Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Spring: The Inventory


The Inventory
I am filling out the inventory sheets, listing everything that was damaged or ruined when the storage room flooded in the spring thaw.  There are two sets of spreadsheets;  one will only take entries  keyed in on the computer. It contains locked-out rows that will later serve the appraiser, who will take the information we have gathered and determine what portion of the value of things is to be granted to us. The other, truncated to fit on a standard sheet of paper, is to be printed out; each iteration is 25 pages in length and has space for 198 entries.  Even then the spaces to be entered in pen or pencil are small, and legibility matters, for the appraiser will check each computer entry against these raw sheets, attentive to fraud or padding.  There is little to worry him with us, for we have lost so much that could not possibly be priced out or claimed,  but he will not know that, or if he trusts us, the next one up the chain of response at the insurance company will scrutinize his report all the more suspiciously. 

For the task I have chosen a mechanical pencil normally delegated for the crossword puzzle, a pen that is favored for its fluid release of ink, and a backup ballpoint given us by Ulster Savings Bank when we signed the paperwork for the mortgage on the farm.   I have locked the sheets into a clipboard that was once my father’s:  Bakelite, with a metal spring-loaded blade that still has on it some residues of my father’s left hand as he held it while writing. I remember it from the days when it served him for notetaking at the Saturday autopsies in the cold ceramic rooms at Yale-New Haven Hospital, with their stainless steel walls consisting of outsize cabinet drawers, in each of which lay the body of someone who was not supposed to have died that way.  When the clipboard came home with him, to be balanced on his left knee as he transformed notes into reports, he would often set it on the arm of the big leather chair that was his to work in, weathered  footstools on either side piled with medical textbooks and reference volumes.  He would be in the kitchen, getting a further splash of whiskey or another ice cube, and I would sit temporarily in his place, reading over the cryptic scribbled observations of injury, recapturing the sequence of wounds and affronts, imagining the outrage, disbelief or resignation of the person I had watched him slice open with scalpels and saws as I waited between the trip to the music store and the drive back home in the small car, still faintly conveying formaldehyde and alcohol and bleach from the place of the dead to the retreat of the living.  Then I would hear the slight squeak of his rubber-soled shoes and the creak of the eighteenth-century wideboard floor planks, and I would slide down along the leather to stand beside him as he sat back down, waiting to hand him his tools:   fountain pen, folders,  clipboard.

When he died, in another house and another state, the clipboard lay by that same chair, though the leather was worn through in places and the legal pad inserted in the clipboard had his handwritten list of assets and liabilities, bills to be paid, the location of documents, written with care in his small, crabbed hand. He had left it for me, for I was the executor of his estate, and he wished his death to be as free of inconvenience as possible.  When we, his three children, held our lottery for the things in that house, my sisters were surprised that I put the clipboard on the list, and then used so many of my allotted points to ensure I got it, and the footstools, and the chair.  She was not with me on that day, though we had worked together on the list;  she remembered the small important things, like the clipboard, and the kitchen blackboard on which the notes dating back decades were still faintly visible under the greetings and the drawings of grandchildren. 

She came down later, and we packed what mattered and watched as the movers came and loaded it into the truck and took it off to be stored until we could settle on what to do next. It was two years before we bought the farm and another year to finish the clearing out and building up. We were worried that these belongings had been lost or neglected during all that time, though we’d sent a check each month to the address outside of Morgantown, West Virginia.  When I called down, the woman who answered must have known our unease, for she reassured us without prompting that they’d been taking good care of our things.

The truck was too big to pull into the driveway;  the driver parked by the side of the road, opening the big doors in the middle of the trailer where our small load resided, nestled between the furnishings of other households leaving that gorgeous ravaged place for some more hopeful landscape.  Opening the boxes containing my mother’s good china and the carefully wrapped miscellany of memory, taking the shrink-wrap off the furniture, we realized the house was filling with a barely perceptible trace of the smells of that other place, and the one before it, the old old house so similar to this one, and yet so different.  It was a good homecoming.

