This is the only piece of creative non-fiction I have had published. It appeared in the journal Writer’s Haven.
If I care to conjure up a memory from that summer, it is this: things are already heating up in the kitchen and it isn’t even eleven o’clock yet. I am in the dining room of Alpine Hillcrest Lodge, setting places for lunch. Paulina is at the sink, clanking pots and pans in a fury, raging at her husband, Alfred, who is cleaning glasses in the adjoining bar. There is no doubt that he can hear every word since Paulina’s shrieking tirades are at a volume that can be heard in the next county. His retorts are no match for her incessant rant. This goes on nearly every day.
It was 1967. I was working at a small resort in the Catskill Mountains, optimistically promoted as ‘a bit of Switzerland’. Granted, the resort was on a hilltop, in a pleasant enough setting and surrounded by thick woodlands, but the main building looked only vaguely alpine. If anyone showed up expecting a chalet with carved woodwork balconies and cascades of flowers, they would have been disappointed. I was hired as a waiter in the dining room, one of the few lucrative summer jobs a college student such as myself could land in those days. The only other hired person was the chambermaid, Helga, a German exchange student. We were the entire staff.
Paulina and Alfred were Swiss. They emigrated from Basel after the war and built the place up. She was small, compact, and inexhaustibly energetic. He was tall and slender, with a full head of white hair. With his wire-rimmed glasses he could have been taken for a professor, but the shortest conversation with him would have dispelled that impression. Alfred was inordinately fond of his schnapps, a habit that irritated his stomach ulcers and put him in a state of constant irascibility. Paulina was a volcano waiting to erupt. Her explosions were frequent and volatile. Whatever she was on the warpath about, it didn’t seem to matter. She was an inveterate nag. In an odd sort of way Alfred and Paulina fit together perfectly, the misanthrope and the shrew, living in a hell of their own creation.
I knew only too well what would happen next: the skirmish would escalate, pots and pans would fly, lunch would be ruined. Paulina would open some large cans of ravioli and fling the contents into a saucepan ten minutes before lunchtime. The guests would grumble, complaining to me about the paltry fare. Many of them were regular guests who found the ongoing combat perversely entertaining. Go figure. Two summers before, Paulina had hurled a large bowl of German potato salad at Alfred, missing him by inches and leaving a sizable gouge still visible in the kitchen wall.
Not to be outdone, Alfred had a terrible temper of his own and was given to random choleric outbursts. As the summer progressed he grew increasingly exasperated with the rodents that were damaging the lawns and the garden. One rainy afternoon he appeared in the recreation room with a loaded shotgun and proceeded to take aim out of various windows, threatening to blow the resident gophers to kingdom come. The possibility that he might inadvertently take out an ambulating guest didn’t seem to concern him at all. One of the older female guests became nearly hysterical at the prospect of violence against God’s innocent creatures, but this just served to incite Alfred even more in his bloodthirsty zeal. Between bouts of cursing and incoherent jabbering he laughed demonically, like a drunken Pathan tribesman. The man was a lunatic. A few of the more levelheaded guests talked him out of doing anything rash that day. I don’t believe he actually fired a shot, but his erratic behavior scared the hell out of me.
The summer dragged on. I suppose that Helga and I had an occasional day off, but I don’t remember ever leaving the hill during the entire time I was there. I did my work as best I could. The guests were mostly friendly and neither Paulina nor Alfred ever directed their ire at me personally. I was grateful for that. I returned to college with a decent pile of cash and never thought of working there again. Over the years I did wonder what happened to them. I imagined that they spent a few more seasons locked in battle on their mountaintop, then selling the place, moving to somewhere in Florida where they entertained, or annoyed, their neighbors for many more years.
Fast forward thirty-five years. I was on the East Coast that summer and found myself in the vicinity of the resort from hell. Curious to see what had become of Alpine Hillcrest Lodge, I decided to make a little detour. Surely Paulina and Alfred were long since gone and the property sold off. Most of the resort hotels in the Catskills had vanished in the 1970s anyway. Would anything be left of the place I remembered? As my recollection of the exact location was a bit hazy, I drove around for a while in search of the lodge. Spotting an older resident mowing his lawn, I asked him if he knew anything about Alpine Hillcrest Lodge. “You mean that Zen place,” he answered, with a slight trace of disapproval in his voice. He gave me directions. Zen place? Whatever could he mean?
I drove up the long solitary road and recognized the main entrance to what was once Alpine Hillcrest Lodge. It was now the welcoming gateway to a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center. I parked my car and explored the grounds in a state of astonishment. The main building was still there, neatly remodeled and festooned with colorful prayer flags. The grounds were more lovely than ever. The pool was gone, filled in, the shuffle board court had crumbled away to almost nothing. What had been the recreation room was now a meditation hall. A statue of the goddess Tara benevolently surveyed what was once the garden. Silence and peace prevailed.
Not in my wildest dreams could I ever have imagined such an unlikely transformation. Retracing the steps I had taken as a young man at the beginning of my adult life, I marveled at the passing of time. Perhaps the souls of the unhappy Paulina and Alfred wandered here too, I fancied, and were now basking in the serenity that prevailed on this mountain ridge in the Catskills.