Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Six. Sage Shoots Mills Mansion.

Three Hudson River mansions on Sage’s list – Olana, Clermont and Wilderstein – were in the can. Over two weekends, assisted by the chauffeur services of her father Cary, Sage had finished shooting photos of the first set of ten stately mansions for her school term project. Everything was on schedule.

As a teenager, Cary grew interested in photography and when he turned 17 he moved on from a cheap Kodak camera to his first SLR: a Mamiya-Sekor outfitted with a screw mount lens. With the help of a friend from school, Cary learned how to work black-and-white chemistry. Cary believed all the greatest photography ever produced was black-and-white. He shot so many images that he began rolling his own canisters from a bulk reel of Tri-X 400 ASA film. Like an anal-retentive accountant, Cary filed his negatives in a binder – each plastic page accompanied by an annotated contact sheet. He shot pictures at dusk and at dawn and during dark thunderstorms when the light was optimally ominous. He submitted his work to local contest and won a few “blue-ribbons” – not unlike his rural friends who snagged a similar accolade for showcasing a sheeny-coated heifer. Cary’s interest in photography continued unabated into adulthood; over the objections of his new wife Lee who wanted to finish the basement for a family room, Cary instead constructed a well-outfitted darkroom instead.

As a purist, Cary questioned the first generation of digital photography, uncertain whether it could ever rival the quality produced by film and wet chemicals. Deep down, he hoped digital would never surpass film, but as a student of science Cary suspected the technological hurdles were inevitably surmountable. When Sage was about seven, Cary succumbed and bought a digital camera, and no sooner had he popped it from the clam-shell packaging that he discovered the wonders of pixels. How liberating it was to take photos without having to consider whether a particular shot might be a waste of film. And the software that came with the camera enabled Cary to produce results that would have taken hours to achieve in his darkroom. He continued to do wet chemistry for a while – out of guilt perhaps for contemplating abandonment of a centuries-old process that had served so many so well – but within months, Cary dismantled the dark room and hired a contractor to build out the family room Lee wanted.

Cary’s experience with digital was so positive that he happily handed over the camera to Sage to mess around with. She took to photography wholeheartedly and quickly exhibited a flair for composition. Soon Sage was shooting hundreds of photos at a time, choosing interesting and sometimes challenging subjects, and often speaking of becoming a photo-journalist. She envisioned traveling to troubled and exotic parts of the world to capture images destined for publication in the pages of The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic.

On this day, Sage and Cary were en route in Cary’s Saab 9000 to the Mills Mansion in Staatsburg, the fourth mansion on the list that also included the Vanderbilt and FDR estates in Hyde Park, Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie, Boscobel in Garrison, J.D. Rockefeller’s Kykuit in Sleepy Hollow, and Lyndhurst and Washington Irving’s Sunnyside, both in Tarrytown. To date, Sage felt her best work had been done at Olana, the home of Frederic Edwin Church, a leading artist of Hudson River School of landscape painting. Church owned a significant property offering panoramic views over the Hudson River, the Catskill Mountains and the Taconic Hills. Original plans to build a Victorian house on the summit gave way to a radical change after Church came back from an extended visit to the Middle East. Church was taken by the Moorish architecture and sought to incorporate it into the design of his future house, named Olana which in Arabic means “our place on high.” The plans for Olana came directly from Church who collaborated with famed Central Park architect, Calvert Vaux. Olana was visually stunning with its stylized windows, tessellating tile patterns, rich colors of green, brown, yellow, purple, ochre and salmon, and metallic adornments. Photographers and painters for decades found Olana a compelling subject, as did Sage.

In contrast, the Mills Mansion was a boxy example of Greek-revival architecture, conservative and staid when compared to the flamboyance and eccentricity of Olana. In a contrived TV commercial, Mills Mansion would be Microsoft and Olana would be Apple. As one of the lesser known estates along the Hudson, the Mills Mansion attracted few visitors, which made it much easier to do a timeless photo shoot, absent cars, landscape equipment, and obese tourists in shorts and fanny packs. Cary and Sage arrived at the site around 7:30 in the morning as Sage wanted to capture a westward view of the mansion overlooking the morning fog rising from the nearby Hudson River. She planned to shoot for about an hour, after which Cary would drive her to school. On this bright, crisp September morning, the Mills Mansion was extremely flattered by the rich sunlight streaking through century-old oaks and elms. The marble front looked the color of curry. It was as if the building were trying desperately to compete for Sage’s affection against its showy, up-river rival Olana. Sage took several dozen photos, each stored within a microscopic area of the camera’s memory card, from positions all around the building, wrapping up the shoot from a spot down by the edge of the Hudson.

