It so happens that my mother's oldest and dearest friend, Little Bertha, lives on a farm not ten miles from the summer cottage where my sons and I are staying in the country, and I hadn't seen her in fifteen years. At least. My father can't be dragged out to visit the Elliotts again for love nor money. My mother says he's still angry because he loaned Little Bertha's brother Bucky a few hundred dollars many years ago and never got it back. That's no surprise; everyone knows Bucky robbed his own mother. Actually they say he made her mortgage the house in exchange for favors a mother shouldn't ask. “So who tells you to go lending money to a crook like Bucky Klugman?” my mother will say. “You did,” my father says. “You're always telling me what to do.” “Since when do you ever listen to me?”
And they're off and running. Cheek to cheek.
There never was a time when my father didn't gripe about going to see Little Bertha and her husband Mark Elliott. My father is a big powerful man, almost inordinately strong, very handy; there's nothing he can't fix—or break, as the case may be. Wherever he goes people always have something for him to do, seem to be sitting around waiting helplessly for his arrival. He even used to get emergency calls in the middle of the night, like a doctor; a car stalled on the road, water-pipes bursting in the basement and they can't shut it off, someone in the john and the lock got stuck. It was nothing unusual. My father would zip up his pants and spit in the sink and off he'd go to the rescue.
But there was no end to the work at the Elliotts.' They regularly seemed to be starting from scratch. This new farm is only the latest in a long series, beginning with a half-finished house in the sticks, nailing up chicken coops in their muddy back yard. Peggy and Lynn were about the same age as my sister Slim and I; but no children of theirs were growing up in the city. They were determined to make the big break, become farmers, lead a country life.
Mark and Little Bertha both held down outside jobs—old Mrs. Elliott lived with them and kept house—and they were on the go from morning till night. Their chickens were succumbing to a million diseases. You'd find dead poultry stretched out in the mud like cold plucked bodies on a butcher's counter. They were having a hard time of it. But I didn't notice it then; I thought a hard time was what you were supposed to have. They kept my father busy from the minute we walked in the door; hammering roofs, blasting tree stumps. He'd mutter and grumble and blame my mother all the way home—the back of his neck burnt as a brick from the sun.
My father is certainly a man to carry a grudge (he doesn't speak to me half the time either), and he hasn't forgotten that Mark almost talked him into voting for Wendell Willkie. But I think the real reason he's reluctant to have any more to do with the Elliotts is that their lives have become so different from his. Mark and Bertha vote Republican, attend church, go square-dancing on alternate Fridays (how corny can you get?). And I gather they don't get into Chicago very often nowadays. Bertha was still full of some wedding they'd been to the last time, a big event. “Don't let me forget now—be sure and remind me to tell you all about that wedding!”
I get the strangest feeling driving through this Midwestern farmland. The fields are flat under cultivation, the trees seem stunted by distances. Then you come upon a rise in the road; you can't see beyond it, the sunlight is striking the side of some lone whitewashed barn. And all at once there's the illusion, an unshakable conviction; you're not inland at all, you're on the edge of the ocean; you're about to confront it, to begin the descent to a wave-battered coast. You can even smell the salt water. People from the Midwest are crazy for the sea.
The two white houses sit side by side practically right on top of the highway, nothing else around but wires and posts and the white line on the blacktop disappearing over the crest of a hill. Lynn and the three granddaughters live right next door. It was easy enough to tell the houses apart. A tire swung from thick shady branches in front of the big old place; the kids' wagons and bikes leaned about the yard, and an Irish setter pup with a long silky red coat started whining and licking at the fence as soon as it heard the car. The other house appeared to be still under construction. Blacktar insulation, sprawling rolls of chicken-wire, the grass muddy and trampled down like coconut matting. Glazier's marks scribbled on the windows. In other words, it was like all the rest of Mark and Bertha's houses; I would have known it in a dream.
