Sunday, November 27, 2011
Settling In, Uneasily
A week after Halloween, and all the weekenders and summer people are up. They drive too fast out of the hardware store, their faces set and pieces of building material they probably should not be allowed to purchase, let alone attempt to install, akimbo out the back windows of their Priuses, BMWs and Mercedes sedans. The more stoical and self-righteous have older Mercedes diesels, cars that seemed smart when they bought them, 15 and 20 years old, with 138,000 miles on them. The plan was to stick them in one of those monthly garage spaces out in the boroughs, and use them to get to and from the place on weekends. Soon enough, that plan collapsed—even a spot miles from the nearest subway stop still cost more than a decent one-bedroom apartment in Kenosha, and besides, the small difference between diesel and turbodiesel, a matter that had escaped their notice when they bought what they bragged at dinner parties was such a bargain! turned out to mean the difference between a car that could get on the freeway, accelerating to a sane 55 or 60 in ten or fifteen heartstopping seconds as the big rigs bore down on them relentlessly, their airhorns blaring, and one that, on the best day with a downhill start, would never ever make it to 55 or 60 in time to avoid being run onto the shoulder, leaving them in the ignominious position of driving on the shoulder with the emergency flashers on for a good deal of the drive from the Garden State or the GW Bridge or 17 to the Thruway.
So now they kept the Mercedes up at the place. We have a place in the country, or we have a place upstate, or a place in southern Vermont or a place way up in Connecticut: that is the way they speak of their destination as they ride the Central Hudson line or the New Haven Railroad out of Manhattan on those weekends. It’s not we live up here or even we live up here as much as we can. The language is about having, and being able to say you have, and not about living, with all its complications and its ordinary sublimities.
When they got the place, it was achingly lovely. Even the small mushrooms growing up inside the house along the stone foundation line were signs of a different life they would soon be leading, a life closer to the organic rhythms of things. They brought the cat up from the city, and in an excess of good nature, let it roam the field. Perhaps it brought them offerings—a mouse or two, perhaps still squirming though its neck was broken and flecks of blood showed on its tiny teeth, or a baby bird—before the hawk came down, or the coyotes, and the cat was no more. The pleasures of Friday night pizza from Benny’s on 209 wore a little thin after a few months, but the kitchen was so primitive, the electric stove off-kilter, the refrigerator capable within days of gestating green mold from its core, through the cracks between the plastic panels, requiring a thorough clean before the groceries could go in, after which the lettuce smelled like Clorox and the meat had a hint of lemony freshness that lingered on the tongue, and not in a pleasant way. The big project loomed—an eat-in kitchen, historically correct down to the 19th century gas stove, with a half-bath containing a chain-pull toilet bought at the salvage place in Kingston for about twice the price of a new one, and still requiring the reporcelain job that smelled up the house for weeks with the stubborn nose of epoxy resin and acetone.
Summer was over, long over. In between there was the hurricane that took down the best and oldest trees and left the place without power for 10 days. Returning to that refrigerator and freezer, opening it to the reek of sour milk and rotted meat and the sodden collapsing remains of a Benny’s pizza box that gave up its contents onto the new replica wideboard floor, leaving a permanent stain evidently different than the carefully patinated replica stains the decorator’s finisher had put on in discreet aura of authenticity: that was tough. Trying to make the insurance claims after flood insurance had seemed such a needless luxury when the windows needed reglazing and the landscaper charged so much just to plow out the driveway before Friday night’s arrival: that was tougher. Sobering. If it weren’t for the fact that everyone else was in the same situation, it might have been humiliating. As it was, it was the subject of intent dinnertable conversation, back in the city and at the little fall parties in the waning weekends once the mess was subdued and the contractor paid off.
Now it was that weekend after Halloween, the weekend for closing up, or for making over. By comparison, closing up was relatively easy. The heat was already on—you’d called the propane man to get the stubborn wall unit going the week after the hurricane, even if you had to pay a premium to get ahead in the line. The gutters had to be cleaned, the garage closed up, the firewood out back covered again with the tarp, and enough brought into the cellar to cover the first couple of winter weekends, but not so much as to attract the termites and the tarantulas that one of you believed, despite all entomological evidence on Google and Wikipedia, were bound to come in with the kindling. At the least, the tell-tale mark of the Black Widow was sure to be found on the belly of the spiders that had seemed so benign all summer, so fascinating as they wove their death-shrouds around the still-buzzing horseflies and moths that were good riddance to bad rubbish anyway.
The big job was the storm windows. It was tempting to just give in and embrace the summer-people ethic—to turn off the water, drain the pipes, leave the faucets open, turn off the water heater, turn the valve on the propane tank until it would turn no more, lock the Mercedes diesel in the garage or at the least put the tarp over it, say goodbye until April, and wait for your turn to get the local taxi to take you to the train.