 Still, there was much to be done.  She had the leather chair repaired and when the back house was completed, it went in there.  Before the old man moved in with us, we searched online until we found the same risers that had made it easy for my father to get in and out with his canes and then his walker and then the wheelchair, and we situated it so that it gave a view of the crabapple tree with its two bird feeders noisy with tumult, hunger, greed.  The chair’s ownership changed with a shift of vowel and apostrophe:  the old man’s chair became the old men’s chair, and though he pretended to disapprove of the amount I spent on birdseed or the frequency with which it had to be filled—twice a day! Ridiculous, he declared, pronouncing the word as if the short expulsion were separated, to emphasize the necessity to rid oneself of the ridiculous—I could tell it pleased him.

Not everything could be easily fit within this new old place, even with the back house added on, for the old man had his own things that he wanted by him, and we wanted him as comfortable as he could be.  It wasn’t just the things that came in that moving truck.  There was also all the residues of our own lives, with their inevitable confusion as to value and indispensability. 

Moving here meant for me a gentle eviction from the large office with its floor-to-ceiling metal bookshelves, each one marked with a foil decal on which was stamped the inventory number for that particular piece of state-owned property, and no other. Rusting in places, scuffed and bent, held stable only by the weight of 35 years of books, unclaimed papers and exams, piles of Xeroxed articles for seminars or honors sections, they seemed unlikely subjects for theft, but the university was a state university, and regulations were clear.  Every few years, someone arrived to do inventory, combing the office for each small silvery disk with the numbers stamped into it, and matching that number to the list, first carried on a clipboard like ours, and then later called up on the screen of a portable computer that, from year to year, shrank from a cumbersome suitcase set up on a table to a thin lozenge held in one hand and tapped with a pen by the impatient auditor who looked, with something like contempt, at the messiness of an artist’s life, then headed to the next, no doubt more orderly and rational, state-run enterprise.    

Down below my office was a storage closet, narrow and deep, with a single light bulb behind a metal shield at the very front, by the door, where the secretary and the office manager kept the reams of copier paper and the boxes of old files.  Past the makeshift wall of paper and supplies was a cube of empty darkness into which I had brought the boxes of negatives and proof sheets, the work prints, the files and reference notebooks I had taken from the darkroom at the top of the house when the mediator determined that I should not return at will to work in a place occupied by those I had chosen to leave.

That was years ago. Now we had decided, she and I;  there was to be no more waiting, no more half-hearted moving back and forth from one life in a Midwestern landscape we had neither of us planned to occupy for more than a year or two, so many decades before, to a place that was rough, uncomfortable, and right in its light and obscurity, its  brown winter fields stopped by ridges and hills, streams, ponds and stone walls, the smells of hot earth and stone and the rush of wind rattling the old windows the snow raced toward but never quite touched. We had made our announcements and negotiated the accommodations that must come with a sudden abandonment of expected responsibilities: teaching assignments, exhibitions half-planned, the apartment lease and the friends with traditions and obligations.

The packing had a sort of hallucinatory quality to it; the rooms expanded and shrank unexpectedly, requiring more and more trips to the U-Haul store for boxes and tape.  In the end, the movers came without comment at the great stupa taking up most of the office, dismantling it box by box, each one with its contents and destination written in large letters on the top and side. Then they took on the closet, rearranging the orderly array of office supplies to reach the archive of a vocation that had never comfortably fit me and was now set aside for one that did.

People think that photography is a craft, an art of observation, but really, it’s not. It’s a medium of compilation;  properly practiced, it is more like scooping up samples of earth at an archaeological site, leaving the sifting and the classification, the placing in vitrines and then the construction of explanations and narratives, to others. The best photographers were most like the dowsers I’d known as a child in the New England woods, with their strange twisting divining sticks and their uncanny capacity to hit water time and again.  It is an art of the intuitive, declaring the democracy of things.  It was hard and unsatisfying to me, though I did it for thirty years without questioning my motives. 

When we bought the farm there was no question of building a wet darkroom; our water was hard and smelled of sulphur even after the contraption that stood by the pump in the cellar and groaned and shook as it ended its recirculation cycle at 4 am on Thursdays, and the leach field for the septic tank ran perilously close to the creek. There was a vague plan of scanning the best work from the negatives, and finding a used inkjet printer of the sort I’d worked with in the digital lab down the hall from the classroom where I taught.