Inside the same story; even the furniture was the same as it had always been—Sears Roebuck Early American, spinning-wheel coffee-tables, tie-back chairs, rockers and hutches of red rock-maple. Though it seemed the furniture was new and I was not rising to the occasion; for Little Bertha had to prompt me—looking up at me sideways—“I was glad about the rug.”
It's because she's so short, she seems precocious; peering up at you, perkily, her head cocked to one side, the sharp corners of her mother-of-pearl frames tilting. Like an inquisitive child. And she talks a mile a minute, doesn't have time to catch her breath. The veins stand out in her neck; the words scatter so fast, you wonder how come they don't knock her right over. The hens in the barnyard, scratching and flapping, their plucky tails taking off in all directions, always seemed to me in a great hurry to get out of her way.
Mark and Bertha have gone back to their first love; the new farm is entirely devoted to the production of laying hens, 36,000 of them in the two long, white windowless barracks, the slitted air vents fluttering. It looks like a small factory with its towers and power lines; all their acres are in corn for chicken-feed. This is not the tender sweet-corn, white, almost transparent, wispily bearded, with even pearly rows. The stalks thrust forth coarse flourishing ears; spotted, rustling, growing like wild. There is a pond, a rectangular trough; you can still see the tooth-marks of the machinery that bit it out of the earth. A brown duck family skimmed its still surface, crows hung themselves on the hatrack of a naked dead tree. Flies snapped. Fields stirred in the sun.
Mark was in the chicken house, immunizing. He strode out in his baggy overalls, a red bandanna knotted 'round his neck, rimless specs flashing, stripping off his thick rubber gloves to shake hands. Right away I had a mental picture of him giving injections—reaching into the straw, feeling under warm excitable feathers (the way we used to, hunting for eggs)—rubbing alcohol swabs on downy white breasts. But of course things aren't done that way, not on the scale of a modern chicken farm. Everything is automated, mechanized, industrialized. The vaccine is in high-pressure tanks, sprayed into the air.
Almost immediately, Jacob, my younger son, made some remark about the high cost of living.
“Well now, that's only relative,” Mark began, settling his cap. His broad square head had grayed. First thing in the morning, in the farm dark, you used to hear the most god-awful grinding and squeaking, Mark cranking the handle of his razor-blade sharpener. Now, without further prompting, he launched into a speech that seemed just as familiar. About growing up as the sole support of his family, a widowed mother and unmarried sisters. About how they were poor, but always had enough to eat. About how you're not really rich if you haven't got self-reliance, while the so-called common man can always hold his head high. About how it was the standard of living that had gone up, not the cost, for your basic needs are always the same. And that was what was wrong with the country today.
We stood on the heated door-stoop, listening. Flies like bits of metal, glittering in their mail, clung to gravelly trenches of chicken manure. It was too sudden, a little embarrassing. Little Bertha—no bigger than one of her own grandchildren in her ankle socks and sneakers—lowered her gaze as soon as Mark got started, blinking behind her big owlish white specs. If I was well-acquainted with this speech, she must have heard it ten thousand times.
It was this rock-ribbed conservatism that really used to get my father's goat—a factory laborer himself, a union battler. I can remember him bundling up to march off to the picket lines—two or three jackets, a couple of caps, scarves, ear-muffs; padded against the cold and the baseball bats. He looked like the old lady at the newsstand, with her apron full of change and her cracked red hands. In his thick hair—it moved under his fingers like beaver fur—there was a small naked patch where a rock had beaned him; a scar on his back where he'd been stabbed. My point is that my father was not imagining things. And yet the real reason for Mark's lecture, the true nerve that had been touched, was something that reminded me utterly of my father—I had seen it in him so often. It was Mark's longing for male companionship. Someone to talk to. Mark is surrounded by women, has always, come to think of it, been surrounded by women, outnumbered by them. And now here were the two alert handsome boys—intelligent eyes amid thickets of hair—listening to him with upturned faces.
