Chimney Bluffs is based on an actual incident that occurred in Great Britain involving the death of a little boy. Deeply grieved, his parents committed suicide by jumping off a famous cliff. They carried two sacks with them, one had their young son and the other had his favorite toys.
I couldn't get this story out of my mind and began researching it further. Two questions dominated my thinking: How did this act make sense to these parents? What would have happened if one of the parents had survived?
I set about to answer these questions by writing Chimney Bluffs, changing the location of the story to western New York. Chimney Bluffs is a state park that is famous for the glaical spires that dominate the shoreline, some of which are 300 feet high (pictured on this page).
I started writing Chimney Bluffs in February 2010. I am excited to announce that I finished writing the story in May 2011 and have been sadning and buffing it since. I will send it to a trusted freelance editor before showing to my publisher. So begins another long journey towards publications. It takes longer to get a book into publication than it does to write one.
I think this story will grab you quickly. Read the first chapter below. (My apoologies for the strange spacing!)
What the hell? he thought, shaking his head with disapproval. Clarence Brisco peered through the driver’s side window of the white VW van parked smack dab in the middle of the lot. He pulled on the door handle but it was locked. There was a half eaten banana on the dashboard and an open bag of peanuts on the passenger’s seat, a few having fallen on the floor. There was a bottle of water in the cup holder between the seats, cap off, and another one on the passenger side floor, cap on. He walked to the back of the van and checked the license plate----New York. Clancy, as his friend’s called him, looked around the empty lot. The sign at the entrance was clear as clear could be---Park Hours —-Dark. He checked his watch. It was nearly . Clancy looked at the VW van again, its bumper rusted and its side panels scratched and dinged. He listened for the whir of his partner’s truck, but all he could hear were morning doves and a few woodpeckers. As usual, Bobby was late.
The trail up to Chimney Bluffs was challenging during daylight for most hikers, but it would be nearly impossible to follow at night, especially in the rain. Last night’s storm left the trail muddy; droplets from the maple leaves dripped designs on Clancy’s shoulders. He wondered if a bunch of college students had partied near the bluffs the night before, had gotten high on God knows what and then had gotten themselves completely turned around and lost. “Damn fools,” he said, right out loud and then realized no one was there to hear him. He listened again for Bobby’s truck, but nothing. The main trail had to be checked before the park opened and families starting pouring in. Clancy figured he’d better get going even without Bobby.
Never could tell what he’d find each day. The bluffs were so high and the erosion under them so deep that it wasn’t uncommon for a few feet of trail to fall away in a massive jumble during the night, piling up on the beach below. It wasn’t like the bluffs were a wall of granite. Nothing but glacial till, sand and silt and gravel pulverized and pasted together beneath the mountain of ice that left Lake Ontario in its wake thousands of years ago. Wind and rain and time carved the humped back drumlin into stunning, yet delicate, earthen pinnacles, razor sharp at the top, scratching the air and drawing wonder seeking visitors from miles around.
Whenever there was a night time collapse anywhere along the one and one half mile cliff-side trail, it was up to Clancy and Bobby to find it quickly, tamp down a trail detour for the hikers, line the new trail with decaying limbs and small boulders to keep visitors from wandering off the beaten path and then hammer in a warning sign---“Sheer Unstable Bluff---Stay Back!”
As Clancy started up the trail, he turned and looked at the VW van sitting amidst the puddles. He shook his head again. Whoever the driver was, he didn’t even park in one of the clearly marked spaces. Instead he stopped right in the middle of the lot, a nuisance to the park’s more courteous visitors. By now Clancy had a head of steam up. He couldn’t wait to find the owner of the van.
Clancy took the Garner Point Trail through tall, wet grasses and up a slight incline until he reached Bluff Trail, famous for its panoramic view of the lake and the bluffs, as well as its eye-popping drop to the beach, sometimes causing the first time visitor to wobble with vertigo. Clancy stopped at the top of the trail where he gazed up the north shoreline as it wound its way toward the smoke stacks in Oswego, some 30 miles away. The morning breeze was cool and sunlight insinuated itself through the tall oaks that lined the bluff, their young leaves a glistening green. Clancy looked out across Lake Ontario to the northwest hoping for a glimpse of Toronto, but a fleet of last night’s storm clouds lay on the horizon blocking his view. A flock of Canada geese rose from the pond behind him, so near that he could hear the persistent whoosh of their beating wings as they organized themselves into a V, their desperate honking echoing across the water below; they were on a morning practice run before making their final flight across the lake to their summer home. Clancy smiled and squinted as a beam of light caught his eye. “My gosh,” he said.
