Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Waiting for Rain at the Farm

I’ve been rebuilding a big powered speaker we used to use for Siobhan’s old standup bass, a band and a half back, when I was living in Chicago. I’ve been waiting for the rain, but it hasn’t come yet.  Now for a moment the sun has come out, though the clouds are black in every direction.

 The parts came in two installments. First the brown UPS truck stopped where the driveway used to turn in—it’s backwards to the road, but safer than trying to pull over when there’s no shoulder and a sudden drop into the ditch that races with floodwater when it rains hard. That was the big JBL high-frequency driver for the horn; we’d blown that at a charity gig for a group home for the developmentally disabled. It didn’t matter that much when you’re using it as a low-frequency bass amp.  Then we managed to break the input and that pretty much sidelined the thing.  The UPS guy knows me pretty well by now; he commented that the package was too heavy to be a book, and it wasn’t from Amazon, which is the usual reason for him to stop by. I told him what it was for and he sympathized.

The second was from Brian Hendrix down in Florida; it was the input component console.  He’d sent it Priority Mail, which made sense from his end—he’s in a nondescript quasi-industrial park south of Orlando, and it’s not far from the post office on Michigan Avenue, right on the way to the entrance to the Florida Turnpike. Priority has the advantage these days of including automatic package-tracking, too, which can matter when you’re sending a lot of packages of sensitive electronic components to people who are depending on you to have things ready for the next bar or lounge gig.

But Sharon doesn’t get out of her little white truck, so if something doesn’t fit in the mailbox, she doesn’t deliver. In fact, she sorts the mail, along with Kathy and Dennis, so she doesn’t have to bother putting most packages on the truck—she just fills out the yellow-green delivery attempted card and puts the package in the pickup shelves. If I get the mail in the afternoon, I can go straight in and pick up the package rather than waiting for her to return to the post office and let someone file it. 

Yesterday I was going over the copyedits of the Dylan chapter, and it was complicated—I was having to listen to every song I’d quoted to make sure I had the words exactly right, and Harry and I were supposed to go out riding at 4. I called him at 3:30, knowing he was fabricating the kitchen cabinets for the farmhouse, and was probably going to get himself wrapped up in the sequence and the details and lose track of time. 

As it turned out, he couldn’t extricate himself from the glue and the clamps till just after 5, so I didn’t check the mail till 7:30 when we got back. It was close to dark by then;  the clouds had been moving in since 4, and Harry said we’d have rain after midnight.  The big corporate weather site had said not till this morning, but Harry has lived here all his life, so I tend to believe him, and not to fault him when he’s wrong.  We are in what’s loosely called the Hudson Valley—the gentle swale that great river has cut over epochs, as it has wandered between the Litchfield Hills over in Connecticut, and the Catskills over here in New York. In fact, ours is the Rondout Valley, carved by that river between the obdurate conglomerate stone of the Shawangunks, the easternmost vestige of the old Appalachian range, and the Catskills.  Because it’s a valley in a valley,  weather is quixotic, and our own valley, formed by the Kripplebush Creek, is even more isolate and unpredictable.  Often you can sit on the old metal lawn chair that’s on the uphill side of the barn, sunlight on cool mornings, shade on hot afternoons, and watch the thunderstorms rage in a line five miles north, marching west to east, for hours.

I checked the mail and brought it in, putting the delivery notice on the dining room table before sorting the mail into its four piles—hers, mine, catalogues, junk for the recycling.  I put the water on to boil, took a shower, and listened to the radio while I was making dinner.  It hadn’t started to rain, but when I let the dog out before going to bed there weren’t any stars visible.

This morning it was still dark and threatening, and a few sprinkles hit the windshield of the old man’s Ford on my way in to the post office.  Dennis went over to the shelves as soon as he saw me:  book or manuscript? he asked from the corner, trying to determine the size of the box. I buy a lot of very used books, and they come by Media Mail, which is extremely cheap though the time frame of delivery is pretty flexible. I told him what it was, and we were both a little surprised at the size of the box which, as it turned out, was mostly full of Styrofoam peanuts. 