A steady muttering hum came from the exhaust fans of the chicken houses.
Twenty-thousand chickens under one roof, without light or breeze. The air was suffocating, it snuffed your breath out. You could see white feathers stirring in dim wire cages. Row upon row in long tiers, dark narrow aisles like library stacks. They were keeping up a racket in their cracked chicken voices, fussing and clucking; it sounded like the mutter of the exhaust fans—a continuous stifled protest, a sort of treadmill of dissent.
The conveyor belts moved silently.
The birds spend all their lives in these cages, they never go outside. Ideally, they never touch the ground. They are fed by conveyor belts, watered by conveyor belts; eggs are collected on conveyor belts. The latest installation had been a belt to haul away the manure we had seen piling up outside. Next—since one mechanical innovation begets the need for another—the manure will be chugged directly to the mill. Now it is being spread over the fields for fertilizer; then it will be ground up with the corn and fed back to the chickens.
Here and there a hen pecked tamely in the aisles, feebly almost, its red wattles trembling. Others were roosting motionless under the stacks. The birds get no food and water at liberty, can't last more than twenty-four hours if they fly the coop. Someone has to go around at night, collecting all the strays and putting them back in their cages.
Bertha was rattling off all this information, parts and prices, like a mail-order catalogue. She always sounds as if she's rattling off some lesson learned by heart—her head inclined, her fists clenched to her sides. . . . Everything in hock, mortaged to the hilt; the egg business in a slump, the cost of farm equipment skyrocketing. At that very moment disease was raging on the West Coast, flocks by the hundreds of thousands were being exterminated, farmers wiped out. An ice storm last winter had paralyzed the county. . . . In other words, it was the same old story; the old continuous struggle, the day-to-day, hand-to-mouth existence.
But there seemed something almost scandalous to me in these intimate disclosures, every detail of their livelihood.
“Excuse me, and maybe I shouldn't ask this,” Jacob began—I knew what was coming, his black eyes were clicking back and forth like the beads of an abacus—trying to add up all these figures in his head—“But how much do you think all this cost you?”
“You'll have to ask Father,” Bertha said quickly.
Old Mother Elliott used to put on a spread like nobody's business; her table was literally heaped with food, hills, valleys—her own churned butter, hot biscuits to melt it, vegetables green from the garden, raspberries black from the bush. Her whipped potatoes were out of this world—not to mention her canning and preserves. She had died a few years back, an uncomplaining invalid in an upstairs room. Little Bertha has never been the domestic type. She works on the assembly line of a factory in St. Jo, planting vacuum tubes in radios. You see a lot of aproned farm wives cashing their paychecks on Fridays in the supermarket. “It takes two working to live.” Everything on the table, with its Sunday company cloth, the paper napkins folded tri-cornered under the forks, was from the grocer's shelves: convenience foods, packaged, canned, frozen. Diet soda, low-calorie salad dressings—for Lynn, who told me she belongs to T.O.P.S. (Take Off Pounds Sensibly. She drives fifty miles to Kalamazoo for the meetings.) I had a sense of something diminished as we scraped out our chairs.
The packaged bread was still frozen stiff from the freezer, and Lynn's carrot-topped twins—sitting at the card table with napkins under their chins, wide spaces between their teeth—were warming the slices tenderly between their hands as we passed the plate.
Peg, the older daughter, was the one I used to play with as a child; but it turns out that Lynn is the one who is my age. People always said she had a “heart-shaped face,” and it still is, just like a valentine. Grave gray eyes and pointed chin. The first day the family moved onto a real farm at last—horses, cows, tractors, the rough mangled roads of the country—Lynn fell out of the hayloft and broke both her arms. The next year she fell out of her bunk bed and broke them both again. I still remembered her up to her elbows in plaster casts. But in the meantime Lynn and Peg were learning to ride horses, to can, to bake, to sew; they belonged to Girl Scouts, went to Sunday School, showed prize animals at State Fairs. They were all-'round 4-H champions. They rose in the darkness and pulled on rubber boots to go wading in slippery barnyard manure, doing their chores. The big, soft-eyed, baggy cows, scarcely bothering to twitch their ears or glance behind them, lifted the tassels of their tails and shot out more. Mark and Bertha were getting their wish; their girls really were growing up on a farm.