When the Mott’s plant had laid off half its workers, Clancy had been at a loss for what to do. When he had graduated high school, he had gone to work at Mott’s and, along with most of his friends, had assumed that as long as apples grew plentiful and people ate apple sauce, they’d have a job.A few nasty growing seasons and a downturn in the economy had made fools of them all. It had been five years since he had walked out of the plant for the last time after calling it home for almost twenty years. He never looked back.Times were hard, made harder when his wife of ten years, Darlene, told him she didn’t love him anymore; loved his best friend from high school instead, and ran off with him to live the high life in Watertown. They planned on starting a natural food store, “something you just wouldn’t understand,” said Darlene as she gathered up her favorite CDs, several cartons of cigarettes and just a few outfits----“I’ll need to buy all new things anyway”----and met up with Donnie out on Rt. 104. A few weeks later, the light on Clancy’s answering machine was blinking hard. Sure enough, it was Darlene calling to ask for a “little help.” He pressed erase and that was that.
She called him a few more times. He listened to the messages, but kept his distance. Nevertheless, through some old high school friends, Clancy kept tabs on Darlene’s high life, which hadn’t turned out to be as high as she’d hoped. Darlene and Donnie married but Watertown didn’t turn out to be Shangri-La. Donnie left after two years for even bigger and better things in Utica. Darlene took a job as a barmaid and as far as Clancy knew, that’s what she was still doing.
Couldn’t bring himself to see her, but also couldn’t get her out of his mind.
Clancy headed up Bluff Trail and soon entered the woods, the temperature falling ten degrees. He pulled his collar up and zipped his jacket to the top. He stood for a long minute listening, hoping to hear the college students and planning what he’d say to them. “Damn fools.” But there wasn’t a hint of human noise in the air, just the cawing of restless crows and the occasional skittering of hungry chipmunks and squirrels.Above him the canopy of slender maples leaned with the breeze, dropping the last drops of the night time storm. He continued down the trail, the floor of the woods wet, pools of water here and there. A small pasture of knee high ferns surrounded him as he headed up the first slope. The trail made an abrupt left turn toward the cliffs and by the time he reached the edge, he was already 150 feet above the water. Dead trees lay across the path, while others tilted precariously over the edge, hanging on for dear life. The cliffs sacrificed a dozen or more trees per year depending on how much rain, ice and snow hit the shore.
After leaving Mott, for a while Clancy had made a modest living mowing lawns, cleaning gutters, and, in the winter, clearing driveways; his Dodge Ram had stayed healthy and life was good enough. He sold the house and moved into a little five room bungalow, which was just about all he needed. There was a place to sleep and watch TV, a place to eat, and a place to go to the bathroom.
Things improved when he answered the state park service ad and was hired immediately at Chimney Bluffs State Park as a ranger, which sounded more impressive than it was. He and Bobby checked the trails, cleaned up the messes left by thoughtless campers and answered endless questions from hundreds of visitors. Not much for people, Clancy preferred walking the trails where he could be alone but still do his job.
The phone on his belt vibrated. “Bobby,” he said, shaking his head. “Yeah, where you been? I’m already on the trail,” said Clancy. He listened to Bobby’s shaggy dog tale about his alarm not going off and how there had been a back up on 104 due to a state police inspection sticker check point and how he’d thought he wasn’t due for an inspection until May but he was really due last month and how the cop had given him a hard time and how by then he’d had to stop for gas and how he couldn’t believe the price had gone up three cents in four days. “Listen to me, are you in the west lot? Is the VW van still there?” He was and it was. “See anyone around who might belong to it?” Nope was all Bobby said. “Okay, so why don’t you meet me at the east lot. I’m almost at the bluffs. No sense you trying to catch up.” Bobby offered an olive branch. He had stopped at Tim Horton’s and had bought Clancy a large black with two sugars. “Okay, thanks.” Clancy stuck the phone back on his belt. “Don’t care about the coffee; just get here on time once.”
