A Journey into the North Country

The little 4 cylinder Plymouth whined as I climbed the hill outside of DeKalb. I checked the clock on the dashboard, 3 hours, and 54 minutes, only six minutes left, and still over 15 miles to go. Not this time. Passing the rock cut on my way into Canton, I eased up on the throttle and gave up the chase. I had been making this drive from Batavia to Potsdam for four years. In summer heat, and winter snow, I had yet to break the four hour mark, but I was determined that this would be the year. It was my final year at Clarkson, and like most of the goals I had set for myself it had little significance and a disproportional amount of importance to me.

At times I had never thought that I would make it to graduation. Not for lack of intelligence, or discipline. My pathological fear of failure guaranteed plenty of effort where my studies were concerned. No, it was the loneliness that haunted me during the long dark nights in the North Country. Six guys to every girl at school was something that I had never paid much attention to when I applied. I was looking for the school that offered the most direct path from small town Western New York to a good paying job somewhere else. At the advice and urging of parents and guidance counselors I had chosen to pursue engineering as the most certain way to find a good paying job. That in turn led me to this small private technical college on the frozen edges of New York State. They advertised a job placement rate of 89% for graduating students. Knowing the money and sacrifice that my parents were making to send me to school, I wanted a guarantee that their investment would be repaid.

Pulling into Potsdam, the streets were full of returning students. All up and down Market and Elm Streets, the doors of the Fraternity houses were open as kids carried in furniture, and milk crates full of belongings. The town baked in the late August heat, the windows of all the houses opened wide to let in what little breeze they could catch. I had spent the summer sweating on the factory floor at Graham Manufacturing, watching old men turn lathes, and roll steel in the stifling heat. After a summer of metal shavings, and weld fumes amidst the steady thump of the presses, I was ready for the peace and solitude of the country.

Renting a place outside of town would have never occurred to me. All of my engineering classes were in downtown Potsdam on the old campus. I figured we’d find a place somewhere in town within walking distance of classes, and the bars. But my roommates Dan and Chris had other plans. They always had other plans. Even after four years I still wasn’t certain how I had ever fallen in with them in the first place. We had little in common, aside from working class roots in small Upstate towns. But then again, so did half the student population. Why them? Fate I guess. Some intern in the campus housing office proceeded to pull names from a hat in 1986 and we ended up on the same end of the same floor of a dorm. Becoming friends was a matter of necessity more than choice.

My best friend Scott and I were different from them. Scott was what brought me into the apartment with them in the first place. If it hadn’t been for him I wouldn’t have put in the effort required to tolerate two guys so intent on making life difficult for everyone around them. Which may be part of why they rented us an apartment five miles outside of town in snow blasted countryside. They never did anything the easy way.

Passing through town I drove out Route 11B into the country. Past the little airport, and the salvage yard, the brown weeds along the roadside swaying in the breeze of the passing car. Old farmsteads lined the roads, the rocky soil long since abandoned to milkweeds and scrubby woods. At this latitude, only dairy farming seemed to be able to make a living. Aside from the faculty and students of the local colleges, the residents of St. Lawrence County were either employed by the state, or living in trailers collecting welfare checks.

I turned into the gravel driveway in front of the faded blue farmhouse we would be renting. The downstairs of the house was an herbal soap factory and gift shop run by a nice hippie couple. They’d been renting the apartment to college kids for several years, since she’d turned the house into an herbal soap factory & gift shop, and moved further up into the hills above Parishville to a cabin without electricity, or running water.

It was two days until classes began. The key was under the mat, and I let myself in. It was evening, and night was falling fast. The house was empty. It occurred to me as I unpacked my things, and chose a bedroom, that the one thing I hadn’t thought about was a bed to sleep in. For the previous three years of living in a dorm, that hadn’t been an issue. But here, alone in a rickety old farmhouse barren of furniture, it was on my mind now. Our Hippie landlord and her bearded, silent husband had told us we could help ourselves to what we found in the barn out back. They were odd characters, but fine landlords. She told us she only rented to guys, because girls were too much headache, and always left the place a mess. Guys were more self sufficient, and didn’t complain as much when things broke.