For the first months after we moved, the boxes of books, the files and legal pads, the lecture notes and annotated lists of pictures, and the crates in which the archive was held, had all been stacked on pallets, in the center of the main barn, covered with plastic and tarps to protect them from bat guano and bird droppings, while we planned the building of the back house.  Though we are just two now, we had thought from the first to extend the old house so that the old man, and the old woman, too, if she would abide it, could live, secure and protected, watched over by us and by those we could find and trust to serve as caretakers.  Later, we knew, we would also need that place, with its wide doorways to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, its special shower and the long big closet to keep what was still needed or too hard to leave behind.  We would not give up this farm, this land; that we were intent on. 

Harry designed the back house, modeling it after the plain structures that often attached to the sides of farmhouses like ours, to shelter the most vulnerable and essential animals.  Then, as farm families extended, the outbuildings were shored up, and floors laid, so that they might serve as living spaces for the old or the very young, or for the farmhand or the oddjob worker. Once it weathered a bit, once the grass grew back and the forsythia and the mountain laurel spread from small plantings to unruly explosions of yellow and green, this version would look, from without and within, as if it had been there for two centuries or more.

Underneath, we’d had the engineers design a storage room, plain, low, low enough to require that you move around it on hands and knees; deliberately useless for any purpose other than the one for which it was built.  It was meant to be impregnable.  It sat on two feet of crushed stone, through which ran a criss-cross of perforated drain pipes that fed into the long pipe that ran underground, at a laser-sighted pitch, to take all water down to the creek. The walls and floor had been sealed along their outsides not once but twice, in proprietary envelopes with names like Rub’rSeal and WickAway.   The air was filtered.  The door locked.

Into that space we moved the ruins of that other life, organized this time, inventoried, and set in systematic proximity:  negatives in their archival envelopes in their archival boxes set beside their equivalents in the proof sheets and the work prints, so that, should I ever return to it, I could work with a clinical efficiency that might mimic my father’s when, in his white lab coat, in his Saturday sessions, he catalogued the dead in the tiled rooms of the morgue.  The archive sat in the center of the room, for easiest access. Along the walls I arrayed the boxes from the office proper, each one with its outer side demarcated by the fat letters of the permanent marker. 

And then we shut and locked the door, and walked away.  The barn soon filled again, with other remnants, other tools. A wooden sleigh the old woman couldn’t bear to see rotting away in a neighbor’s field. Cans of paint. Tool chests. Bicycle frames and spare pedals, water bottles, handlebars and shifters. Air conditioners in the cold months. Gardening tools.  Bins of fertilizer and seed. And just inside the big double doors, the old man’s tractor.

It was the last in a long string of tractors he had bought to manage the oversize yard of the house they’d moved to when the last child left.  He used to sit upon that tractor as if it were a moving throne, straw hat on his head, and you could see him from the front window of the small house on the big grass yard, appearing and disappearing as he made the orderly rows of cut grass aggregate until, after hours stretching into days, the lawn was mowed, and he had been moved to patience, after respite inside the armor of the motor’s noise,  in a silence of his own making, antidote to the agitation and tumult crowded inside that house.  When he came up by us, as they say around here, he left the tractor for others to use down there.  When he died here, in his room above the archive, they sold the little house.  One day we borrowed Harry’s truck and drove down to get the tractor, but the tires were flat and the battery dead and it was too heavy to wrestle up the makeshift plywood ramp into the pickup bed.  We called G&G’s Lawn and Garden Equipment up on 209, to pick it up and get it running.  Two weeks later it came back to us, driven down the hill from the shop to the farm by a boy perhaps old enough to drive a car, or perhaps not. I had to teach her how to work the combination clutch and brake, how to find the sweet spot in the throttle, how to raise and lower the mower blades, how to engage and disengage them. That evening, she rode it past the creek and the woodlot, back and forth, the mower disengaged, and it was nearly full-dark before she called me to maneuver it up the concrete ramp and into the near-empty barn.

