he said. “Don’t need no weatherman to tell it to me neither. Shoot, anybody lived out here more’n a month can look out over the bay and see what’s comin’ at us. Fact is, I’ll probably shut ‘er down a little early tonight. Kinda like to get back to the house before dark, if I can swing it. Most folks that need stocking up for the weekend have already come and gone, I reckon.”
“I believe that’s a right sensible decision,” I offered, unzipping my coat, uncertain whether my acting like staying might now be perceived as inconsiderate, what with him keen to leave.
“But where are my manners,” he said at last, coming out from the aisle and wiping both hands on his apron before offering one in my direction. Least I can do is offer a man a cup of coffee.”
Which was the strongest drink Don Coombs was ever likely to offer to any man, what with him being a God-fearing fellow and all. Still, coffee was coffee and the windows in the back were commencing to rattle even more than they had moments earlier when I’d stepped inside. The sun was nearly set by now and the storm clouds hadn’t yet begun rolling over in earnest, so that the few there were had conspired with the setting sun to make for a remarkably beautiful sunset.
“Mind if I have a quick look out on the landing,” I asked, reckoning that I could get a better view of the sunset standing on the platform at the top of the stairway that led down to the shoreline.
“Help yourself, son,” Don said. “But I already got her locked up.” He reached into the pocket of his apron and withdrew a key ring with but two keys on it, one for the back door onto the landing, the other an old skeleton-looking affair for what archaic purpose I could only wonder. I caught the keys out of the air as Don turned for the coffee pot. I unlocked the back door and stepped out onto the landing, closing the door behind me, so as to be considerate as possible of Don’s fuel oil bill.
“Mind the railing to your right,” he shouted out through the door. “It came a bit loose this fall and I ain’t made the time to fix it proper.”
As it happens, the back door through the store wasn’t the only way onto the landing that led down to the rocks below. There was, as well, a narrow porch that wrapped around the entire right side of the building, so that you could, if so inclined, walk around the corner and right back into the parking lot without going back inside. Don reckoned this made it a bit handier for anyone who had cause to go down to the beach when the store was closed, but who didn’t feel up to scaling the rocks to get down there. Well, I guess I must’ve stood there gazing out at that sunset and the incipient storm clouds about five minutes before Don came tapping on the window to let me know the coffee was het up. I came back inside and pulled the door to, turning to face the man and graciously accept from him the proffered steaming cup as preamble to engaging in half an hour or so of catching-up conversation that touched upon everything from his daughter’s high school graduation to the acrimonious debate surrounding the construction of a new volunteer fire house over by Cundy’s Harbor. It was two cups later that I happened to catch Don glancing at his watch and took this as my cue to bid the man and his hospitality goodbye, which I did with much gesticulating and promising to come back sooner next time. As I swung my coat back over my shoulder, Don reached down behind the counter and handed me a wrinkled paper bag in which were ensconced half a dozen mason jars of pickled beans, carrots, and rhubarb.
“Give these here to the missus,” he said, in response to which I thanked him profusely, walked briskly to my car, and started her up, reaching for the heater lever promptly thereafter. It was four or five miles down the road, with John Fogerty shouting from the radio something about looking out his back door, that I felt the need to adjust my position in the seat in response to a pinching sensation in my right pants pocket. Couple of adjustments later, I stretched up hard against the seat belt, taking care not to drive into a ditch in the effort, so as to facilitate the removal of the offending and mysterious object. It was then I discovered I’d headed off home with Don’s backdoor keys still in my possession.
Well damn, was all I could think of to think, as I slowed the car and executed a gravel-spinning turn in the first handy driveway, figuring Don couldn’t have gotten past me without my seeing, what with this being the only road back into Brunswick. Except that the flaw in my logic was that it wasn’t necessarily the case he would head directly home this way. There were several off-roads between here and the store that he could’ve taken instead if he had a mind to go over to Bailey’s Island or other such detour. After ten minutes of driving back to the store at a pace slightly more than judicious for the advancing hour and the serpentine nature of the road, I pulled back into the parking lot to discover that, sure as hell, the windows were dark, his car was gone, and I’d managed to miss him.