So I decided to rise to the standard of self sufficiency, and set off for the barn to see if I could find a bed. The barn and house sat on five acres of land. The remains of what had once been a farm. It was a weedy lot, with the fruit trees grown wild, and birches sprouting where outbuildings once stood. Warped and graying planks of wood covered the old wells on the property. The ruined foundations of the old barn were home to milkweed and burdocks.

Inside the tin roofed pole barn I found a few old straight backed cafeteria chairs stolen from one of the local colleges, and several old mattresses in various stages of decay. I picked the one that seemed the least likely to be home to any critters, and lugged it back up the steps to the apartment. Then I set about assembling the discount store computer desk I had bought with my wages from the summer job, and unpacking my clothes into an old wooden dresser that was the only piece of furniture in the room.

When night came, I was surprised to still find myself alone. I had expected at least one of my three roommates to have shown up by then. So I sat on the deck in the twilight of an August evening, watching the cars go by out on the highway, and trying to accustom myself to the thought of life in the country. It was so quiet. When I bored of sitting outside in the dark, I came inside, lay down on the mattress, and read for awhile. Growing up in Batavia I had never realized how much noise there was in our little city; the trucks passing on Oak Street, voices from up and down the block, the birds in the lilac bushes out back. But here in the country it was so still. I couldn’t relax that first night alone in the house, and it was a long time before sleep took me.

I woke at 6 am as the first of the logging trucks heading down from the hills came Jake-braking past. Below my window I could hear the snorting of the two old workhorses that our landlords kept on the property. They had wandered in from the field, and were standing in the shade beneath my window, swatting flies with their tails. I rolled over and went back to sleep, and in a few hours got up to brew coffee, and sit outside on the deck. It felt like the end of one life and the beginning of the next.

I should have known better…

It’s 1978 and it’s been a Hard Days Night. 5th grade can be that way sometimes. But in my closeted little world, it’s 1964. My bestest friends in the world and I have signed up for the SJS talent show. In our easter best sport coats, and ties, we will take to the creaky wooden stage at the end of the cafeteria, and hoist our cardboard faux guitars over our shoulders, and lip sync our way through “She Love’s You” by the Beatles. In my 11 year old world, this is as close as it gets to being a rock star. Hell, looking back now at 42 years of age, it WAS as close as I ever got to being a rock star.

I bring it up because I just spent the last hour and a half watching “A Hard Day’s Night” on the youtube. It’s been at least 30 years since the last time I saw it on UHF sitting at home on a rainy Saturday afternoon. I have to say, I enjoyed it even more this time, although the fact that it was subtitiled from Liverpudlian to American helped immensely.

In the height of my Beatles infatuation I took guitar lessons, and failed miserably at it. I was a natural lefty, but my instructor insisted that I learn right handed, and fine motor skills were never my strong suit to begin with. It remains, along with Typing Class in my senior year at ND, the only two things I have ever quit in my life. So I was sufficiently impressed when 20 Prospect Jr. took up guitar lessons at age 7 and seemed to master the instrument over night. Sadly, he only stuck with it for a year, and when his teacher moved away to Florida, he gave up on it. I wanted to take his 8 year old self aside and say “Listen kid, it doesn’t mean anything to you now, but trust me on this one thing. If you stick with guitar lessons for the next 5 years you will never want for a girlfriend for the rest of your natural born life.”

I admit, I see the world through rose colored John Lennon glasses. I’m sure it’s just a myth that musicians get all the girls. But I think it has been well established that most of my life was spent in the fruitless pursuit of the softer sex. As a gangly, mop haired, crooked toothed kid of 10, there was nothing in the world that I wanted more than to be a Beatle. Preferably Paul McCartney circe 1964. Then all the girls in the world would chase me down the streets screaming as the soundtrack played. Wacky hijinks would follow, and then of course a heart felt balled to the doe eyed crush of my choice, who’s knees would weaken as she gazed up at me adoringly. Sadly, it was never to be, although watching the movie tonight, I realized that adolescence wasn’t a total loss. I was blessed with better dental hygeine than anyone in the UK in the decade of the 60’s, so I had that going for me.

Batavia 1882… continued…

Here’s another excerpt from my forthcoming book. (Damn. Saying that NEVER gets old.) Still plugging away at it in fits and starts. The storyboard is laid out, and I’m about 10-15% through the first draft. At this pace it should be complete next summer. Then begins the decision to either self publish, or walk the Via Dolorosa of rejection letters from publishers.