When the helpers arrived to evacuate the storage room it was already night: Clint and his brother David, Mike their father, and Clint’s  three children, with contractor’s pole-lights,  a shop-vac, a dehumidifier, and five heavy-duty plastic bins with wheels on one end.  That afternoon, Tom from Mr. Rooter had torn his fingernail off and nearly broken his wrist when the router cable twisted in a sudden tangle before he could get his foot off the remote switch for the motor clutch.  Something in there, all right, he said, and after wrapping up his finger with gaffer’s tape he untwisted the cable and ran it back up the pipe.  It was close to an hour and I was hauling wet cardboard into piles when he called me back down to the far edge of the lawn where the pipe ended.  He held up a plug of sycamore roots dense as packed clay in places, trailing nearly eight feet long.  Behind him, water shot from the pipe’s end a clear ten feet before landing in the middle of the creek; it ran like that for close to an hour before it tapered to a gush and then, over the next few hours, reduced to a steady stream.  Under such pressure, nothing is impervious.

Even with seven of us, getting everything up to the barn took many hours.  Clint’s youngest was cheerful to the end, glad to be at his father’s side, and his uncle’s, and his grandfather’s.  The girls were worn down, their voices rarely heard and monotonous when they did speak, to direct us where to drop our loads. Because the boxes had all split, and the storage systems inside as well, Clint and the boy stayed down in the crawlspace, filling and refilling the big bins, while we carried them up to the barn where the girls waited to empty them, wherever there was space.  When they left it was near midnight.

At the first, I had thought to hook the tractor’s battery back up, fill the tank with gas, and back it out, leaving a staging ground for the unloading.  Now even that was filled with bins in which the negatives lay inert, the information they had assembled strangled by the swollen wet gelatin emulsion. On its first trip between the back house and the barn, the tractor had bogged down in the muddy approach, the trailer behind too heavy for the big back wheels to hold traction no matter how low the gear. The moon was rising as I unhooked the trailer and drove the tractor under the lee of the barn roof and went in to bed.

We had finished the back house in January of last year, and the old man moved in a couple of weeks later.  He had warned us we had built too extravagantly for his purposes, but most days he would migrate from the breakfast table to the couch to the old men’s chair, to catch the sun through each successive window as it moved across the arc of the day. At night sometimes the moonlight would awaken him and he would hike up in the bed to look at the greening hayfield and the stars above it.

He died there in May, and it seemed our rage and grief would stay trapped within us forever, throttled and poisonous. That summer and fall seemed like winter; chill, distant, hard ground and even the birds silent. We spoke of things observed—the red-tail hawk behind the haymow watching for the field mice and the voles, the single brilliant dwarf red maple at the edge of the woodlot as the trees around it passed through their color cycles and then shook off their leaves and stiffened—but it was rote, spoken as if from another room or over an old long-distance line once the formalities had been dispensed with and it was time to break the news that was bound to be bad.

It was a tough winter. Snow came early, before Thanksgiving, and with none of the excitement of a place transformed to brilliance, none of the anticipation of visitors and celebrations. The special china stayed in the hutch; the ancient damask tablecloths didn’t come down from the attic. The snow slid off the metal roof of the back house and by the end of February it was piled halfway up the windows and more. For weeks the bird feeders needed no refilling; there were no flashes of red or black at the edge of attention when we walked past the windows through which he used to watch the cardinals and the redwing blackbirds and the blue jays and doves. When it did warm the change was sudden; 15 degrees one day, 60 the next, and the snowmelt rushed down the swale we’d cut to keep the runoff from the upper fields deflected from the house.

As I opened the Bilco door down to the storage room on Wednesday afternoon, I noticed a different odor, more like the packed clay of the crawlspace under the old house, or the Puritan dirt of the cellar back as a child. When I opened the inner door at the base of the stairs the lights didn’t go on; with a flashlight, I could see small pools of standing water here and there. I canvassed the pipes with the flashlight looking for breaks but the only evidence of something wrong was a trail of seepage at the base where the wall met the floor, here and there. It was after five when I called the contractor and my voice was shaking; I had seen that the bottom layers of the archive had taken water.  The boxes were dark at their bases, and bulged.  Clint asked if there was water coming in and I said no:  just seepage now.  He said they’d be out first thing in the morning.