Naturally there were a few embarrassing questions. “When are your parents coming out to see us again, it's been so long?” Mark and Bertha wanted to know. “And your sister, Slim, we used to get such a kick out of her. What's her husband do now?” (He locks himself in the bathroom and sits there in the dark till you leave, that's what he does. What my father calls “a character.”) But conversation over the meal was mostly about farmers' dogs getting killed on the highway, a regular occurrence. Traffic has increased on these back roads; Lynn says she's afraid to let the children ride bikes. It's ever since they opened up I-84 and I-90; the green placards are everywhere, you can almost sense the rumbling rhythms of the truck tires, pressing onward.
Every once in a while a pick-up truck hurtled past and drummed the dishes on the table.
The very pictures hanging all about us were the same; oils, originals, they had belonged to Mark's grandfather. Nature scenes, woods, mountains, waterfalls. The thick raised brush-strokes shone darkly in heavy gilt frames. They still seemed arranged in the same order of ascendancy: I used to think the largest was supposed to be best, because it was biggest.
Mark noticed me looking. “Guess I ought to take 'em in and get 'em appraised one of these days,” he said, raising shining specs to the wall. “Maybe one of the artists died and got famous.” And that was the joke he always used to make.
Jacob spoke up. “I hope you don't mind my asking. But how much would you say all this is worth?”
“Well now. That's hard to say.” Mark tucked his head over his plate. “I did most of the work myself you know.”
“Just an estimate,” Jacob said tactfully.
“I was going to tell her about the wedding,” Bertha chimed in.
Mark looked up. “What wedding was that, Mother?”
“Why the wedding we went to in Chicago.” She sounded rather hurt.
That did it. All you have to do is say Chicago. At once the conversation turned to crime. The streets of Benton Harbor and St. Jo aren't safe any more, deserted after dark; business districts are dead. Instead people go to huge outlying shopping centers, sprung up like oil-wells on the highway. Even social life has moved there; restaurants, cinemas, cocktail lounges, bowling alleys. Things have happened which never used to occur in this part of the world before: bodies locked in trunks, shoot-outs at gas stations, brutal murders, which even make the Chicago papers, so you can imagine the great splash in the local press, with the news of church bake-sales and false-alarm fires.
There was the woman who went shopping in Kalamazoo. Her car was abandoned in the parking lot. A few days later a hitchhiker spotted a grisly, blood-smeared infant sitting on the side of the road, prattling and pointing into the bushes. There they found the mother's body. In Cassopolis, a man and wife were slain in bed—tortured, throats slit. Once again, a couple of toddlers were witness to their parents' murder, standing in their cribs.
I could see Lynn took an interest in this gory stuff; she dramatized—pointing her finger like the infant in her story, opening her gray eyes wide in staring childish horror. I must confess I take an interest myself. My aunt was murdered when I was a very small child, a little more than two; my cousin—her daughter—and I discovered the body. She had been strangled, her apron-strings knotted so tightly round her throat they were hidden in its flesh. We thought she was fooling. We each grabbed an arm and started dragging and pulling to make her get up. Her arm was heavy, limp, it offered no resistance. For many years after I could remember her dead hand pulling on me, but thought it was a dream. My cousin moved away with her father and I never saw her again.
I know that evil is the great preoccupation of our life in the city; I am used to conversations like this, I am very much aware of being a woman alone. But it surprised me to learn that it's the same in the country, that people talk about the crime, they are preoccupied with crime—and all that goes with it. Fear and violence are by-blows of our modern life. They feel this life encroaching, closing in on them.