They continue their tour, until the entire house has been explored, and then the girls run off to do it all over again. Jennie and Newt stand together on the back step, and look out at the yard. The lot is narrow and deep, just 30 feet wide, but stretching over 300 feet from the street. Lined with trees, and the neighbor’s lilac bushes in full bloom, it fairly radiates green in the bright sunshine.

“It’s a bit wild at the moment, but once we hire a gardener, it should shape up quite nicely” Rowell says.

“Newt, do you really think it will make a difference?” Jennie asks, looking out at the wild grass growing knee deep, and the lilac bushes so laden with blossoms that they bend near the ground. “I mean this move. Do you think it will change things between us?”
Rowell pauses, then turning to her says “Jennie, you know how much I love you. I wouldn’t have brought us here if I didn’t think it would help.”

“I know you say it” Jennie answers, “but it is not as simple as that. We may be able to leave it behind, but that doesn’t mean that it can be forgotten.”

“Dear, I can forget it.” Rowell says “Having you here, away from that man will make a difference. Just wait and you will see. Soon you will forget him as well.”

Jennie pauses in silence. They have had this conversation so many times already there seems little point in continuing it. How can she make him know how empty she feels? After eight years of marriage and two children, they have grown more distant than ever. Sometimes he seems more at ease in the presence of the children than he does alone with her. Is it her fault?

The days and the nights she spent alone while he was setting up the factory in Batavia were interminable. A social pariah, she had become nothing more than a mad woman locked in a tower. Perhaps getting away from Utica will be good if for no other reason than to escape the confines of that corseted prison.

“Come, let’s go back inside and get out of this sun.” Rowell says, breaking the spell. “The luggage shall be arriving soon. I will leave you and the girls to look after it while I get back to the office. The King’s have invited us over for tea this evening, so you will want to freshen up beforehand.”

Jennie goes upstairs to find the girls, as Rowell walks back to the box factory on Main Street. In a little while the wagon arrives carrying their luggage. The workmen carry the steamer trunks upstairs, and Jennie sets to work unpacking the clothes. The girls unpack their dolls and play quietly in the parlor, setting up the tea service, and pretending to host a party. In its own way this move feels like make believe to Jennie too. Unfolding the dresses, and hanging them in the wardrobe she could as easily have been a little girl playing with her dolls. Straightening the petticoats, and smoothing the folds in the crinoline, she imagines this home to be nothing but a life sized doll house. Growing up in her parents’ house in Clayville she had always dreamed of having a house of her very own, a brownstone with ivy covered walls, on a bustling street in a big city. When she was six her father had brought her along on a business trip to Albany, and she remembered the brick homes that stood shoulder to shoulder, as the footfalls of hooves echoed alone the cobble stone streets. She knew right then that she wanted to live her life in the city. To live in a place where there was constant motion.
When she had first met Newt in Utica she was 19, and felt as if she was going to burst if she did not get out of Clayville. Her father introduced them as Newt had been working as a bookkeeper at her father’s machine shop. A grown man of 28, with his waxed mustache, and his formal mannerisms, he had seemed the model of a refined city man. Yet he spoke to her so timid, and tenderly, she felt at times as if he were a shy boy of 17.

On the night they met, she heard him on the front porch, smoking cigars, and discussing business with her father. She stood there in the darkness listening to their conversation below, and wondering what his life in Utica must be like. From the window of her darkened room above the porch, she heard him formally asking her father if he could return again to call on her.

His visits became a weekly occurrence after that. He’d come out to Clayville on a horse each Sunday after church, and they would spend the day together sitting on the porch talking, or going for long walks in the countryside. Walking those dusty roads through the country side, she would pick lilies from the ditch bank, and bring them home to place in a vase on the dining room table. He would walk in silence beside her, asking her questions about her life, and what she hoped to do of it. He spoke little of himself, but was content to listen to her talk for hours about her hopes and plans for the future.

When dinner was over he would excuse himself from the table, and put on his coat to leave, then standing on the front step he would look into her eyes and ask solemnly if it would be alright for him to come visit again the next week. She would giggle, then roll her eyes, and say “If you must. I suppose it would be.”