It was Mike whose truck was in the driveway at 8 am;  I went to put on my waterproof boots and my gloves to meet him at the Bilco doors.  When I got outside, he was already coming around. Clint told me you didn’t have water down there now, he said. I opened the Bilco doors and there’s 4, maybe 6 inches of standing water.  I gotta go back and get my rainboots. I told him I’d go down since I had my boots on, and he stood at the top of the stair as I pushed at the inner door, feeling a new resistance as I did.  When I got it partway open, water gushed out into the small space at the base of the stairs—6, then 8, then ten inches of water.  I got down on my knees and the water poured into my boots as I crawled one-handed into the storage room, holding the flashlight high.  Then I went back out to get the camera and the flash.

The morning after we emptied the storage room into the barn, the wind shifted to the northwest and the temperature began to drop.  By three in the afternoon, it was 26 degrees and when we went to bed the thermometer outside the kitchen window over the sink read 16. Up in the barn, the sodden piles froze into place. The pile of cardboard left outside the Bilco doors glued itself to the hard earth and it was a week before we could begin to clear it out. Twice the insurance adjuster called, asking for the inventory sheets;  he was, no doubt located in Atlanta or Phoenix or San Diego; beneath his cheery script there was an undertone of skepticism, or perhaps incredulity, at our slowness.  The furnace man came out and inspected, pulling himself out of the crawlspace to tell us that the motor had been flooded and so had its regulating circuit board. It was running now, he said, but it would need to be replaced. 

She came home on Thursday night, and we had three days of warmer weather predicted.  By then I had gone in to survey, but the piles themselves, even when they weren’t frozen solid, were so cold that they chilled and stiffened my hands after just a few minutes of tugging at the tops of things, trying to clear paths so that we could evacuate everything to assess what we had lost.

We did the first paper inventory like this:  I laid a long row of plastic sheeting out in the dry stubble at the edge of the hayfield, nearest the barn doors, and we weighted it down with the rusted iron counterweights we had taken from the old windows we’d rebuilt or replaced when we moved into this place and began to strip it back to its origins—plaster under the wainscoting, wide chestnut floorboards under the narrowboard pine and cracked linoleum, rough adze-hewn beams obscured by decorative molding.  With the sheeting in place, we took what we could carry, in loads, and laid things out on the plastic.  Then I photographed each array, walking the length so that later, in the studio, I could stitch the individual frames into one panorama of loss. Then we took turns writing on the inventory sheets, removing what was described back into bins we’d bought at the hardware store. It took all three days before we finished: forty pages of inventory sheets, ten items to a sheet. At the end of that, she returned to work, and I set myself to the task still half-done.

There is a certain rhythm to this part of it.  Each item on the handwritten sheets must be transferred and then attached to certain facts:  brand or manufacturer, model number, item description, quantity lost, item age in years and months, estimated cost to replace per each, replacement cost source, original cost, source of original purchase, and purchase method. 

Some of these can only be estimated.  Entire rows of required information are blank and will remain so.  I cannot remember how or when that copy of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others came to us, or why.  Perhaps it was a gift, though I doubt such astringent witnessing as Sontag’s would strike anyone as proper to be unwrapped at Christmas or on a birthday morning. I don’t know the price paid, in 1970, for my copy of Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, nor can I consider the dense spidery handwriting that tattooes the margins or the half-started lines of poetry written into the endpapers to degrade the condition of the book in ways an insurance adjuster could understand, though I feel the hot flush of shame on my neck when I read what is still legible of what I put down when I was 20 and thought myself a writer.

But that is the purpose of inventories.  They are a toting-up of things, after a close examination of their worth.  And while the value of some things leaks out over time, others become denser and more precious, while others yet stay sodden with trapped sentiment.  Postcards from a woman I once thought I loved.  The fingerpaint birthday portraits Molly and Taylor made for me when I was still strong enough to hold at bay the madness of that other house and protect them from what was wrong and could not be righted. Nights I would put them to bed and wait until they were deep asleep, and then I would ascend to the darkroom above them to work until two or three in the morning, watching as the blank paper, red-orange under the sodium-vapor safelight, would darken and then something discernible would appear, some fragment of what had gone before me as I stood or walked, the small camera to my eye, protected from assault or knowledge.

Tearing the sheets of work prints one by one off the piles, now, I am struck with a sense of witness to a person I don’t want to know again, traveling through spaces and times unpleasant and alien.

