I KNOW they considered me a crazy man. It was a time when I was between everything - not a bad time if you can learn to handle it. What I had left of my life was: a lake in Maine, a railroad going by it on the far side, the poems of Emily Dickinson, and my two feet. I lived in the town in a little place and no one knew me. I was waiting, like Emily (``My life closed twice before its close'') to see ``[i]f Immortality [would] unveil [a] third event to me.'' Meanwhile, I did what I could for myself. I didn't know anyone there to do anything for, so I fished the lake and kept myself eating and alive. I walked through town, pack on my back and my rod in hand, around the town end of the 10-mile lake to the railroad tracks, then along the ties which I had to learn to walk, spaced just longer than my pace, up through the woods and collines of wildflowers along the far shore.
I fished along there where no one seemed to go from the ledges and beaches below off the tracks. I usually came home with a catch and baked it in my oven with a little salt and oil, as I had no pans yet.
It was a good life and I fell into it, spending my mornings studying Norton's Anthology of Poems and my Bible, preparing like David holed up after battle in my little place, for whatever I may be called on to do, now that the dust had settled from the events which had led to my coming out of a hectic city to a place where I could see a sky of stars and pine brushes and hear a lonesome whistle blow in the night.
I had no job yet but I was looking, saving my best clothes for a possible interview. I wore my old ones, clean but definitely pushing even the limits of L.L. Bean (circa 10 years back). Yes, I had a beard but I think what made me most suspicious was being on foot all the time. People looked at me, a few nodded in the austere greeting of native Mainers for an alone man from away. Dogs barked, and the only lady who was really kind sold me worms: I saw her sign on the front lawn and braved her dog to the garage where she was more than happy to make a sale. Her children stared at me as if I were out of a fairy tale; they too were poorer citizens of the town, and with the junk cars in the yard probably accepted almost anything.
On my way up the tracks I had to pass the last large house of the town. It had a lawn down to the tracks and the lake. They had a dock there. Sometimes going or hiking home, a girl was outside in the middle of the big lawn, jumping and making signals. At first I waved back, then realized she was at cheerleading practice, alone. When she saw me she stopped, spun around, and faced the back of the house, continuing her routine.
I carried on with my business. For I had found something to do. Farther up the rails was a swamp on one side of the embankment and just down through the trees was the lake. Turtles, little turtles, with sweet yellow butterflies on their underbelly, would climb out of the swamp, up the steep dusty slope, manage the rail, get trapped in the overhanging inner lips of the polished steel, and die in the sun on the gravel between the ties.
Each day I found a few still living and handed them down to the big lake. They'd swim away into the fresh dark water. It seemed natural to do and I could go to bed at night, filled with trout or bass - or hungry for trout or bass - feeling I'd left some mark on the world.
Once when I passed the last big house, the teenager's mother came out and stared at me. As I became more familiar the girl seemed to be closer down to the tracks, and I'd wave while walking. Then I thought I heard the girl say to her mother, ``Yes. That's him.'' They both stared.
Summer came. I got a part-time job driving the local ambulance and I added a beeper to my few possessions. When I wasn't on call, I took to a shorter way to the tracks and I swam the half mile across the lake. To avoid the young people, who turned their motorboats into wild courtships of wake, I swam the lower end, coming out near the big house's dock.
One afternoon the family was on the dock, sunbathing. I was resting in the water, letting minnows tickle my toes in the soft sand. The mother called to me. I swam over. The girl was there, and sister and brother. ``We've seen you,'' said the mother. ``We wondered if you have some job up there you go to,'' nodding up the tracks.
``I drive the town ambulance,'' I said, happy I could say something they might understand.
``Oh, well ..,'' said the mother. ``We've just seen you, that's all. You're welcome to swim off this dock. Or rest here if you want.''
``Thanks. I've seen you too,'' I said to the girl who was looking down at me in the water.
By fall, I had landed a job as cross-country coach at the high school through my ambulance chief. When an English teacher took ill, I was asked to take over his classes.
On a rainy fall morning when all the students were dressed in fresh plaids and colorful sweaters, and I again had on my tie and coat, I met the girl from the dock and garden on the inside stairs. She was with a friend. She looked at me shyly, recognizing. ``It's the turtle man ..., '' she whispered.
``Turtle man?'' I said, thinking, ``Oh man, my past has caught me, even here.''
``I got better grades last spring because of you. I used to walk a mile and set those baby turtles free, every evening. Then you came along. I could concentrate on cheerleading and my homework.'' She looked at me wonderingly. Her football-jacketed boyfriend cleared his throat, and they moved on.
Two classes later, I found I had her and her beau in sophomore English. When I asked a question about their studies, hers was the first hand to shoot up. This is going to be a good term, I thought, with all the fresh rural faces in front of me. I could live in a town where it was OK to be a little crazy.