Being less than keen to make a special trip back out here simply to return a set of keys, I stepped from my car into the gathering wind and walked to the front door, which I knew before I touched it would be locked. It was. It next occurred to me to have a look around back, availing myself of the surrounding porch that I knew eventually arrived at the rear stairway landing and the door whose keys were the object of my current errand. Leaving the car running and the headlights on against the now considerable darkness, I started down the railed walkway that ran along the right side of the store. It was only upon reaching the back corner, some thirty paces on, that the full import of the approaching storm made its impact upon me. I drew my jacket up close around my neck and turned left, making my way to the back stairway landing. I was unsurprised to find the back door locked as well, leading me to conclude that Don either had an extra set of keys or he was content to rely upon the doorknob lock, secured by the simple expedient of turning through ninety degrees a small button on the center of the inner doorknob. I suspected the former, though, as the back door routinely accepted the full brunt of any weather from off the bay, and Don’s sense of prudence would almost certainly have required he secure the door in as many manners as was practical, but certainly two at a minimum. Despite my conclusion that Don indeed had extra backdoor keys, I, nonetheless, felt compelled, whether from Christian decency or simple human laziness, to leave the keys I had inadvertently absconded with. The best solution I could conjure at the moment was to walk back around to the front and locate someplace suitably surreptitious near the front door, to which location I would alert Don with a follow-up phone call later that evening or in the morning. Thus outfitted with the rudiments of a plan, I turned and began making my way back down the rear portion of the walkway. It was at that inopportune moment that the wind decided to have its way with me.
Don had cautioned me, not an hour earlier, about the unstable state of a bit of the back walkway railing, and it was, to my now-everlasting disadvantage, precisely this bit of unsecured rail that my hand now descended upon in response to a particularly violent gust of wind thrust against my back, seemingly intent on throwing me face down on the walkway. As things were about to transpire, I would have been far better off, had I simply acquiesced and dropped to the floor. Instead, I gripped the railing with such a fierce if only momentary force that the entire thing cracked outward with a staccato sound barely audible above the combined howl of the wind and slash of a coincident wave on the rocks below. As though these three sounds in unison—the wind, the wave, the crisp snap of failing lumber—were insufficient to the urgency of the instant, I opted to add a fourth to the cacophony, my own scream of terror as a four-foot section of rail snapped clean off the deck, all the way to the floor, and plunged, slowly spinning, to its destruction forty feet down on the black rocks below, their slippery treacherousness now barely discernible in the almost completely extinguished light of day. I went over with it, spinning madly and throwing out an arm barely in time to catch myself by one hand on the walkway floor’s edge. My left hand flailed in the air for one panicked second, two, before joining the right along the floor’s coarse edge. I hung that way, swinging in the now ceaseless wind, no light save for minute reflections of the risen moon upon the waters of the bay. I called out but to no effect, my cries lost amidst the roar of the wind and water. In the end it was a simple splinter that was my undoing. I shifted my left hand, attempting to gain a bit more purchase on the edge of the decking, and in so doing, thrust a long pine sliver directly under my thumbnail. The pain was so intense and unexpected that I drew back my hand from the edge, leaving my right to handle alone a job that both combined had struggled with. Not a second after my left hand left the edge, my right did the same and I plunged into the blackness.
Mercifully, I remember little from that moment until I awoke an hour or more later. Specifically, I have no recollection at all of landing on the rocks, though I can now conclude with some authority that I did not land on my head, else I would not have awakened at all. Whether I fell straight down or went spinning like the broken railing I cannot say. What I can say is that when I finally awoke, several things occurred to me more or less simultaneously. My first utterly incongruous thought, as I lay on my back, face aimed directly up at the floor joists of Don Coombs General Store, was that I had seen this view long ago as a child, only never before at night. It also occurred to me that, present circumstances notwithstanding, the view was not altogether an unpleasant one, the blackness of the store frame juxtaposed with the gray moonlit sky above, clouds racing in from the bay, sliding out of sight over the top of the building.