The fear of crime is profoundly a class fear; the fear of becoming a victim, of joining the ranks of the expendables—those spewed up by the system; of offering your neck to be butchered and slaughtered and laying yourself down with the rest. I realized the extent to which this has come to pass when we were pulling into the city one day, getting off at the Illinois Central station on 55th Street. The little red train from the country arrived at the rush hour; it was drizzling, passengers were alighting from cars heading in the opposite direction, coming from the Loop. Steamy plastic raincoats, umbrellas, tired straggling lines trekking toward the gates. The stairs were wet and muddy. The tracks are elevated here, tumbleweed rolls off the railroad ties, down the steep embankments, blows sweeping through the streets of high-rise housing projects.
Something was wrong. You could see the crowd halting ahead at the very bottom of the stairs. A snarl, a back-up, someone blocking the way. Two youths were killed, shot in the head at this station one evening very recently while it was still light. So my first thought was “Oh no.” But what it was was a cat. A large, bluish, white-spotted animal lying on its side, its paws stiffly stretched out. At first glance it appeared to be dead; then I saw its dark quivering gaze. It seemed to be trying to raise its head, glance backward over its shoulder. “Not for long,” someone said behind me.
As we went out past the gates I could see through the bars the last of the passengers still gathered round, looking down at the cat, helpless to express their concern. And as a matter of fact it is a rarity to see an animal on the city streets in this condition. People you see in a bad way all the time. You give them a wide berth. All at once, through the bars, the cat became a man before my very eyes. I saw him lying on his side in the same stiff way, trying to lift his head up and look behind him over his shoulder with the same quaking motion. He was a black man in a black raincoat, with a bottle in his pocket; his fingers outspread, reaching. Was he supposed to be drunk? having an attack of some sort? had someone pushed him? was he wounded? had he stumbled and fallen? His eyes were shining and shivering like muddy pools of water. And the heels, umbrella-tips, were tap-tapping around him, passengers quickening their pace, avoiding his eyes.
Dawn, the oldest granddaughter, suddenly jumped up—toppling her chair backward, dropping her fork with a clatter. “Flaming Molly got out! Flaming Molly got out!” Pointing to the window. Her hair was about the shade of the Irish setter's, and her little gold locket was rising and falling on her chest.
Sure enough the big red dog came streaking past with its head between its paws and its long fine coat drifting like prairie grass. Oh no! Not again! How'd that happen? The twins shrieked and tore off their napkins. I gathered that Flaming Molly was not long for this world.
“Can the boys come help me catch her?” The three older children ran out, flushed with excitement, their footsteps jolting across the bare unnailed boards of the porch. In no time at all the meal had disbanded; Lynn marched the little ones home across the lawn, Mark went back to his chores. I started to clear the table.
“Never mind all that,” Little Bertha whispered, quickly wiping down her hands on her apron. “Now's my chance to tell about that wedding.”
We sat side by side on the sofa, the scrapbook spread open across our knees. I saw I was in for a fairly lengthy and detailed description, not to say history; how many years Mark and Bertha had known the bride's family; what good time they had made driving into Chicago; how they got lost, circling around, looking for the church. The organ was playing; the ushers were taking the guests by the elbow and leading them down the aisle to their pews. All of a sudden the lights went out, the room fell silent, a white movie screen dropped in place of the altar. Onto it there flashed—a naked, toothless baby on a bearskin rug! The groom! A microphone spoke out over the darkness—the voice of the groom's mother, telling to the accompaniment of slides the story of his life. The groom's first teeth; his baby-shoes—dipped in plaster. The groom in a cowboy hat, with strings 'round his neck, his little legs dangling from the back of a pony in Lincoln Park Zoo. And so forth and so on. Talk about history! The same with the bride; she had had corrective surgery on her hip as a child and even that was not overlooked—there she was on the screen, smiling and struggling with her casts and crutches. Her childish scrawl; her striped spelling-papers with gummed red stars.