Bobby was just a kid. Graduated high school a few years ago. Drank his way through one semester at Oswego State and flunked out. Lived in his parents’ basement where he had spent most of his time smoking weed until his mother told him he’d better get a job or else. “This is as close to being paid for doing nothing as you can get,” he’d told Clancy his first day. Clancy didn’t much care for Bobby, but for some reason Bobby considered them best friends. “Me and you, Clance.”
The bluffs were just ahead and even after five years the sight of them made Clancy pause. These tall gleaming spires looked like giant shark fins or switch blades, their tips long and sleek as if carved by a caring hand. Clancy had never been much of a church-goer even though his mother tried to make him into an altar boy at one point. “But, Mom, I thought we were Baptists.” And he didn’t see much evidence of God’s hand in the world, which was always in some mess, what with terrorists and welfare cheats and crooked politicians, greedy bankers, and Wall Street scum. People were the problem as far as he could tell; they didn’t appear to care at all about one another; everyone was out for himself, making excuses, never even taking responsibility for setting their alarms and getting to work on time. He thought about the VW van and how inconsiderate the occupants were. Leaving it right in the middle of the lot and wandering into the park when they weren’t supposed to be there, just so they could have a good time.
Clancy took a few steps forward and stood right at the edge of the precipice. He gazed down at the moonscape that formed the base of the spires, its ruggedly sculpted surface angling quickly away to the water’s edge. He took a deep breath. “How in the world did all this get here?” He looked at the pencil-thin horizon, the azure blue surf, a smattering of white caps, the sky a wash of pale clouds with grey underbellies.
His phone buzzed again. Bobby wondered what was taking him so long. “I’ll get there when I get there.” He slammed the phone back into its holder.
Clancy turned around and started back up the trail when he noticed something near the base of a tree about ten yards away, something pale green but clearly not a plant, definitely not an animal. Something different, something that stuck out like a sore thumb amidst the fallen tree limbs and mud and knotted roots that surrounded it.
He walked towards it, knelt down to get a closer look and then smiled. He picked up the light green Teddy Bear, not much longer than his hand, its button nose and eyes a little muddy from the fall. “Someone cried themselves to sleep last night. Right, little buddy?” He wiped off the Teddy’s fur and slipped him into his pocket. “Maybe they’ll come back for you.”
Clancy and Darlene had wanted a family, but it had never happened. When they went to John Dan’s for a drink at night and Darlene had had a few beers, she often found a way to bring up Clancy’s failure in the baby making department. “He loves to shoot alright, but all he’s firing is blanks.” Darlene was the only one who laughed. Clancy usually headed for the dart board by then. He didn’t argue the point because he worried that she was right.Darlene was no shrinking violet when she was in high school. In fact she had quite a reputation even then.She got pregnant when she was about sixteen. She went the whole way to Syracuse to have the abortion. So he figured it was him; he was the reason they couldn’t get pregnant; he was the one who couldn’t produce the one thing he wanted----a child.
The trail became steeper as Clancy headed towards his favorite spot. A green sign with a stick figure of a hiker was just ahead, a thick white line drawn through it. A slender finger of land jutted out beyond the trail. He stepped past the warning sign and walked slowly along the finger’s spine like a tight rope walker on a high wire. He felt for firm footing on the grassy knuckle of the finger. Then he took three more steps forward onto its craggy tip. The west wind slammed him; his arms went out and he caught his balance, avoiding a fall to the rocks below. His brown hair swept back off his forehead; he squinted, watching a hawk glide by at eye level. He stretched his arms out and his jacket filled with the chill morning breeze. Clancy faced west, looking at a line of jagged spires rising above the blue backdrop, Sodus Bay hidden beyond the next bend. In the distance a speckled sail fluttered into view.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then another. And another. He felt clean and clear. For a moment he was the only person in the world and nothing mattered at all; not his job, not Bobby, not Darlene, not the past, not the future, not even himself; everything flowed into everything else and the only place was here and the only time was now. This was as close as you got to something more, he thought. He took the Teddy Bear out of his pocket and looked at it again. Someone must have loved you, he thought; its face was thread bare and its button eyes didn’t match; it had been sown time and again along one seam. Oh, well, he thought, letting his arm drop to his side and focusing on the narrow beach 250 feet below.