His sincerity was both disarming, and amusing to her. As the weeks passed she came to find herself looking forward to his visits. He was so much more refined and scholarly than the farm boys about the town. Regardless of the weather he always arrived in a coat and hat, with a flower in a lapel. He was quiet, but she commanded every moment of his attention. Even sitting at dinner with her parents discussing business or the weather, his eyes never seemed to leave her.

So she was surprised when one Sunday evening in the fall, as golden blades of sunlight cast long shadows across the field, Rowell turned to her and took her hand. Kneeling on one knee upon he asked her “Jennie, I would like nothing more than for you to marry me. Will you be my wife?”

For once she was speechless. Putting her hand over her mouth, she gasped, looking into his dark earnest eyes, wondering why she had underestimated him so. He moved slowly for sure, but she learned that day that once he set his heart upon something he would see it through immediately. She couldn’t do anything for a moment but nod her head up and down, searching for words, until he placed her hand against his mouth and kissed it, his mustache brushing against her skin like the bristles of a horsehair brush.

She laughed with delight, and when he stood, she threw her arms around his shoulders, drawing him close, and blushing. Watching from behind the lace curtains in the living room, her mother and father stepped out onto the porch to congratulate them. When she woke the next morning, it all seemed like a dream.

They were married the following September, and they moved into a rented house in Utica. Edna was born less than a year later. Her life quickly became that of a young mother, taking care of the baby at home, and preparing the house for his return each evening. Her dreams of travel were postponed even further when she became pregnant with Clara just 4 months after Edna was born. Rowell was still working as a bookkeeper at her Father’s business, but was looking for an opportunity to improve himself, and their place in life. He took a job working for A.S. Palmer, the father of a childhood friend, and before long had begun to learn the box making business. He accompanied the senior Palmer on his business trips to New York, and Boston, and Jennie found herself alone with the children in the evenings as well. Her mother was a great help to her, but it wasn’t just the work of raising two daughters that taxed her. She had envisioned a life of gaiety and parties in Utica when they were married, but now spent her evenings alone at home while Newt was traveling.

When she brought the subject up to him, he promised it would get better. Just a few more years and Palmer would retire, and then he would buy into the business as a partner with the son. William Palmer had been a friend since childhood, and they had already discussed their plans for the business. The younger Palmer was mechanically gifted, and was convinced that with a fresh investment of capital, they could double their output. Newt felt that his work now in learning the business, and making the contacts with key associates in the large Eastern cities would serve him well as a future owner. If she could just be patient, in a few years time they would be buying a house of their very own, and hiring a full time servant to help with the housework.

Jennie was despondent, but her mother counseled her to be patient. All young couples went through these times, and Rowell was a hard worker and a good provider. If she could just wait and see, in a few years they would be moving with the upper class of Utica. When the elder Palmer died unexpectedly in the winter of 1879, things did go as Newt had promised. The money he had saved allowed him to purchase a share of the business with the younger Palmer.

Soon their income improved, and she had money to buy nicer things. Her mother would watch the girls, and she would head into Albany while Newt was away on business, to shop at the stores along State Street. That was where she had first met Johnson.

The Watchmaker

Lying awake at 2:00 am, I felt the first cool breaths of wind stirring through the open window. It started with a far away whisper of wind, building gradually until the branches began to sway, and the cords of the window blinds began to tick against the window sill. Like a burglar in the night, the rain did its best to sneak up on us, but I was waiting.

It is a submarine world this morning. Low clouds seem to brush against the tree tops, road spray from passing trucks blow plumes of water onto the windshield, while the steady drops beat away on the roof of the car. It will be an all day rain. The grass is already greening, and the loamy soil soaks it up like a sponge. Earthworms crawl onto the sidewalks and roads gasping for air, their fleshy bodies spread out by passing tires, until the whole fertile world smells like the inside of a bait shop.

The gears of my brain grind along, clinking, and thudding like a machine in need of oil. The darkness outside only makes the harsh fluorescent buzz of the office seem brighter. I could curl up in a corner and sleep like Rip Van Winkle. I am a clock in need of winding.

I know this mood, like the clouds outside, will pass. I know a pink day will dawn on the other side. I know all this. Yet it does me no good. There are days when the only thing you can do is put down your tools, turn off the lights, and listen to the rain drumming on the roof. There are days when all your work seems no more permanent than a chalk drawing on a sidewalk.