My second thought, once I had finished my brief appreciation of the view, was that it was a remarkable thing I had awakened at all. Nine out of ten people falling from that height—two, possibly three stories—would surely have been dashed to bits on these rocks, and that would have been the end of it. And then, third, it occurred to me that I was in considerably less pain than I might have otherwise expected, all things considered. In the midst of all this reflection, which, granted, likely consumed no more than a few seconds, I had made no attempt to move in any way. Finally, though, I carefully turned my head to the right, out toward the bay, in response to a lap of icy water that had reached the fingertips of my right hand. As it happened, I turned my gaze only just in time to witness a large wave slide in my direction, crashing thunderously on the rocks ten or so feet to my right, showering me in frigid sea water.
My response to this affront was twofold. First, I realized that I was very cold and very wet and fast on my way to becoming dramatically more of both if nothing changed in the near future. And then I noticed that I was only cold from the waist up, a realization that went from reassurance to concern to abject panic, all in the space of seconds. By this point, another even larger wave was making its way in to shore and, suddenly losing all concern for potential exacerbating injuries, I endeavored to rise from my prone position. After the complete failure of a couple quick attempts, I was summarily doused by the wave I had hoped to elude, this one rendering completely saturated any remaining hidden dry spots beneath my clothing that the first onslaught had missed.
“Excellent job,” I said out loud to no one, indulging myself in a moment of sardonic wit, “you’ve managed to pull off this impressive bit of self-destruction at low tide.” This fact, immediately evident upon glancing about at the black tide lines on the rocks and piles, revealed that my present position was at least five feet below the highest dark line of dried seaweed on the rocks farther up the beach. Given the general slope of the land, this translated to a need to move myself at least fifty feet up the beach, nearly to the base of the cliff that descended from the store parking lot. Well, I thought, I ought to be able to manage that, even if I have to crawl the whole thing. This, my first truly optimistic thought since the fall, was promptly erased and replaced by something far more frightening the moment I gave one more attempt to raise myself up from the rocks. There was, it turned out, a reason why I only felt cold and wet from roughly the bottom of my ribcage upward. There was no feeling whatsoever from that point downward. Once the initial moment of panic subsided from this realization, I tested the conclusion thoroughly, going so far as to lift fist-sized rocks from the shore and bang upon either leg as far down as my reach would allow. Something, it now appeared, had gone horribly awry in the fall after all, for I had no sensation, no movement whatsoever in the lower two thirds of my body.
In the course of my self-examination, I noticed another potentially important detail. In one respect, my apparent paralysis was a blessing, if only in the short term. My right leg was broken—badly broken. I knew this, not because I could feel it, but because I could see it bent at a ridiculous angle between the knee and ankle and, as if more verification were required, because I could see the sharp point of one of my two lower leg bones sticking through the fabric of my pants leg, its off-white tip actually glowing slightly in what little moonlight still slipped through the encroaching cloud cover.
“Well,” I said out loud again, as if feeding some need to drown out the now ceaseless wind, “I’ll bet that would smart something fierce if I could feel it. Thank the Lord for small blessings.”
I supposed that with that bad of a break it was likely bleeding pretty good too. It was hard to tell at first, what with the darkness and every inch of me now soaked in sea water. Best I had managed in my sitting up efforts was to push my torso upward at a forty-five or so degree angle by thrusting my arms backward. My first attempt at this maneuver had provided another valuable lesson about my predicament. Whatever movement was going to be possible would be tenuous at best because every surface around me was comprised of nothing but large smooth, wet rocks covered with several inches of seaweed, some of which, it suddenly occurred to me, might have just cushioned my landing enough to save my ass, such as it was. I knew this because the first time I thrust my hand back in an attempt to sit up, my right palm had slipped on the seaweed, causing me to flop back down so that the back of my already bleeding head cracked pretty hard against the rock behind me.
I sat silently for a moment, glancing about, trying to develop something that might resemble a strategy for getting out of what was shaping up to be a pretty damned sticky situation. In the first few minutes of sitting there on that rock, I had been pummeled by perhaps a dozen waves, but now there suddenly came a new sensation of moisture, and I realized that the rain had begun. It was genuinely cold now, well down into the twenties, and I could see my breath with each labored exhalation. If I had been in my car driving instead of sitting alone on a rocky beach paralyzed with a broken leg, the rain now falling would have been freezing rain, the kind that sticks to your windshield wipers so hard that if you’re driving more than five miles, you’re likely as not to have to pull off the road and beat the ice off with your scraper. Out here on the rocks, though, it didn’t seem as though it could add much to the general misery of my situation.