But all those weekends of cross-country skiing, all those cozy nights in front of the fireplace, not to mention the turkey dinner at Christmas, or the New Year’s Eve party that you’d not have to drive home from, drunk, peevish, neither liking the person in the car next to you nor liked by them, or the chance to escape the piles of dingy snow in the city, saturated with dog urine and festooned with piles of poop and random garbage, to come to the pristine reaches of snow and the clear icicles dripping water in the morning sun: these were fantasies too irresistible to subject to the klieg lights of pragmatism and statistical odds-making.
So you were bound to take the wooden storm windows out of the outbuilding or the garage loft. They were heavy, and dirty with the cobwebs and bird-droppings and dust of summer and fall. They had to be handled one at a time down the ladder, and then they had to be washed, inside and out, before they went on the window. There was always the mystery of the code—which number was the right one? The one in black magic marker on the edge, now somewhat obscured, or the inner one, in pencil? And the ones on the upper floors meant taking the ladder down from the storage shed and bringing it up to the house. You rued, perhaps, your decision to take out those standard storms, the ones that slid up and down a little squeakily but seemed to work fine, even though they weren’t nearly as authentic and they reminded you of the previous owners and their very different approach to living on, or near, the land. So you’d paid to have them taken off, paid to have the old ones in the loft reglazed and painted, paid for the three or four that you never could find, the ones that went on the windows where you most needed succor from the storms.
Then there were the ones who weren’t closing up at all. They were in to prepare for the Thanksgiving turnout. They’d invited their friends from the city, and their relatives from the suburbs, and college friends from the far-flung provinces like St. Louis and Houston, and this year, everyone was coming, charmed by the description of a long rustic weekend. This was to be a feast that would demonstrate the rationale for the double oven and the oversize refrigerator-freezer, the extra harvest tables bought at the antiques fair in High Falls or North Guilford or Rhinebeck, the midweight down comforters bought online from The Company Store to cover the historically correct replica beds in all the bedrooms that had been so assiduously insulated with environmentally correct ingredients by the green contractor last summer.
At the hardware store, stony-faced, the two factions faced off, first in the fasteners aisle and then with the custom-paint guy, and finally at the cash register. Everything packed into a car never meant for any contents not wearing cashmere or khaki, backup lights impatiently gleaming as the parking-lot ballet worked itself out. At the turnoffs from the main highway to the side roads, the cars would line up, waiting impatiently for a break in the oncoming traffic, where the dump trucks carrying road-repair gravel might afford a notch in the long line of cars going to and from the Thruway, to and from the supermarket, to and from Benny’s Pizza and the liquor store. Quick now, but not so quick as to knock over the paint cans or slide the 6 feet of aluminum gutter already angled rather dangerously out the window. Quick, because there was still more to do, and daylight savings had come, and the sun was already low on the horizon, though it seemed just moments from midday.
Where were we? We were in there, too. We were stuck between factions; more accurately, we were both of them together, an awkward, ill-organized to-do-list. We were, no doubt, the subject of knowing glances from the ones whose diesel pickups stayed idling in the back, daring anyone to box them in, the ones picking up stuff not for them, but for those who paid them to do the work they didn’t dare to do, and thereby made this marginal economy a little less harsh.
Some of what we did marked us as sojourners, romantics tripping over the big feet of our illusions. Some of it was different: we were semi-locals, here sometimes for months, and soon to be here for good. Ours was a different list. Call Wayne and Wayne about trenching the ditch in the hayfield. Make the arrangements with Harry and Kurt for the deer hunters who’d be shooting across our fields to state their turf, so they’d keep the poachers and the trespassers at bay. Split the oak from the tree that went down last spring, and had lain in two-foot diameter segments out behind the garage. Fill in the bird feeders. Talk to Jeff about the squeak in the front suspension—we’re driving back: is it safe? Bring the dog to the vet and the old one to the nephrologist. Cook and freeze the meals, labeling them in large clear letters with instructions on microwave times. Unplug the tv. Walk the fields one last time.
It will only be a couple of weeks, maybe three, maybe four—it depends on the work. But in that time, everything will have changed. The roads will be emptier and it will be mostly pickup trucks on them, pickups and older sedans with noisy snow tires, and the Subarus of every type, age, and color, the only vehicles that will definitely make it to school, to work, to the doctor’s or the old one’s house if the plow is slow or the sand truck runs low. The prim houses with their historically correct colors will be dark, the chimneys cold, while the double-wides and the raised ranches and the Sears bungalows and the balloon-frame farmhouses will be nearly invisible under the protective walls of firewood and the wood-furnaces and the wood-stoves will fill the air with the smell of the cold and the fight against its menace. When it snows, we will shovel, side by side, unless some neighbor comes back from a morning of contract plowing and, sweeping in, honks us out of the way and in one pass clears us with a quick wave of the hand.
We are not natives. We will probably always live in the old Pratt house or the old Pratt house that the ladies used to have. But we are settling in. It is good to be so.