Like monks in a monastery at the roof of the world, someone needs to sit in seclusion and wind the springs of our clock. So that the whole world keeps on spinning.

The Interview

I had made the drive down to rural Hartford that morning, jacked up on cheap coffee, replaying over in my mind how I would answer their questions, and sell myself. With sweaty palms the drive seemed to take forever, but I made it in time for the afternoon interview. This was my third round of interviews with this company and it would all be made, or broken by this trip. I needed this job badly, before graduation dumped me into the back bedroom of my parents house, over educated, under employed, and awash in debt.

The interviews had ended well, but late. I took my suit coat off, and loosened my tie, not wanting to let the feeling go. Alone, in a strange city, with nothing but my car, and a briefcase full of empty notebooks, and corporate brochures, I felt so grown up. No, I wanted to savor this feeling of freedom.

I climbed back into the car, and began the four hour drive back to Potsdam. It was the middle of the week, and I had blown off class to make the interview. Winter was ending in Connecticut, and already the brown grass was showing through the scraps of snow around the office parks. If all went well, I could be back in her room by 9 o’clock. She would want to know everything about the interview, what they asked me, what the position offered. I couldn’t wait to tell her.

Traffic was flowing fine all the way up I91 to Springfield, where I pulled onto the Massachusetts Turnpike and headed west. By the time I reached Albany, and turned onto the Northway, the sun had already set. Traffic thinned as I got north of Glens Falls and the highway began climbing into the edges of the Adirondacks. Just tractor-trailers, and myself, climbing and descending the hills, playing leapfrog on our way North.

Exiting the Northway, onto US 9, I left even the trucks behind, and turned up and into the mountains. When US 9 turned off towards Elizabethtown I continued on to NY 73, and the trees closed in on the sides of the road, until only a tunnel of pines remained. The banks of snow rose like hay bales along the shoulder. The road narrowed, but I only drove faster. It was past 7 o’clock, and I had the road to myself. The little engine in the Plymouth strained on the climb, but I wouldn’t let up. I knew she was waiting.

Through the heart of the High Peaks and the winter desolation, I kept on the gas. Husker Du was blaring inside the car, but outside only the silent trees saw me pass. I was driving too fast, and I knew it. One patch of ice, one deer in the road, one misjudgment of a curve, and all could have been lost in darkness, and ice, but there was no thought of slowing down. I threw the car into the turns, and downshifted on the descent to save the brakes. When the road straightened I jumped back on the throttle and accelerated over the frost heaves, the car leaping forward into the small cone of light in front of me.

Down into Lake Placid, and on through the slow, sleepy, towns of Saranac Lake, and Tupper Lake, I caught my breath. When I turned onto 56 to follow the Racquette River out of the mountains and back across the blue line, the race resumed, but the adrenalin had faded. Around 9 o’clock I pulled into the parking lot outside her dorm. The lights from inside glowed like gold. Stepping from the humid warmth of the car, my breath billowed like fog in front of my face. I put on my coat, and stepped forward toward the lights.

When I got to her room the door was open, and there were several other girls sitting around talking. I felt like I was interrupting something, but once she saw me she immediately put me at ease. She walked up to me, and put her arms around me and kissed me right there in front of everyone.

“How did the interview go?” she wanted to know. So I proceeded to fill her in on all the details.

Her friends took her hint, and excused themselves one by one, until it was just the two of us. She wanted to know everything about the job, how much it paid, how far away it would be. We had only just met, but I was already doing the math in my head figuring out how long it would take me to drive up to visit her on weekends next year.

“Has anyone ever told you how hot you look all dressed up?” she asked.

“No.” I responded. “Most girls tell me that when they see me naked.”

She laughed out loud, and I smiled wondering how long I would have to wait before she had the chance. I crossed the room, and sat down next to her on the edge of the bed. The door to the hallway was closed, and her radio was playing in the background. I leaned across to kiss her and she met my mouth with hers. She pulled my tie off over my head, and placed it around her neck.

“How do I look?” she asked.

“It looks better on you than it does on me” I answered.

“Do I get the job?”

