Francis Appleton, a man on autopilot

Have you ever wondered whether time has bested you, or you it?

Author’s Note:  This story will disappoint you if you approach it expecting a Christmas ghost story.  No eerie images appear on doorknockers, no apparitions escort our protagonist to ancient graveyards. You may be required to suspend disbelief, but how is that materially different from what you read in the daily newspapers, or watch on local television?  No, this is not a ghost story, and if what you really want is a scary tale that will put a chill in your bones and incline you to take a strong drink, I suggest you blow the dust off the old compendium of Dickens tales you have sitting on your shelf. That should do the trick.  If, however, you are inclined to introspection during these dark winter months, if you find yourself looking through life’s glass darkly and wish to lift the cafard that hovers over you at this festive season, then read on dear reader, read on.

 ON THIS CHRISTMAS EVE, the weather was bitterly cold. It was the kind of cold that made mothers think of flannel sheets and long johns for the children, the kind of cold that gave committed joggers second thoughts about keeping to their routine, a biting and piercing cold that vexed the toughest of men who put unwarranted confidence in their sturdy woolen coats.

Francis Appleton wondered how it was that the founders of the original Bay Colony didn’t high-tail it out of this inhospitable place as soon as they realized how awful the winters could be. He admired their persistence and perseverance, traits he saw in himself, traits he admired in others. Appleton was a Bostonian through and through, the scion of a well-established family that traced its roots to the days before the Back Bay was filled, when the city’s center of gravity was somewhere between the Old North and Old South Churches. A distant ancestor made his home on the Tontine Crescent, the elegant expression of Georgian architecture that never seemed fully at home in a post-Colonial American city.

The Crescent soon gave way to an expanding city and the family moved to the South End when it was, for a moment, the city’s fashionable neighborhood. Appleton Street did not receive its name from Francis Appleton’s branch of the family, although such claims were made by Appleton children trying to impress school chums, and by young Appleton men wooing prospective wives.  To his lasting chagrin, Francis was descended from ordinary Appletons.

His family was well to do but not wealthy, at least not as we understand wealth today. Theirs was “old money,” the kind of money that seems more than necessary but never enough. In his youth the city appeared to Appleton as a grim and grimy place, the dominant colors sky gray and brick red, the dark soot of ancient unrepentant coal fires soiling the granite and puddingstone buildings. Boston then was a place of parochial neighborhoods to be avoided and doors to be locked. He attended Harvard – a decision that was made for him and that he approached as an obligation rather than a choice.

Appleton did not expand his universe upon graduation. He thrived in the small pool he chose to swim in. He always met the expectations others set for him and his career was one of steady advancement uninterrupted by setbacks or serendipity. He spent a career toiling in relative anonymity, serving clients referred to him by others in his firm. He occupied a seat at his firm’s table at Chamber of Commerce breakfasts, considering these outings a necessary intrusion on his time that he must endure, not unlike a visit to the dentist. Appleton was recruited to serve on many boards because he was known as someone who’d reliably support the status quo, and he projected the kind of stolid blandness that was prized by civic leaders who valued acquiescence over advocacy. He was highly regarded for his ability to project quiet competence when, in fact, he was overwhelmingly bored.

He learned early on that he could make a robust six-figure salary by simply going with the flow, and if he was occasionally appalled at the policies his firm and its clients labored to support, he was careful to compartmentalize those feelings: he never lost sleep because of his deliberate detachment from the actions and passions of the day.  It can be said that he worked as he lived: on autopilot.

Appleton’s world was limited to the streets that connected his West Cedar Street home to his State Street office. Appleton’s Boston was a place confined as much by geography as it was by the purposeful limits of his mind. He was the last of the Appletons and there seemed a sadness about him, a sadness and a resignation, as if there was no desire in him to resist the inexorable drift of time. When he was given a surprise luncheon and a Chelsea clock to commemorate his thirtieth anniversary at the firm, he was genuinely taken aback – he had no idea so much time had passed.

He preferred the company of books to people, and studiously avoided any semblance of a social life, sending regrets to wedding invitations and sitting in the back of churches at funerals, the better to make a quick exit.  Appleton was brusque with the wait staff at his favorite bars, where he kept about him a sense of distance and unapproachability. He had a fondness for gin martinis, and it may be said without cruelty that as the years went by he measured out his life not in coffee spoons but in olive spears.