Several of the groom's original musical compositions were played on the guitar, and the bride's poetry was read aloud. It was announced there would be an exhibit immediately following the reception line—a display of their arts and crafts.
I was stunned. I had been expecting a tale of hippies and flower children, bearded boys and bra-less girls, but what was one to make of this? And one had to make something—Bertha was looking up at me expectantly, her head poked to one side.
“It sounds like the bride and groom have a lot in common,” I said.
She sighed. “Yes, I'm sure they'll have a wonderful life. But I'm just not doing it justice,” she added, shaking her head. “It's too hard to remember it all, it's been such a long time.”
“Say. When was this wedding anyhow?”
Bertha flipped over pages. “June fifteenth, nineteen ss—why! That's four years ago!” She shut the scrapbook and perched her folded hands on her knees, lifting her face wistfully. She clucked her tongue.
“My my how time flies,” she said.
Let me tell you about this part of the country. At one time the southwestern shores of Lake Michigan thronged and thrived with summer resorts; most of my schoolfriends (though they lived in cramped flats with Murphybeds in the living rooms) spent the entire summer vacation at Gottlieb's, Gettel's, Fiddel-man's, in towns with names like South Haven, Benton Harbor, Union Pier. The towns still have the same names, but they don't sound the same to me. These were places above all of summer romance; my friends went, they met boys; they talked about Gary, Barry, Terry all winter. (The names of choice in my generation.) I didn't know anything else about life in the country and I didn't care about anything else either; I didn't grow up on the West Side of Chicago for nothing. I had no use for the outdoors, it made no difference to me—all I knew of nature was what dropped from the trees. What were those shiny, sticky things like black beanpods? And the soft chains we used to call “caterpillars”? And what about the leaves? What did you call them? I never learned their names.
My proletarian family did not go in for that sort of thing. When I was very small we used to make our annual expedition to the beach, something of an ordeal; you took the Roosevelt Road streetcar to the end of the line—forty-two blocks and it ground to a halt at every other corner—and then you walked another mile with the blankets and thermos bottles. The bath-houses smelled of damp rotting timber; you had to run through them very quickly, ducking the sniper-spray of icy cold showers. I wore rubber beach-shoes, a rubber cap, a suit with no top! My father would scoop out a hole in the sand and crouch down in it—his thighs as thick around as tree stumps in his Charles Atlas trunks—trying to shrink and make himself look smaller while someone snapped our picture with our black box camera. Otherwise his head and hairy shoulders would get lost above the rest.
On the long rides home Slim always fell asleep.
The streetcar was crowded, we had to split up; my father sat all the way up front with my fat little sister sprawled across his lap, his own big head nodding and dozing. My mother and I found a seat in the back. The aisle got more and more crowded, straphangers swaying; the car went slower and slower—dragging on, clanging, complaining. But it seemed to me that this was the way I spent most of my life: waiting. Waiting in buses, streetcars, automobiles; waiting on benches, stairways, laps, and knees. Waiting in crowds, docors' offices, clinics; waiting on beds heaped with rough coats at family parties. Waiting in the dark. Waiting alone. Waiting for nothing. This was the real tyranny of the adult world; I wanted to grow up and be done with waiting—just so no one ever again would have such power over me.
I laid my head against the back of the seat and my gaze drifted toward the window.
So how should I have known that I would grow up with such strange longings, such a passion for “nature”? That I should have been asking questions? That I would want to live tucked away in the country and to know the names of things?
The boys and I share this summer cottage with a couple; we stay during the week, they come out on the weekends. An ideal arrangement, except I'm sore half the time. Someone uses your last clean towel, or eats up the leftovers you were counting on finding in the refrigerator; or, departing, my friends will go to great pains to close up the house, draw all the windows, shut it like an oven—but they forget to throw out their leaking garbage. The whole place stinks to high heaven and swarms with fruit flies.
Unwelcome thoughts enter my soul: walk right in and make themselves at home.