Cary had already wandered down to the spot by the river’s edge. As a Pisces he possessed a mysterious life-long fascination with bodies of water drawing him to rivers, lakes, streams, oceans, ponds, canals. Water had a magnetic pull on Cary. Sometimes he’d loll for hours mesmerized by the seductive movement of windswept waves and wakes left behind boats like an event horizon. Sometimes when visiting sites along the Hudson Cary would remain long enough to observe the currents of the estuarial body of water change directions; logs and ice floes moving past south toward the Atlantic Ocean might reappear later propelled by the tide back north toward the Adirondack Mountains.

Sage sat down quietly to the right of and slightly behind Cary, out of his line of sight, trying not to interrupt his moment of solitude, but she startled him anyway.

“Oh! Hi, hon,” blurted Cary. “How did you make out? Did you get all the shots you wanted?”

“Yeah. I don’t like this building as much as the other ones though. It’s like, whoever made it didn’t wanted people to feel, y’know cozy or something. It kinda reminds me of where the president lives, y’know the capitol, or like the Lincoln Memorial.”

Cary was pretty sure Sage was smarter than she sounded. Her grades were solid enough, but he was convinced that standards had dropped precipitously since the days when he attended school. Sage was taking honors courses that seemed to Cary to be far less difficult than the bonehead regulars classes that members of the football team opted for a generation ago. Still, he had to admit that Sage was engaged in a fairly rigorous photo-essay project at the same age as Cary was when his assignment was to write a brief paper about the time community leaders in his hometown of Geneva, Ohio announced with great fanfare their so-called “Declaration of Lunar Ownership.” For some reason, the town elders had laid claim to the moon.

Cary could hear the groan of a tugboat engine growing louder, and soon he saw the prow of a barge emerge from behind a stand of trees on the river’s edge. The tugboat was pushing the barge upriver, the captain maneuvering the hulking steel block between buoys to remain within the narrow lane dredged from the relatively shallow Hudson. Cary wasn’t a nautical buff, but he found it relaxing and satisfying to watch big ships ply the river. Sage looked up from her camera and took notice of a hand on deck wearing a yellow slicker.

“I had a weird dream last night with this yellow man in it”, she said without looking at Cary. “I kept trying to go into some building and he wouldn’t let me. It was really weird.”

“Hmm. You mean he had yellow skin?”

“I think so, or maybe his clothes were yellow, I can’t remember exactly. He kept standing in front of the door and said I couldn’t go in. Not today anyway.”

“It probably means something,” Cary replied, assured that it didn’t mean a thing. “You know, maybe you want something but can’t get it. Like you’re searching for something. I’m always having dreams where I just can’t get someplace. I was walking and walking but never getting where I wanted to go.”

Sage’s cell phone started playing a tinny-sounding song, an alarm indicating the time was now 8:30. “Dad, can we go now? I really have to be in home room by quarter to nine, and I have a bunch of texts I didn’t even get to answer yet.”

“OK. OK. Jesus, text messages.” Cary stood up a bit too quickly and experienced an unsettling moment of vertigo. He noticed his back was wet from the dew on the grass. “I remember what a big deal it was when our grade-school teacher let us listen to the radio to hear a NASA liftoff, or the World Series,” Cary noted, recalling a time when World Series baseball games were played during the day. He struggled to imagine what it would have been like if every student possessed a wifi-connected device in the classroom – no one would have learned a damn thing, that’s for sure. And cheating? Forget about it.

Sage said nothing. She simply manipulated the small black cell-phone with her thumbs, both moving in a coordinated fashion as though she were playing an African kalimba. Sage was several steps ahead of Cary. The pair trudged up the hill, around the mansion, past the wheelchair access lift that kind of spoiled the front view, back to the Saab. Sage packed her camera case in the skimpy back seat along with the 12 pounds of books stuffed in her backpack.

Next. Part Seven. Amtrak 234 meets Cary Hayes.

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