Francis Appleton’s world view was particularly discordant during the winter holidays, that time when expressions of charity and caring are required by societal conventions. He’d experienced enough disappointment in life to believe that most people were unreliable and inconstant.  This he knew with a certitude that he accepted without rancor. Each time he experienced inconstancy it felt easier, more predictable, and he hurt a little less, but it hardened his outlook. He looked at the world with the cold clarity of his late afternoon martinis.

His father taught him thrift and diligence but not generosity. He was unmoved by the clinking of the Salvation Army bell at every street corner, the organized acts of charity at holiday parties, the colorful lights on the trees ringing Boston Common.  The vulgarity of commercialism that infected the season affirmed his cynicism and he kept his distance from those who believed that the best antidote to the cold, dark winter months was to force merriment on everyone in their circle.

Mind you, he was open to being proven wrong in his pessimistic view of the world, or so he thought, and so he said. He was a sentimental man, perhaps to a fault, and his cynicism was tempered by moral outrage at the deep, ingrained social and economic inequities that seemed to persist in his city. But he found no suitable outlet for his outrage, for he was not drawn to civic affairs and politics seemed to him a coarse profession not suited to his temperament. When he was asked many years earlier to actively work on the mayoral campaign of John Sears, a family friend and member of his club, he made his excuses and left town for a hiking trip in the Adirondacks.

And so it was on that bitterly cold winter day, having buttoned his coat and adjusted his scarf, Francis Appleton walked to his office and spent the morning organizing his desk. It was Christmas Eve and the office was deadly quiet. Resigned to the reality that the day’s work would be cut short by the holiday, he took this as an opportunity to walk up Beacon Street to the Athenaeum, to luxuriate in the warm embrace of leather chairs and well-handled books.

On his way through Government Center he was greeted by a young woman who thrust a flyer into his hands. The handbill featured a colorful drawing of a holiday wreath, and in the center were the words: “Support Fair Fares.” The woman said: “Say ‘No!’ to the fare hike. Help us keep T fares affordable for all.”  Appleton did not pause but kept moving, barely making eye contact with the woman.  “I don’t have time for this,” he grumbled. He was annoyed.  He frequently took the T, and accepted the unpredictability of service with the composure of a man whose schedule was largely of his own making. The T had recently announced a nearly 10 percent increase in fares, which meant nothing to him because whatever he paid for public transit was less than what he paid each week for his pre-prandial martinis. His annoyance grew as he made his way across Tremont Street. What kind of person would stand out in this bitter cold and foist a pamphlet on him?  Without thinking, he shoved the pamphlet into his coat pocket.

When he walked up the stairs into the Athenaeum building his eyeglasses fogged up, requiring him to remove them for a minute while he sorted himself out. He squinted at the holiday lights aglow in the foyer, a pyramid of white lights that sparkled like stars.  In his childhood he made a virtue of his poor eyesight by removing his glasses and enjoying the transformation of the Christmas tree into a magical object of soft, glowing colors, blurred and sparkling in a way that no perfectly sighted person could ever experience. It was the only time he looked at anything without cold, crystal-clear clarity.

Appleton took inventory of the books on display, and chose several to peruse before settling on a slim volume of poems by Adrienne Rich.  It was An Atlas of the Difficult World. He settled into an easy chair looking out onto the Granary Burial Ground, a Dickensian backdrop for a cold, gray-green Boston afternoon, and he soon was lost in reading –

A patriot is a citizen trying to wake

from the burnt-out dream of innocence,   . . .


that blessing and cursing are born as twins and separated at birth

to meet again in mourning

that the internal emigrant is the most homesick of all women and

of all men

that every flag that flies today is a cry of pain.

Where are we moored?

What are the bindings?

What behooves us?

He looked up from his reading.  Shadows were falling on the burial ground, and the gnarled trees and the sunken, ragged gravestones evoked a quiet shiver of fear, that fear of death and loss and nothingness that haunts us when we are stirred from a sound sleep by sudden noises in the night.