That’s odd, he thought. Clancy had stood on this spot hundreds of times and had never noticed the two boulders below him at the water’s edge. He settled his gaze, looking hard, examining them, noting that they fluttered in the wind, then realizing they weren’t boulders at all. They were two sacks lying still as could be in the lapping waves.He took a final step forward and leaned out over the edge to get a better look. “My God, no,” he said when he saw the bodies, one on its back, arms extended, clearly a man; the other curled in a ball. Both as still as the sacks by their side.
Clancy gasped and his foot slipped. He righted himself and stepped back. He couldn’t catch his breath and the horizon started to waver. He sat down, his head in his hands and then he lay back on the grass, his stomach balling into a knot. He felt like he would throw up, but he kept breathing and perspiration began to cool his body. He closed his eyes and there they were, two people dead on his beach, on his watch. “What the hell.” Why had they ignored the sign? What were they thinking?
He sat up just as the hawk soared by again, its indifferent eyes scanning the scene below. Clancy pulled the phone from his belt. “Bobby...yeah...Are you still in the lot?...Listen, I’m out on the point and there’s something below me on the beach...No, just stay where you are, I’ll be there in ten minutes...No, wait for me, we’ll go together.”
“Are you kidding me!” said Bobby, taking his Yankees ball cap off and swatting it against his thigh.
“No, I’m not,” said Clancy, wiping his face with his hand. “C’mon, let’s go.”
“What? Why don’t we just call the cops? Do you really want to go out there?” Bobby’s round face was flushed and his eyes were big as saucers.
“Look, Bobby.” Clancy took another deep breath. “Look, this is our park and this is our responsibility. Stay here if you want, but I’m going.” And with that, Clancy headed down the beach toward the accident site. Bobby waited a minute. He didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to see. But he also didn’t want to let Clancy down, so he followed.
“Whadaya think happened, Clance?”
“Don’t know. If it was night, they could have missed the sign and just stepped out into nothing.”
“Oh my God, can you imagine it? I mean, so much time to think, falling that far. I mean, they must have been freakin’.”
“Not for very long.” Clancy was thinking about the van and the half eaten banana and the bag of peanuts and what must have been an overnighter; they must have figured it didn’t matter where they parked, because they’d be gone in the morning before anyone was the wiser. College kids. He was glad someone else would have to call the parents.
Around the second bend they could see the sacks soaking in the shallow water. Beyond them, the bodies.
“Look man, I don’t know,” said Bobby, shaking his head and sliding his hands into his pockets.
“Just stay here then,” said Clancy, a snap in his voice.
“Look man, don’t get upset,” said Bobby, but Clancy had already walked away. “Okay, okay,” called Bobby, now twenty yards or more behind Clancy.
Clancy was standing over the bodies when Bobby reached him. The man’s face was cut from the fall and his hand was curled and one leg was twisted across the other and he didn’t move. The other body was a woman in a fetal position, her arms pulled tight to her chest and her knees up to her elbows, hair covering her face. There was a flashlight lying beside her. These weren’t college kids out for a romp.
“Jesus,” said Bobby.
“Call 911,” said Clancy and then he walked over to the sacks.
Clancy knelt down beside the first sack which had a gash in its side. He pulled on the hole and out fell a toy tractor. He reached in and pulled out a stuffed dog and then a plush cat and a green dinosaur and a handful of hot wheels cars and a Fisher Price farm set full of plastic animals and a farm family. Clancy looked at his find. “What is all this?”
Then he went to the second sack which was pulled tight at the neck and tied shut. He tried to pick it up, but it was heavy and awkward. He pulled out his pocket knife and slashed the neck of the sack. He reached in and his face turned white. He opened the sack further to take a look and then fell back, completely limp. He knelt in the water unable to stand; he knelt there hoping that he was wrong, hoping that what he had touched was something else altogether. He looked at the sack again, afraid. He crawled on all fours and took the sack up in his hands and tore it wide open.
“Oh¸ my God.” It was a little boy, not much more than three or four. A little boy with blond hair and a sleepy face wearing a hooded sweatshirt and faded blue jeans and Nike sneakers. A little boy. And not a breath.
“Clancy, Clancy! Come here,” called Bobby, “I think this one’s alive.”