‘I want to see the Rockies one more time before we move back east,” Carl’s father announced to the family one night at dinner. “I’m going to the area where I treated silver miners. Carl will go with me.” Carl’s heart leaped with excitement. To be singled out by Father!
So one weekend in 1922 when he was nine, Carl accompanied his forty-two-year-old father Herman from their home in Nebraska to Manitou Springs, Colorado — a last sentimental trip. His father, Herman, who had most recently served as sole physician and pharmacist in tiny Venango, Nebraska, was a short man with perfect posture and a perennial look of self-satisfaction. Carl, who had inherited his father’s physique — short stature, thin legs, round face —stood his ground firmly in the middle of his family, third son of five children, always a little forgotten, or so he felt. As a result, though he worried about the fragility of a parent who’d reached such an advanced age — past 40! — he savored the undivided attention he expected on this trip and harbored a barely conscious hope it would bring them closer.
In mid-afternoon the two checked into a Manitou mountain inn. Carl, looking forward to exploring, could hardly wait to see the mountain! Maybe even climb it, or go into the silver mines. No sooner had they unloaded their travel bags when Herman donned his suit jacket and fedora and left the inn to take a walk, telling his son, “I’ll be back.” Slightly disappointed, Carl sat down to wait a little longer for his adventure with Father.
For a while the boy felt lonely, but there was plenty to occupy him. The inn itself, something of a white elephant, aroused his curiosity. It was one of those nineteenth century Queen Anne-style Victorians that had once been grand but had grown shabby from neglect and was therefore affordable to the impecunious doctor. When Father hadn’t returned in half an hour, he decided to explore.
Young Carl delighted in the opportunity to examine such a quaint and unfamiliar structure — a marzipan wedding cake compared to the unadorned plain vanilla houses he knew from the Nebraska prairie. He even ventured outside to gaze at its decorative, almost whimsical exterior, with its five gables and steeply pitched roof, the shingles of its siding laid out in a green and white fish-scale pattern — he noted each detail with relish. He observed its spindles and brackets and cornices and medallions, gingerbread trim, large bay windows, and, looking up, he spotted a hexagonal tower with terracotta ornaments in stylized leaf shapes. Circling the inn, he saw the ample front porch wrapped around the house. Carl marveled at the imagination, the sense of fun of a person who could design such a confection.
The inn’s interior invited even more exploration. The steps of a circular staircase wound down around a dark walnut newel post that attracted him because its top was carved into four animal heads. Carl smiled as he identified first a bear, then an eagle, an owl, and a fox. A stained glass window in a brilliant sunburst design decorated the first landing. The front parlor looked like a rustic Swiss lodge with its dark wood paneling and thick beams striping the ceiling. An elk’s head surveyed him from over the massive stone fireplace.
A clock sitting on the fireplace mantel caught his gaze and startled him. The doctor had been gone nearly two hours. A flutter of apprehension stirred in his chest. I’ll go meet him, he thought. He put on his newsboy cap, slipped into his the pocket the dollar he’d earned helping in the family pharmacy, and set out for town. As he walked, he looked over his shoulder from time to time, fearing he’d somehow missed his father.
A 15-foot tall ornamental cast iron clock dominated the village center. It doubled as a fountain fed by a mineral spring that sent water flowing into a series of bowls, the lowest serving as refreshment for the village dogs. Hygeia, the deity of health, crowned the clock, a fitting symbol for a town that had once been a fashionable health resort. Unaware of this history, Carl merely admired the adornment he found all around him. He had a secret longing for richness and elegance. Fingering his pocket money, he imagined someday he’d be able to buy beautiful things for himself.
Passing the old Cliff House and the Barker House, grand hotels built in the early 1870s, Carl saw a group of men sitting on benches, some silently smoking pipes, and others bantering and laughing. He thought of asking them whether they’d seen his father, but something about the way they gazed at him made him decide against speaking. Instead he strolled farther down the street to the base of Pike’s Peak, where he sat on a rock near a waterfall, letting the sound and the light spray cool and refresh him. Again he thought, wouldn’t it be fun to go climbing.
When the sun began to retreat behind the mountain, Carl suddenly realized he’d been away a long time, and he pictured his father back at the inn, angrily waiting. He rushed back to their room. Opening the door slowly, the muscles in his arms and shoulders tensing, he steeled himself for a tongue lashing or worse, for he trembled as he remembered the stinging pain of the doctor’s belt on his skin. But his father wasn’t there. His stomach began to feel choppy.
The doctor didn’t return that afternoon, or that evening. Now his stomach was growling. He sat in the dim room, glancing every few minutes at the clock on the dresser and periodically walking to the window, hoping to see his parent returning. Yet still there was no father. When the sky darkened and stars appeared, Carl’s heart began to beat faster, and his palms started to sweat. He wished he could see his mother and sister and brothers. He thought about asking to use the inn telephone but decided against it. He was embarrassed to ask for help. All sorts of fears raced through his mind. Had his father fallen and broken a leg? Had he been kidnapped? Killed?
Finally fear overcame his inhibitions. He ran downstairs and found the innkeeper in the kitchen washing dishes in a tin sink that stood on wooden legs. A stout middle-aged woman, she’d rolled up her sleeves and pulled her gray hair into a bun. “My father never came back. What should I do?” he cried. The woman smiled at him. Her voice was kind. “If he isn’t back in the morning,” she promised, “I’ll call the police.” Under her breath she muttered, “They’ll probably have to check the bars and brothels.” An hour later she brought him biscuits and a bowl of beans for supper, but, as anxious as he was hungry, he ate only a few spoonfuls.
He didn’t sleep at all that night. He tossed and turned on hot, sweaty pillows. The mattress was too hard. He imagined menacing creatures hiding in the shadows.
Dawn broke the next morning, and still his father’s bed was empty. The revealing daylight emphasized the emptiness of the room, and Carl felt exhausted from his imaginings of the night before. The innkeeper knocked at the door, and, when he opened it, she held out a copy of the Colorado Springs newspaper. Expecting to read news of a heinous crime, Carl felt queasy as she handed it to him, and for a moment he was afraid to look. But when he did, the color drained from his face. Such a confusion of feelings. The relief felt like a relaxing beneath his ribs, but at the same time a knot began to form in his chest.
The headline story reported how, late the previous day, a doctor dressed in business clothes and street shoes had joined a mountain-climbing party to ascend the 14,100 feet to the summit of Pike’s Peak. Carl’s heart pumped hard when he heard a commotion on the street and ran to the window. There was his father, parading down the road with the group of hikers who had just climbed the mountain. The doctor’s face was flushed and proud, his suit wrinkled. He’d ridden down on the cog wheel railway and looked as if he were returning from a morning stroll.
Five minutes later Carl stood in the doorway of the inn wide-eyed as Herman shook hands with several hikers and approached the building. He smiled and said, “Good morning, sonny,” as he brushed past his son and headed toward their room, with Carl following. There, removing his jacket, tie, and shoes, he sprawled on the room’s single cane-backed chair. He pulled his white handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his face. “Well, I had an exhilarating farewell hike on the peak,” he said. “Now let’s get packed.”
For a minute or two, Carl leaned against the wall, frozen, too stunned to cry or ask questions. Then he bent to start stuffing shoes and clothing into his knapsack. That afternoon, sitting next to his father in the Model T after they rattled out of town on the way back to Nebraska, he stared through the window at the flat and monotonous Colorado plains and began to reflect. I think, he said to himself, I’ve had enough of being alone with Father.
A Princeton-based psychotherapist and writer, Levin holds an MFA from Southern New Hampshire University and studies writing with Lauren Davis.