So there I sat, collecting my thoughts and just cogitating for a moment, watching my breath blow away in the biting wind, glancing from time to time at the bone sticking out of my leg, and trying to keep my teeth from chattering. At which point, another darkly humorous thought entered my mind. Depending solely upon my own ability to extricate myself from this debacle, and pronto, I faced the very real possibility of getting to choose my means of death from three unsavory options—drowning, freezing, or bleeding to death. Given that the leg injury was to my calf, I concluded, after some thought, that choices one and two were almost certainly the odds-on favorites.
Another frigid wave rolled in. It didn’t quite break on top of me, but the amount of splash I was now catching meant that I had about half an hour to at least do something modestly ambitious if I didn’t want to find myself actually lying in seawater. The first logical step seemed to be to roll over. Only then it occurred to me that it wasn’t entirely obvious which was the easier way to move over seaweed-covered rocks using only one’s arms and hands. It was entirely possible that scooting backward on my unfeeling butt might be superior to crawling on my stomach. In any event, while the technique remained up for grabs, my course was undebatable. I needed to make my way up the beach. That’s what I kept calling it in my head—a beach—as if it were comprised of white sand and palm trees. I would be making this journey over rocks as big as me, slick with salt water and seaweed, using only my hands, and, oh by the way, doing it in near total darkness in freezing rain with waves crashing on my head. Nothing but good times.
Damn, I thought, imagine how this all might be different if I hadn’t left my cell phone in the car—the car whose headlights I could now see shining above the top of the cliff top forty feet up, an eternity away, light that was doing me not one shitload of good at the moment. It was at that moment that another sobering thought crossed my mind. Suppose, just suppose, I somehow manage to get my dumb ass far enough up this beach so as not be inundated by high tide. Then what? I’m going to climb that forty-foot cliff with just my hands? Seems doubtful. The only option that seemed even remotely feasible—remote being the operative word here—was to somehow drag my paralyzed ass up those eighty-seven steps that led to the store’s back landing—the one I’d managed to fall off.
With this tiny semblance of a goal in mind, I focused my gaze at what I judged best to be the bottom of the staircase, no easy feat, what with the increasing rain, the dark, and the salt water in my eyes. Long story short, it turned out, after fifteen minutes of trial and error, that crawling on my belly worked marginally better than scooting backward on my ass. First of all, there was some value in actually facing my destination rather than constantly trying to look back over my shoulder to make sure I was creeping in the right direction. Second, on my belly, the slip of a freezing hand on a seaweed-covered rock only meant trying again. On my back, it frequently meant slamming the back of my head down against a rock, which, let me state for the record, gets mighty old after the fourth or fifth time. Throughout this grim ordeal, I tried my best not to look backward, partly because it was unnerving to watch my lower right leg flopping around like it wasn’t connected to me by anything other than a little bit of muscle and skin, partly because there was a race going on—a race between me and the incoming tide—and I was pretty clearly losing. While I couldn’t feel it, I could, by looking back over my shoulder, see my legs from the knees down now fully immersed in the water of the bay, even when there wasn’t a wave breaking over me, which was still happening every thirty seconds or so.
In the course of attempting to negotiate the treacherous rocks, I was, in addition, to slowly freezing while making disturbingly little progress, also adding an array of minor injuries to my already busted-to-shit self. The not-infrequent slips of one hand or the other more than once caused me to bash my face or elbow into a rock, one of which instances caused me a chipped tooth. I also jammed, and possibly broke, a finger that slipped down between two rocks, either before or after I firmly grasped, with the same hand, a sea urchin that was lurking beneath a clump of seaweed. It was all starting to get on my nerves. Or at least I convinced myself of this, believing that anger was a healthier emotion than panic right about now, the former far likelier to get me up the beach, or so I believed in that moment. My mind was promptly changed on this score, however, the first time a large, icy wave descended on top of my head at precisely the moment I was drawing a deep breath, nearly exhausted from my efforts to that point. All I inhaled was sea water. And when the wave had receded, I realized that I was now lying fully immersed in the bay, only my back and raised head still above water level. I resolved to pick up the pace a bit, sea urchin spines and broken fingers be damned.
