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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

On the Border

It’s been so long, but the memories are still here. It was somewhere on the border between New York and Canada. Four of us made the trip to Stephen’s father’s cabin. My ‘63 Dodge Polara. A bag full of cameras. Stephen is gone. Dee is gone. Jeff is gone. It seems like I’m always the only one left to tell the story.

I would use any excuse, no matter how flimsy, to escape going home for the holidays. “I have so much studying to do, mom”, usually worked. Being around my mother was oppressive. True, she was paying the bills, maybe I should have been a little more attentive. But it seems no matter which path I chose, I found something to carry with me forever.

It was a nicely built ‘A’ frame deep in the woods, surrounded by so many maple trees you couldn’t walk three feet in a straight line without bumping into one. They obscured the sky and the rustling of the leaves when the wind blew across the St. Lawrence River seemed to make the whole earth breathe and sigh at the same time.

Stephen’s father came the second day and was more than a little annoyed that Jeff and Dee were sharing the same room. “Not in my house” he muttered to his son. There was an uneasy tension at dinner that night, but Jeff being the gentleman he was, waited until Stephen’s father was fast asleep before sneaking into Dee’s room. If he knew, he said nothing further. Theirs was a sad family. Stephen’s mom had taken her own life. He kept that memory locked away and rarely did he let it surface. We were only 19. We were invincible and immortal. We could slay dragons, but we could not understand our own parents.


I was around eight years old when my father began taking me to ‘Dusk-till-Dawn’ sci-fi / horror movie marathons at our local drive-in. One spooky movie after another from 7pm to 2:30am. With each new movie we made a trip to the concession stand. Candy and popcorn and hotdogs blunted the impact of watching people being eaten alive or melting into piles of goo.

That had a lasting effect on me. At 12 I would not let my mother open the window for a little fresh air at night. Dracula, you know. I kept the blanket pulled up around my neck during the hottest, most humid portions of the summer. If he couldn’t see my neck, he couldn’t bite me.

Even till this day Phyllis has to shake me awake during the completely visceral, horrid nightmares that have infected the creative side of my brain since those early days. I speak in tongues. I fight monsters, real and imagined.


The cabin didn’t have indoor plumbing. Visiting an outhouse is no big deal – unless its 5 degrees outside and it’s pitch black save for the moon squeaking through the maple trees and casting very scary shadows on everything. The drop in temperature caused an ultrathin layer of frozen water to form on top of the snow. Every footstep became a crunch. Then there were the noises I couldn’t account for between the crunches. You close the door to the outhouse and the paranoia wraps itself around your brain and your body. If you’ve never been claustrophobic before in your life, this was a great place to start.

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, nothing but a small, shriveled up roll of toilet paper to defend myself with. That was the fasted dump I ever took. Wipe, wipe, and I launched myself out of the darkness of the outhouse into the darkness of the woods. If I can only get to the steps. If I can only get to the door. It was like that blanket pulled up against my neck, except I wasn’t a kid anymore -- but I sure was acting like one.

I guess it’s anti-climactic. I had to survive. Ghosts can’t write this well.

The wooden stairs creaked the way all wooden stairs do when they get old. I bounded up them as fast as I could and threw myself into bed. The frigid winter had caught up with my fear and a chill went straight up my body, toes to teeth.

The next thing I remember was Stephen trying to wake me up. His father was making pancakes. These weren’t ordinary pancakes. These were those round fried doughy things smothered in maple syrup he had made from the trees outside.

This was as close to a religious experience as I had in my short / sweet life. Jeff was very tied to the earth, me not as much, but knowing we were eating something nature had provided us was both humbling and invigorating at the same time.

The process to produce real maple syrup is long and arduous. I think this must be where the expression ‘labor of love’ was born. A very small spout is pounded into the trunk of the tree and a can hung from it. The sap flows slowly. The sap in its primitive state is poisonous. What an interesting juxtaposition. Nature provides something that is fatal in its source and through our simple tools we are able to produce something of value.

The sap is boiled down slowly, producing a minute amount of the good stuff. 50 gallons of tree sap is required to yield a single gallon of syrup. I watched Stephen’s father as he went from tree to tree to check the yield. When a can was full enough he would pour into a cauldron sitting over an open fire. It was like watching grass growing or paint drying, literally; once I understood the process, I was off with everyone else to explore.

When you are a photographer, you see everything: the wind rustling the tiniest branch of a tree, the way the light silhouettes Dee’s shoulders, accentuating the curves in her body; Jeff’s ruggedness by the decisive way each foot is placed on the earth as he moves forward.

You miss nothing. Everything registers. It was one of those days with surprise after surprise, like the Christmas morning opening presents I never experienced growing up Jewish. We explored an abandoned shack like explorers venturing up the Amazon for the very first time.

We were abandoned shack experts. I had taken the troop to Tully a month earlier, a very small, rural town south of Syracuse University. I had a photo assignment to complete, and this was where the adventure took us. We found an abandoned home with unlocked doors and went inside. What we found was remnants of a sad and lonely life, a life of not-so-quiet despair.

I found a hand-written diary with page after page of heartbreak and anguish. It was about a man whose wife and children had left him. The house and its contents mirrored the creeping desolation that grew around him in his isolation and loneliness. All of our hearts stopped at the same time as Stephen read the diary aloud but were jolted back into hyperdrive when a neighbor with a Smith & Wesson .38 Super on his belt appeared to escort us out of the house. It was no longer a home, just a house now, and one that appeared as if it was going to collapse under the weight of the angst and depression illuminated in that diary.

I don’t think that man ever died. Maybe he just faded away so very slowly that no one ever noticed or missed his presence. Had we been just a touch more mature, maybe we could have bottled that sadness and put it on display at our local museum.

It was a very quiet ride back to campus.

Hundreds of disassembled pocket watches

Stephen holding one of the numerous crosses found in the house

Dee in a closet

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