Auld Lang Syne
The Sea Crest Inn was a historic and rustic establishment on the rocky coast of a small Maine town that managed to hang on despite being forgotten by time and outmatched by the newer chain motels and classier Inns elsewhere in the area.
Horace Holsten checked in to the Sea Crest on the day before New Year's Eve and at first he thought he might be the only guest on the premises - which wouldn't be surprising given that it was the off season and the holiday. Most people came to Maine to ski in late December, not hang out at an aging ocean front Inn with an abandoned dining facility and a vacant performance venue.
Horace was looking forward to some peaceful and quiet escapism with no fanfare and especially no New Year's Eve hoopla although he couldn't help but feel lonely and alone in the huge empty Inn.
But he noticed a woman sitting in the front room overlooking the ocean view the few times he had walked through the lobby and later in the afternoon he decided to sit in that room too with the novel he brought.
The woman was wearing pajama bottoms, fuzzy slippers, and a red sweater, looking as if she was in her private home instead of a public Inn. He wondered if he was overdressed in his black slacks and opened collared shirt underneath a green V-Neck sweater.
Horace sat four chairs apart from the woman who looked to be around forty. She was wearing reading glasses and sketching in a drawing pad and Horace couldn't help but watch her work. Her eyes were focused on the angry gray sea in front of them, its white capped surf smashing against the rocky shore, the ocean horizon looking no different from the gray winter sky.
"You're an artist," Horace deducted after twenty minutes of observation.
The woman glanced at him over the rim of her glasses. She had memorizing eyes and her bushy black hair was rather unkempt with a few strands of gray at her temples.
"Are we the only ones here?" Horace asked when the woman failed to respond to his first remark.
"I've seen a few others come and go," she reported. "Ma and Pa Kettle. Dr. Strangeglove and his assistant. Cher at 87 and her Jewish version of Sonny. A Matt Damon lookalike apparently having an affair with AOC's clone."
"That's quite the cast of characters," Horace remarked.
"Doesn't the Innkeeper remind you of Vincent Price?" She asked.
"Are you saying this place might be haunted?"
"Price did other stuff besides horror movies," she answered. "He even played Oscar Wilde on stage."
"Are you saying this place might be witty?" Horace said lightly.
She smiled for the first time. "It might be now," she observed.
Horace hadn't planned on striking up a conversation with a stranger during his time at the Inn. He had come to forget and to avoid the New Year celebrations but now he found the woman to be a breath of fresh air and a welcomed distraction.
"I'm Horace Holsten," he let her know.
"Kathleen Gaffison," she replied. "Friends call me Gaffy."
"Hello, Gaffy," Horace replied.
She smiled for a second time. "Horace Pippin was a famous African-American artist who did a lot of stuff on slavery," she said.
"I'm glad to share the name," Horace replied, bold enough to move a few chairs over to be closer to her.
"So, where you from, HH?" Gaffy asked, continuing to sketch while conversing.
He liked the HH moniker. It made him sound like an important CEO. "A small town named Hillsboro in Massachusetts," he revealed.
"Ah, yes, Beano Field," Gaffy replied knowingly, stunning Horace.
"You've heard of Hillsboro and the Serguci League?" He asked incredulously.
"My brother went to prep school at the Sun Rise Lake School for Boys," Gaffy revealed.
"Small world," Horace noted. "Where are you from, originally?"
"Beverly, Massachusetts," Gaffy reported. "But I've lived all over New England."
"Whereabouts now?" Horace asked.
"Jackman, Maine, not all that far from the Canadian border," she replied. "Close enough where I can leave the country if I have to."
Horace let out a laugh but he really didn't want to get into a political discussion. "How'd you end up there?"
"It's where my car broke down," she replied. She gave him a look. "I'm betting you're…an insurance salesman."
He grinned. "Close," he said. "Cars."
She nodded with amusement. "So, what are you doing up here in Maine on the eve of New Year's Eve?"
Horace shrugged. "I decided to skip the new year this year," he said quietly.
"Me too," she said with understanding.
"How come?" He asked with curiosity.
"I got married on New Year's Eve," she revealed. "This would have been our twentieth wedding anniversary."
"I'm sorry," Horace responded. "What happened?"
"He left me years ago," Gaffy replied sadly. Then she laughed at herself. "I was convinced that having a New Year's Eve wedding was the best idea ever. It would mean I'd have a special memory every holiday and a great way to celebrate New Year's – it would be our anniversary too! It never occurred to me the marriage might not make it."
"So now New Year's a sad memory," Horace realized.
"It's my own fault, really," Gaffy sighed. "My mother tried to warn me that it might not be the best day for a wedding. People might not be able to attend. It was rude to ask them to give up their New Year's Celebration for mine. But I was young and spoiled and my parents were well off and I knew I'd get my way. We had an expensive wedding in Boston and I thought my life was perfect."
Horace didn't say anything as Gaffy continued to sketch on her pad, her strokes more pronounced and angry now. She let out a sigh after a while and gave him a look.
"What's your New Year's Eve horror story?" She wondered. "There must be a reason why you're hiding out up here. Could it be as pathetic as mine?"
"I was born on New Year's Day," Horace let her know. "This year's my fiftieth."
"Don't worry, fifty is the new forty," she said lightly. "I can say that because I'm turning forty this year and that will be new thirty!"
He nodded but didn't say anything as he stared blankly out the window at the ocean surf.
"So, nobody to celebrate the big 5-0 with?" Gaffy guessed.
"Not anymore," he said quietly.
"What do you mean?" Gaffy asked with confusion. "Were you married before too?"
"Yes," Horace acknowledged. "Twenty-eight years."
"No, she died," Horace replied. "The kids too."
Gaffy stopped sketching and stared at him with disbelief. "What?" She said, unable to comprehend what he was saying.
"Marfan Syndrome," he said. "A cognitive hereditary heart condition. Took all three of them." He looked at her and tried to give her a brave smile.
"When?" She asked quietly.
"Eddie twelve years ago when he was sixteen," he said. Annie eight years ago when she was eighteen. The aorta weakens or tears even with surgery."
"Oh my God," was all Gaffy could think to say. "And your wife?"
"Julia died three years ago during surgery," Horace revealed. "Turns out she carried the gene."
"I don't know what to say, HH," Gaffy admitted in a daze. "Here I was feeling sorry for myself over some asshole who left me years ago for no particular reason and now you tell me this. I would have thrown myself in the ocean if it happened to me."
"So, anyway, that's why I'm here," Horace let her know.
"To throw yourself in the ocean?" She worried.
"No," he smiled lightly. "To watch you draw."