What behooves us?   The words echoed in his mind.

It was approaching late afternoon. Francis Appleton was dozing, foggy of mind, and vaguely cognizant in that realm between wakefulness and sleep. He realized it was time to leave.  The bitter cold kept him from taking his usual route through the Back Bay, and he headed directly to Park Street Station where he would take the Green Line to Copley, and walk over to the Copley Plaza Hotel for a classic Oak Bar martini (with a tincture of Blue Curacao replacing the vermouth).  The cold was so preoccupying that the trip seemed a blur to him, so when he approached the grand hotel building he literally had no idea how he got there.

His martini came quickly – the Oak Bar was a favorite and frequent haunt of his, and they knew his drink. He had barely touched it when a rather large and inconsiderate patron in a rush to go who-knows-where jostled a waiter passing by.  This near collision caused a small bowl of crisp potato chips on the waiter’s tray to tumble, and several landed unceremoniously into Appleton’s martini glass.

Appleton reacted to the unwelcome potato chips with the grace of a well-bred Bostonian.  He did not know the waiter well, but he had a protective, almost paternal feeling abut the staff in this place, who unknowingly represented a large component of his social life. After an excited flurry of apologies, a fresh drink appeared with alacrity. He savored the ice-cold concoction, considering with some annoyance the folly of Christmas Eve revelers who drank too much and bumped into waiters.  An hour later he was alone in his old South End brownstone, reaching for a glass, pouring out a generous slug of wine.

The best one could say about the cramped Appleton home kitchen was that it was functional. Long ago a craggy faced woman of Celtic origin prepared family meals for the Appletons from these tight cooking quarters, sending out platters of overcooked beef and undercooked potatoes to the hungry Appleton children and their indifferent parents.  Curly parsley served as both vegetable and garnish, and it was the only style of cuisine Appleton knew until he entered Harvard and spent too many evenings sampling what to him was the exotic fare on offer at the Wursthaus.

The glare from the refrigerator lights almost hurt his eyes as he peered in to see what might be patched together for dinner.  The pickings were slim, but he had no desire to venture out again in the bitter cold to seek out Christmas Eve dinner.  He settled on the remains of a dinner half eaten two nights earlier, and thanked heaven for the convenience of the microwave oven.

Appleton was soon lost in the repetitive, almost meditative motion of the microwave turntable when he was startled by the sound of someone knocking on the front door. He looked at his watch to see that it was half past seven o’clock.  Who could this be?  No one was expected. No one was ever expected, and particularly not on Christmas Eve. He tried to block out the darker thoughts that showered his mind in a cold gray drizzle as the knocking began again, a dull almost angry sound that seemed oddly strange and forbidding – a warning, a harbinger of an uncertain future.

Appleton wiped his hands clean and headed to the door. Through the etched glass he saw the outline of a man at the top of the front stairs.  He unlocked the door but kept the security latch fastened.  He peered out and there stood a young man unknown to him.

“Are you Francis Appleton?” asked the stranger.

Appleton was taken aback by the sight of the stranger who knew his name.  Rather than answer he posed his own question: “Can I help you?”

“Is Francis Appleton at home?” the young man persisted and the frigid air seeped into the hallway.

“I’m Francis Appleton.  What’s this about?”

“I’ve got your bag.  You left it at the bar at the hotel.  I’m returning your bag.”

Appleton could see his leather shoulder bag in the man’s hands.  He realized in an instant that he left his bag behind, and hadn’t missed it.  A wave of fear and foreboding overcame him.  So this is what it was like to be old and forgetful.

He recovered himself to realize that he should open the door and let the stranger in.  “Oh my goodness, oh thank you.  Please come in.”

The young man entered the dimly lit hallway and handed the shoulder bag over to Appleton. He seemed excited to tell his tale to the bemused Appleton: “I was sitting with friends across from where you were, and I saw you leave and there was your bag.  I thought, well its Christmas Eve and the poor guy forgot his bag and god knows what’s in it, so I better see if it has his address in it and return it.  And lucky for me you lived here because I thought I’d be taking the T all the way out to Newton or something.” 