“I’ll have HR put an offer together tomorrow.” I said

“What makes you think I’ll say yes?” she teased. “I’m sure there are lots of companies that would kill to have me.”

“I have a good benefits plan.” I said. We lay back on the bed kissing for half an hour, until she apologized that she had an early class in the morning, and had to get some rest.

I drove back out to the apartment, my mind racing ahead, already making plans for the future. By summer I could be setting up an apartment in Hartford, and she could come down to visit. We could make trips to the shore, and spend days together in bed, like people did in the movies. For the first time in my life, I began to imagine a life beyond college. A life cut and pasted from L.L. Bean and J. Crew catalogs, with ocean breezes and Labrador Retrievers running along the beach.

I had to get this job now. The only other interview I had been able to land was with a company that required me to travel 100% of the time. When I had first interviewed for that position, I had yet to meet her and it sounded like a great opportunity to escape Upstate New York, but suddenly I had a reason to stay. Leaving now would be the worst of all possible outcomes. She was only a sophomore and still had two years before she graduated. How long would she be willing to wait for a boyfriend she never saw? I didn’t want to think about it, but the thought kept creeping back into my mind.

In the Garden

The trees crowd together all through this dark valley, grown fat, and watered by the blood of the temple sacrifice. On this moonless night, there is no light in the garden but those of the stars overhead. The stones still radiate the afternoon heat, and the dust like talcum clings to everything. He leaves the others beneath an olive tree, and walks off into the darkness alone.

All is quiet but for the call of the night guard that drifts in from somewhere inside the city walls. The dark shadow of the mount is silhouetted against the stars. As he kneels to pray, a dark bird is startled from its roost, and quickly flies off into the night. Above him the branches reach out as if to gather in the stars.

His companions are lying on the soft grass, beneath the branches hung with dry fruit, slowly giving in to sleep. An hour passes with no motion but the imperceptible turning of the sky above. Still he kneels alone, his head bowed in silence. The drops of sweat bead upon his forehead, and fall like blood to the dust below. The roots of the hungry trees yearn to feel them like drops of rain.

His head tilts upward, and he murmurs to sky. A slight wind stirs the leaves, and a whisper runs through the garden, leaving the sound of distant voices in its wake. Slowly, the voices grow nearer, and torchlight flickers in the distance. The red light grows brighter, and the shadows of the branches writhe about his feet.

His companions wake from their dream, amidst the rattle of centurion swords. They are approaching through the garden now. The hour has come.

Pray that you are not tested.

Holy Thursday Batman!

Is it Easter yet? I am really craving me some Speckled Eggs. Wish that damn bunny would get its butt here with some chocolate. Can men get PMS? Don’t answer that.

When I was in college, and my early 20’s my sure fire fix for depression was a 2 liter bottle of Coke, and a 1lb bag of Peanut M&M’s. I could usually consume both during one sitting. It never failed to perk me up. Only years later did I recognize that this was the exact recipe for Meth.

I was never one of those kids who gave up candy for Lent. In fact, it was one of the three food groups that I would eat as a child. Candy, Pizza, and Apples make a very well rounded diet. I used to grab change out of “the jar” on the kitchen counter, and walk through the vacant lot to Rheinhart’s corner store almost every day.

In retrospect, I don’t know where the change in “the jar” came from. Lord knows I never put any into it. The jar served as my de-facto allowance growing up. If I ever needed money for baseball cards, Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum, or a Charleston Chew it was there for me. It’s no surprise that I ended up with fillings in just about every tooth in my head. The funny thing is that once I turned 20 my love of candy and sweets was replaced with a love of coffee, beer, and salty food.

I’ve never been much good at giving stuff up. I seldom have cravings, until I decide to stop doing something. Then it becomes all I think about. Which is why I can’t diet. The only way I am ever going to lose the 20 pounds I have gained in the last 10 years is if I start burning several thousand calories a day with exercise. And folks, that just ain’t happening.

What also isn’t happening is my book. I’m hovering at 7,000 words, which is about where I was a month ago. It’s not writers block. It’s just lethargy. I need a boot in the ass to get going again. Life isn’t about to slow down to give me more time to work on it so I should stop my whining and get to work instead of writing pointless navel gazing drivel on this blog every day. I mean really, this doesn’t seem to be getting me anywhere now does it?