At this inauspicious moment, a strange thing happened. A thought entered my mind, as unexpected as it was disturbing, particularly given the bad and still-deteriorating circumstances. Throughout all of this madness, I had not thought, for even one moment, about home or the wife or the kids. The last thought even remotely related to home had been back in the car driving toward Brunswick when I had first realized I’d left with Don’s keys, and that thought was nothing more than annoyance at the prospect of getting home later than I’d wanted to and, as a consequence, being met with a grim look and a cold supper. But ever since then—the drive back, the walk along the deck, the fall, and everything since—nothing. At a minimum, it ought to have occurred to me that this wasn’t exactly the way I’d originally had my Friday night planned out. I expect that my failure to think about home and loved ones simply meant I’d convinced myself I could beat this thing. No big deal. Just one more rung on the long ladder of life’s challenges. The fact that home and family were now, from out of nowhere, front and center in my head? Perhaps my ability to reassure (or kid) myself was fading a bit.
I had, after a half hour or so of serious effort, gotten into a rhythm of lurching and tugging myself forward a foot or two at a time, then laying my head momentarily on the nearest rock—seaweed be damned—to collect my energy for the next burst. I had learned a thing or two as well about crawling over rocks covered in wet seaweed. Mainly what I learned is don’t grab the seaweed thinking it’s going to get you anywhere. Mostly it just comes away in your hand and you end up smacking your hand (or your head if you’re lucky) against something hard. This approach was now no longer an option, though, leastways not if I meant to continue breathing regular. I had covered perhaps half the distance I needed to escape the tide and make it to the bottom of the stairs, and I was now a damned sight colder and more tired than when I had set out. If there were odds makers following this affair in Vegas, the numbers against me were rising, and rising fast.
But as the next pre-wave swell comes in and surrounds me in another cycle of chill ocean water, I suddenly realize that the water catching up to me like this is not entirely a bad thing. In fact, this might actually constitute a break, which, if so, would certainly be my first of the night. As the swell passes by me, it lifts me slightly as well, and I suddenly find that it takes remarkably less effort to half crawl, half swim my way an additional three feet forward. The trick, though, is to grab onto something solid when the swell starts heading back out, so that it doesn’t carry me back with it and erase all of my progress. The trade-off is that after what has to have been a couple of hours of complete saturation in forty-degree sea water, my upper body is in nearly as paralytic a state as my legs. The freezing rain falls fairly steady now, as if the ocean needed any help in its efforts to freeze me solid. Even if my combined swim/crawl gets me to the bottom of the stairs, am I really in any shape to then make it up eighty-seven steps—forty feet—using only my bruised, frozen hands? When the next wave throws me five feet closer to the stairs, I conclude that I am, as they say in warmer parts of the country, fixin’ to find out.
Oddly enough, considering everything that has happened in the past few hours, I find that I actually make pretty decent time the rest of the way by riding the waves, as it were. Good thing too, since with my totally frozen arms and hands, my days of clawing my way over the rocks, dragging two thirds of my body weight behind me, are over for the night (which doesn’t bode well for the stairs. But, hey, one step at a time). In fact, as it turns out, I make a little too good time toward the end of my journey over the rocks. Just as I get to within reaching distance of the bottom step, one final swell, a little larger than usual, picks me up and throws me face-first into the bottom railing post, which opens a nice split on my forehead. Another small benefit of being nearly frozen to death—I can’t even feel what I’m sure is a pretty good dose of pain from the impact, judging by the blood now running down into my eye. That, as my good friend Chester used to say back in high school football practice, is definitely going to leave a mark.