Appleton was completely flummoxed by the man and the circumstances. “Thank you. I’m so embarrassed.  This has never happened.  I’m really thankful. I’m so sorry to have inconvenienced you.”

The two men stood uncomfortably in the front hall.  Appleton’s reserve was at odds with the gratitude he felt for this sudden act of kindness. He heard himself say “Can I offer you a small reward?”  It was an awkward question.

“No, no, please. Just consider it an early Christmas gift.”

“Well, thank you again. Thank you very much.” He extended his arm to shake the man’s hand. And then Appleton heard himself say, almost involuntarily, “Are you sure I can’t at least offer you a drink? Something to shake off the cold before you head out?”  He regretted it as soon as he said it.

The young man quickly surveyed the cold, dark apartment.  In the dim light the place seemed sad and out-of-synch with the season.  “Surely”, thought Appleton, “this fellow will decline my invitation”, but the stranger was cold and not rushed for time – he could take a later train home from Back Bay Station, so what harm would a drink do?

“Sure, that would be nice – if you don’t mind.  A quick drink would be nice.”

Appleton hadn’t had a guest in the house for so long he could hardly remember the person or the circumstances. His social skills, never his strength, were being tested to the limit. “Take a look at what I’ve got there on the bar, and pour yourself a glass.”

The young man approached an old roll top desk on which was gathered a clutter of liquor bottles and mismatched glasses.  He picked up a half-finished bottle of scotch and a dusty glass and asked, “Do you have any ice?”

Appleton’s sense of decorum was disturbed by the request for ice, for this was a rare single malt.  Who was this person, and why did he let him in his house?

“I may have some in the freezer,” he responded, and pointed to the refrigerator.  The young man could hear the asperity in Appleton’s tone, and retreated as quickly as he could.  “That’s ok, I’ll have it neat.

Appleton refreshed his own glass of wine – perhaps too generously – and turned to observe the stranger taking stock of the apartment. “This is quite a place, this is a real museum piece,” the young man’s honesty was unfiltered. “How old is this stuff?”

“This stuff has been in my family for generations.  They’re antiques”

A long silence settled on the men as they stood facing one another.  Appleton felt like an object himself, a curiosity explaining himself to this stranger who was part Good Samaritan, part intruder. “Well, I’m sure that I don’t want to hold you up from your evening,” Appleton resolved to sweep the stranger out the door as quickly as possible.

The young man turned to Appleton and said, “Do you mind my asking, how are you getting along?  I mean, are you forgetting things like your shoulder bag a lot?  Are you worried about your memory or anything?”

Appleton was taken aback. The questions were impertinent and personal.

“No, not at all. No, this is the first time anything like this has happened.”  A pause, and then:  “I’m not that old, you know.”

“Oh, sorry, I’m sorry. I meant no offense.”

Uninvited, and in a gesture that perhaps betrayed his own anxiety, the young man poured himself another drink. Appleton was left speechless by what he viewed as an unwelcome act of familiarity and was about to say something, but the young man was talking –

“My father was a collector of single malts.  And a drinker, too.  Not a drunkard, no sir, I never saw him drunk, but he was a person who took drinking seriously.  He just had a thing for single malt scotches. Made a study of it. Traveled to Scotland many times to visit distilleries and find rare bottles.”

Appleton was astonished at the direction the conversation had turned.  He was a man who cherished his privacy. He would never talk about himself or his family to a stranger, so it surprised him when he heard himself reply in a soft voice –

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been that passionate about anything.”

“Really?’” asked the young man.  “Not anything?” 

Appleton stared straight ahead, looking past his visitor, through the front parlor window and into the dark void outside. The young man persisted: “Not anything?” 

Appleton was suddenly jolted back to life.  He did have a passion.

“Poetry.  I read poetry.  Yes, of course, that’s my passion. English literature. Poetry, especially. I always have, actually. ‘In my beginning is my end.’ ”

“Pardon me?”

“ ‘In my beginning is my end’. T.S. Eliot. From Four Quartets.”