But in the midst of this desolate activity, this inventory, small solaces, perhaps more painful to come upon than the growing realization of so much life wasted: pictures of those I loved, and those who have loved me.  Molly, her head turned away from me to display the feathered ornaments she has woven into her hair in Mr. Daniel’s kindergarten class, the shallow focus of the 8x10 view camera’s long lens rendering almost indistinct the back yard in which she stands, dry and sterile in memory  but, the negative reports, lush, overgrown. Taylor, at two still tow-headed, hiding behind a turned-up wagon. My love, before, even, I knew that I would love her, standing in the middle of the intersection of two dirt streets in Silverton, Colorado, looking, impatiently, past me and toward the mountains that, I remember, rose abruptly behind me.

 Molly and Taylor are grown, now.  They come here from far places and new lives, with lovers and wives, now with the child they are fostering, and he crawls across the chestnut wideboards, chasing the cat, while the dog follows, to protect him. They bring gifts and music and instructions as to what we are to do next:  goats, chickens, solar panels on the roof of the barn, a retention pond for the livestock, bat houses for the slowly repopulating colony that once raced from the barn each evening at dusk, before disease ravaged and destroyed it. They plan to come here, when the time is right.

When we moved here we knew what we were getting into, and we didn’t.  Snow tires and tilted floors, hurricanes forcing water through the window frames, sump pumps and poison ivy, the knowledge that we will always be newcomers even as we lie dying in the back house decades hence. It was our folly to imagine we could engineer an impervious space, so that we might keep intact, immaculate, an archive of a past we had occupied uneasily or not at all. The ash tree stands like a petrified sentinel where the lawn meets the hayfield, even as the deadly emerald ash borer migrates southward, mile by mile, year by year. Already we are planning the tree to plant in its place.  Every windy day brings a rain of branches from the sycamores, and we pick them up and pile them by the house until they’re dry enough to go down in the old woodbin in the cellar to serve as kindling for the winter. 

We could have laid a different style of pipe;  Schedule 40, it’s called.  It’s thicker and more rigid, and instead of inserting the 20-foot lengths one into the next, you seal each joint with an epoxy that renders one continuous span from house to creek’s edge.

But there’s a reason we didn’t do that. Pipe that long and that rigid is prone to crack when it’s pushed and shoved by frost heave and the compaction of soil in drought summers. To lay it right, you must lay it deep, and then it must exit deeper, angled to allow for constant runoff so ice plugs don’t form.  The creek comes too high; the house, its first stone wall laid in 1784, was built too low.

In the end, it came down to the dumb, thoughtless will of the sycamores that stand ten feet or so from the lay of the drainage pipe. They send their roots not just to gather water, but to grip the tenuous shifting earth, hold it firm and brace themselves, shedding branches as they do, as if tossing aside what they no longer need in order to shift their strength, drawn from water and sun and broken rock and their own leaves decomposed and melding with the rest of what is here, the better to rise and rise, and to withstand the next great wind or hard, hard winter.

Just now I rose from the inventory sheets to let the dog out and to look again at the sycamores, with their piebald bark and their crooked limbs, only now showing the first small bulbs at their ends, bulbs that will, in a couple of weeks, open up to show that they are actually leaves, clenched tight to stay safe against the chance of another hard freeze or violent spring storm. 

The wind was up.  When I opened the back door, the sound of a hundred redwing blackbirds settling into the stubble, the resident flock, weeks late arriving because of the cold, rose and fell as the wind soughed through the pine grove. Back in the woodlot that is partly ours and mostly Harry’s, the big pileated woodpecker was drumming his territory on the hollow trunk of a dead tree, his brilliant red tuft barely visible through the welter of branches.

On Friday we will assemble to practice in the barn, and the music will leak out of the cracks to compete with the throaty roar of the dump truck as the Bushes come back from the job site up past Kripplebush,  and then we will troupe noisily down the muddy pathway to the house to drink and eat and drink some more.  David’s big bass sits in the pantry of the back house, where the old man kept his oatmeal next to his microwave and his minifridge on the table we brought with him when we brought him here. Surely someone will begin to play it, late, too late, when we are so tired but not yet willing to give it up, and we will think of something that the guitars can weave to clothe its call, and then it will be time to go, and to let go.

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