Brian Hendrix is pretty much the only guy to go to for tech help if you’re a musician in central Florida, and that includes the ones who work the tourist hotel lounges and the kid-themed restaurants that have grown up around Disney World. In the grownup bars you’d better know every Eagles tune, and every Jimmy Buffett hit; in the kiddie palaces you’ve probably got a worked-out script that treads perilously close to the real guys—Raffi, or David Gonzalez—who have made it big enough to have agents and tour schedules. You’ll know songs about dolphins and monkeys and also more than a few of the tunes off the latest three or four Disney animation movies. You're putting on a happy face every night of the season, putting it on so hard it hurts at night to let yourself go. Off season, you've got repair projects piled up-- mixers with bad channels, processors missing their power sources, iffy cables-- and you'll be calling Brian to see what he's got and what he can order for you. Better do it now, while you've still got folding money left from the tip jar or the basket on the stage lip or the after-concert CD sales off the folding chair your girlfriend manned back when she still believed in you.

  If it weren’t for Disney World,the part of Florida  where Brian has his shop would be a wasteland, pockmarked here and there with sinking subdivisions and faded trailer parks populated by the old,  too poor or too gullible to head for the parts of the state that have something resembling topography, or scenery, or views.  There are shallow lakes where the ground has sunk a bit over a few million years, and there’s bass fishing; the Seminole tribe found excellent foraging before the speculative fevers of the 19th and 20th centuries in Florida pushed them out.

It doesn’t get much different, there from here, though there’s a similar economy.  There are the tourists, here and there, and there are the locals, who try to eke out a living as symbiotes or parasites. The musicians, there and here, nurse old or cheap equipment, and Brian sends a fair quantity of tubes and transistors, toroidal transformers and the like up this way.

So I have the big case split in two, and I’m using a flashlight to illuminate the places where the press-on connectors go into the circuit board.  It’s dim, but since I rarely work out here at night, there aren’t any good lights to turn on. Throughout the year, I let the daylight determine my working life. In July I’ll be writing or practicing or thinking, staring at the screen and then out the window at the hayfield, till well after 8. There’s the break to ride, sometimes early, when it’s hot; sometimes late when Harry wants to push up Mohonk before it gets too close to the time when the landscapers race their trucks over the summit, pulling trailers with their zero-clearance mowers tied down provisionally rocking back and forth as they head too fast for the light and the blind curves.

In the winter, I start late and finish in the dark, sometimes the light of the monitor the only source. I have that flashlight I’m supposed to remember to bring back and forth, but often I forget it, and stumble down in the snow, negotiating the icy patches by moonlight. Like the animals, like most other people who are here year-round, winter is a time of longer sleep; the days are often marked by necessary bouts of hard labor in the cold. Sometimes I fall asleep on the couch out here, reading till the pages blur, and awaken, disoriented and disconcerted, very very late.

It’s supposed to be raining right now;  it was supposed to be raining this morning, and last night; and it’s supposed to rain tonight, and tomorrow, too. So I have set aside all the outdoor chores—painting the window wells of the old house, picking the riper blackberries before they fall to the ground from the sheer weight of the fruit on the slender boughs, thinning and moving, cutting the new storm door for the back house dutch door and fitting it. Harm has his hay-trailers out in the section he cut last week before the last bout of rain.  He complained to Harry that we’ve got too much standing water over in the next section, and he wants to wait another week or so to see if it will drain.

He’s not going to be happy if it rains hard and long, like it should. But it hasn’t yet. The clouds are black sprays beneath a veil of lighter grey torn here and there to show the blue.  Over on Mohonk Mountain, the lower layer moves swiftly, obscuring Skytop and the Bonticou Crag while, further along the ridge, the sunlit areas seem sharply greener by contrast.