“Yes, of course. His meditation on time.  Time is such a fascinating topic, don’t you think? We take time for granted because time is always present, just as we take the future for granted because we expect there will always be one. The whole concept of time is artificial – I mean, we break the day up into minutes and hours because otherwise the trains wouldn’t be able to run on a schedule, but an hour could easily be 30 minutes as it is 60.  It’s all arbitrary. Arbitrary and fleeting.  Past, present future – it all comes and goes in an instant, in an endless circular rhythm.”

Appleton listened but did not – no, could not – respond.  He felt as if he had suddenly lost the power of speech.  It was as if a fog had descended over him, engulfed him, and rendered him virtually senseless.  He worried that he might be about to lose consciousness, and could feel his heart beating quickly in his chest. The young man talked on as if Appleton were no longer in the room.

“Do you think you’ve been touched by time, Mr. Appleton?  Time seems to have stood still in this house, in this room. Is the end always a beginning? Have you ever wondered whether time has bested you, or you it?”

Appleton dared not answer. The lynchpin of his life until now had been a determination not to look inward. The young man’s monologue was making him feel anxious, disoriented.

“Most people don’t think much about time because if they did they’d be horrified at how this arbitrary, elusive, fleeting concept – this unstoppable impulse of forward movement – just eats away at us, eroding our relevance, compromising our ability to control our lives.  It’s like time is a vast ocean and we are pulled forward by currents we can’t control, when we’d prefer to be safely moored in a snug harbor. Yet, doesn’t Eliot say that ‘only through time, time is conquered’?”

A blizzard of thoughts swept across his mind, dangerous thoughts and thoughts of loss and regret, of time lost and unrecoverable.  He felt his heart race with an urgency that was rooted in the passage of time, and he thought once again that he was losing consciousness as the room began to darken and the young man’s words seemed to fade, then echo and reverberate off the cold dark windows.

As the room seemed to shrink around him, the man’s voice grew fainter still, and he heard something about “time closing.” He tried to speak and could not, his breath seemed labored, and then he heard a new voice –

“Mr. Appleton? Sir, it’s time.”

He sat up with a start.

We’re about to close. It’s closing time.”

He was in the Athenaeum, in the easy chair overlooking the Granary Burial Ground, the slim volume of poetry still in his hands. How long had he been here sleeping?

He collected himself and spoke with deep embarrassment. “I’m terribly sorry.  I guess I nodded off – my apologies.”

“No apology necessary. Merry Christmas Mr. Appleton.”

He looked up. It was the young man who had found his shoulder bag.  “Oh!” he exclaimed, “I – it’s you!”


Appleton seemed confused, out of sorts.

“Are you alright sir?”

“Goodness knows, I’m not myself,” he said.

“Can I try to round up an Uber or Lyft for you sir?”

“No, no thank you.  That won’t be necessary.  The cold air will snap me out of it. Thank you.”

Appleton left the Athenaeum for his journey home in the bitter cold of late afternoon. His first thought was to head to Park Street Station and board a train to Copley Square but he walked instead, because he was very much out of sorts, unsettled by the dream. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before. He was rattled; he felt suddenly old and incomplete. He also felt fear, not a hair-raising kind of fear, but a quiet dread and recognition of a life not being led to the fullest, a fear of leaving no legacy other than an empty chair at a Chamber breakfast.  Appleton did not believe that dreams contained meanings or portents, but as he made his way across Arlington Street it seemed to him that the dream had been a clarion call, sparking the kind of introspection he had so deftly kept at a distance for most of his life.

He thought of Eliot and the Four Quartets“Old men ought to be explorers, Here or there does not matter . . . In my end is my beginning.”  He knew the words, but did they have meaning for him?  He thought, too, of the poem he was reading before the dream:

Where are we moored?

What are the bindings?

What behooves us?

He stopped at the Copley Plaza, exchanged season’s greetings with the staff at the Oak Bar, and sat at his usual table, but the staff noticed something irregular about Appleton this night. His usual habit was to pull out a slim volume of poems to read while drinking, the better to avoid any needless interaction with other bar patrons. But on this night Appleton was writing notes and scribbling furiously on the back of a crumpled pamphlet, and if you looked closely enough you could see the faint crease of a smile cross his face. It was most unusual.

Meet the Author

He would nurse a martini before heading home, and he would not forget his shoulder bag at the hotel bar.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group, and serves on the TransitMatters board.