And now arrives the moment of truth. Eighty-seven steps, six landings, forty vertical feet, three stories. However you care to say it, that’s a long way up for my frozen, paralyzed, beat to hell (and stupid for getting into this situation in the first place) ass. The good news is that by making it this far, I’ve taken drowning out of the running for what they’ll write as “cause of death” on my death certificate. However, by achieving that, I have put freezing into a strong first place primarily by virtue of dragging my way out of the surf and up onto the first couple of steps. What hadn’t occurred to me until now is that the forty-degree sea water was a damned sight warmer than the twenty-degree air (wind chill not included) on a guy who’s soaked through with said sea water. But cheer up, they say, things could be worse. And you know what? Sure as shit, things get worse, because with a couple hours of freezing rain, the eighty-seven stairs now awaiting my attention are covered with half an inch or so of solid ice, which is, of course, both cold and slippery. Cheer up, my ass.
I won’t bore you (at least no more so than I have to this point) with the next hour or so except to tell you that I decided around the time I was getting started that it might help me out psychologically if I kept a count of the stairs as I went, especially seeing as how I’d taken the trouble to memorize how many there were back when I was a kid. That’s how I know that stair number twenty-seven is the one that fucked me up the best, by virtue of my hand slipping off of it, causing me to slide, head bumping all the way, back down to number nineteen. And an odd thing—another one—occurred to me about the time I was sliding back down a few of those steps, cussing and yelling the whole way. At no point throughout this entire affair—at least not since the fall—had it occurred to me to try shouting out for help. Other than a general-purpose scream when I fell, I guess I figured that the combination of the wind and the surf and the generally late hour in a place that hardly anyone has any reason to come to anyway, there wasn’t a whole lot of point to it, besides which, as it turned out, I needed all the energy I could muster before all was said and done.
So let me just wrap this account up by saying that I made it and I didn’t make it. If it’d been up to me to claw my way all the way up eighty-seven of those ice-covered stairs, on what the weatherman would state later the next day had been a fifteen-degree night, and not the twenty I was thinking, and a twenty-five knot wind off the ocean, and me covered in a layer of salt water ice, I’d’ve been a Popsicle long before sun-up. Fact of the matter is, I lost it at stair number forty-two. Didn’t even make it quite halfway before I froze up solider than the engine in my cousin’s Buick when he forgot to put anti-freeze in it two winters ago. And here’s the weirdest part of the whole story, to my mind anyway. Doctors said the next day it was the freezing rain saved my ass, on account of the ice all over me was pretty steady at thirty-two degrees, whereas if I’d’a been dry, I’d have frozen solid that night right there on the stairs.
But in the end, I passed out just shy of halfway up the staircase, looking up at the faint glow from my car’s headlights. And the only reason I’m here now to relate this grim tale at all is that by the time I’d made it up as many stairs as I could and then passed out (the last thing I remember is wrapping one of my arms in between a couple of the balusters on the handrail so I wouldn’t slide the hell back down onto the landing below me, or hell, all the way back down into the water for all I knew) is that Don just happened to decide to come in and open the store early on Saturday morning, icy roads be damned, in case there were folks in Harpswell still needing groceries on account of the weather. I don’t know what time I gave up the climb, but Don says he showed up around six that morning. Says as soon as he saw my car sitting in the parking lot with the motor still running (good thing I filled the tank right after I left Pete’s the day before), he wondered what was up. He walked around back and saw me lying down there, called the Harpswell rescue squad, and they came out and drug my frozen remains the rest of the way up the stairs.
When all was said and done, aside from severing a couple of vertebrae in my lower spine and breaking both of the bones in my lower right leg, I had an assortment of cuts, bruises, and what-not. Oh, and I lost the tips of two fingers and a piece of one ear to frostbite. And now I got a speedy little wheelchair that they say I’ll spend the rest of my life in, except when I’m driving, which I can still do thanks to my buddy Lester, who’s got one hellacious garage over in Topsham and fixed up my car with some modifications that allow me to drive it without using my feet. It’s kind of a bitch getting from the chair into the car and back, but if I proved nothing else that night, I proved that life itself is a bitch. So what’s one more challenge heaped on top?
Last thing I remember from that morning is them unloading me at the hospital, by which time they’d gotten me thawed out a little, to the point where I was awake and chatting, though probably not making a lot of sense, with the nurses in the emergency room. As they were pulling the sopping pants off me, wouldn’t you know that Don’s key chain fell out of the pocket and onto the floor. The last clear thing I said before they knocked me out was, damned if I didn’t do it again.