We’ve got some time.  The rains are coming in from the west.  It’s a Canadian cold front, slow-moving, stalling sometimes and then picking up momentum again. We’ll probably know when to close the windows on the old house; the creek will start to rumble and rush as it fills from its headwaters just down from the Catskills, in the Vly. The front will hit the mountains, pushing over them, then fly down the other side and, where the cool air meets the warmer uplift from the valley it will drop its moisture in blinding sheets, and the smaller, narrower cuts will fill with rushing water.

The USGS map shows our creek in its drier, more permanent version, beginning where springs draw to the surface and even in the droughts the rocks are slick and shiny with moisture. But if you work your way above it, you can see that there’s another five or ten miles of dry wash, waiting for those sheets of water coming down the mountains in a roar that can overwhelm the county culverts and rip the blacktop off County Routes 213, 3, 4, even the wider and more barricaded 2, which runs into Catskill Park.

When the fronts come down like this, the creek unfurls up there, taking in waters that in slower times would go to the Esopus Creek further down. Stones roll, then the unstable rocks move, as the detritus from earlier storms rises and frees itself from the once-dry bed and tree limbs, rusted gas cans, parts of a fallen barn, and all the rest that was scraped from the mountain hollows in the hurricanes of last October start down toward us.

You can hear it coming.  First there’s the rush and burble of water rising rapidly up the banks.  If you’re outside, at the right angle to the amplifying wall of the barn, you’ll hear it, and head in to put the windows back in the old milking room that’s now full of guitars and computers and boxes of books and stacks of papers and photographs and old magazines. Or you’ll head down to the old house to close the windows up on the second floor, in the bedroom.

If you miss that first wave, you’ll more likely hear the second, a sort of muted, distant rumble under the sound of water.  Small stones are racing along the creek bottom, bouncing off the rocks that are already there, slapping against the  miniature pebble beach made in the big storm year before last. The wind will pick up, and pieces of the sycamore trees will break off and crash down onto still-hard, dry ground.

Then the susurration of the rain itself, bouncing off the leaves, changing to a higher-pitched hiss as it hits the roadway, and dropping an octave when it crosses the front yard and hits the metal roof J.C. and his crew put on last year.  If you’re upstairs, you’ll hear the individual punctures of drops growing more and more frenetic until they merge into a full roar.

I hope you remembered to put the windows up in the studio. I hope you closed the workshop door when you were putting the still-unpainted screens back in, before you got distracted by some thought, some phrase, some rhyme that might be teased into something if you moved obliquely toward it. I hope you put the vodka in the freezer and turned the big tube-amp off so it won’t burn hot and unattended, impatient with disuse, till the morning. Did I leave that book on the metal chair?  If so, I hope I can unstuck the pages when it dries out. Will I hear from her? Are the cats in? What will I cook, listening to the radio turned up louder than usual to overwhelm the steady wash of noise from the rain and the hollow drumming where the roofline extends past the gutter and the water hits the half-empty galvanized pail set by the door to make filling the bird feeders easy on the bad winter mornings when the cardinals flashed red against the snow.

Each season carries over into the next, and the next, leaving things behind: the snow shovel still in the storm-entrance to the cellar, the half-empty 50-pound bag of pasture seed shoved onto the workbench next to the spare racing pedals for the good bike. Leaves,  red and yellow, still brilliant, still stuck between the sheets of waxed paper, in the book you open. A note from her, next to the bed, left under the pillow as a gift, small consolation, the last time she and you rose in the dark and you made coffee while she prepared to leave again. The picture of a dog who died last year, or was it the year before, stuck into a  frame holding that photograph of the two of you in the doorway, both of you shielding your eyes from the brilliant summer light, the light that will come tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, when the front has pushed through and the last trailing remnants of raincloud and grey dawn are somewhere else, somewhere east of here. Now it is silent, almost still, only the tall grasses moving just a little, waiting for rain.

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