But I don't have to go into explanations, the case is simple. I'm too jealous, possessive about the house—I don't want to share it. I don't want to share anything. I want to pack up my children into a place of our own; a very persistent fantasy! I even subscribe to farm realty catalogues, so I can read all about the Sportsman's Hideaways, Handyman's Specials, Sacrifices to Settle Estates. (It occurs to me that these catalogues are my equivalent of the pictures on the walls at the Elliotts' house—calendar paintings—fir forests, sparkling trout streams. A-cottage-small-by-a-waterfall.) It doesn't have to be the best place in the world, nothing special, no castle, no dream house. Riding along I'll spot some austere and isolated shack—a roof, a porch, a weedstrewn path—and I'm ready to love it. To spring out of the car, fling my arms around it; twine myself, cling to it, sink my roots deep. If it will only be mine!
Too bad you can't feel that way about people.
Zimmerman's falls squarely into the category of Handyman's Specials. Mrs. Zimmerman and her husband staked out this land over forty years ago, and once owned all the cottages you see around here. Her husband is dead now, as she's sure to mention on every occasion, any time she corners you—a tiny woman with frizzy gray hair and great big tiger eyes, magnified, welling up to the very rims of her thick glasses: “My husband is dead now you know.” “Yes yes I know.” The tenants try to evade the old landlady's tediousness. But it's easy to understand. She feels diminished; she is not what she once was. This is not the truth about her—not the whole truth!
Most of the cottages belong to black families now, who live in them themselves and do not rent them out, and have put a lot of work into their places. Paint, shingles, cinder blocks; concrete patios, chain-link fences. Roofs straddled by TV antennas like Texas-towers—it still takes a lot of power out this way to get a picture. The rest—what's left of Zimmerman's Lakefront Villas (they're not on the lakefront, that goes without saying; you can't even see Lake Michigan from here)—are merely six or seven of the most leaning, the most dependent, the most run-down, crippled, and dilapidated. It won't be so easy to get rid of them! Which the old lady would dearly love to do all right; she longs to soar away and be free. Help is so hard to get these days.
Mrs. Z. swears up and down by Mrs. Hodiak, the cleaning-woman, who routs the cottages out in spring. Sweeps up the curled wasp-corpses, the mouse pellets, the fly-specked newspapers laid over the furnishings like wares in a shop-window—three-legged armchairs, sagging studio couches, dressers with stuck drawers and tarnished sour-pussed mirrors—stout and fearless with her mops and buckets. Her hair is like a paintbrush dipped in lampblack, still white at the roots. It was cold when we first came out and I foolishly asked how to light the rusty old heater; I've always been skittish about holding up flaming matches to hissing gas. Mrs. Hodiak without a word dropped onto all fours and crawled under the buffet. That's where the heater sits, don't ask me why. You could see her big bare sprouting legs and gym shoes sticking out.
“Never mind Mrs. Hodiak, please, forget it,” I said, as she crouched, her heavy back wedged in, scratching matches under her thumbnails.
There was a pop, but nothing lighted. No explosions. Mrs. Zimmerman seems to be the only one left who still expects the heaters to give forth, rise and shine; the toilets to shut their noisy traps for a change and quit dripping deliriously (no more graceful fountains); the showers to do more than cough up a few drops of surly brown water, rattle their pipes, and knock it off. She seems so surprised and disappointed in fact—the big yellow eyes sweeping up, trustingly, in her small wrinkled worried face—that you really hate to mention it. Like the hole in the boys' bedroom ceiling where the roof is caving in. What's the use? What can she do about it? Or the bathroom floor rotting away under the tub? The screendoors of course are a laugh.
“Mrs. Hodiak scrubs these cottages from top to bottom, she makes them spotless,” the old landlady says with pride.
What it amounts to is this: Mrs. Zimmerman—by default—is a hold out, a survivor. I made it up here twenty years too late! But she still thinks someone is going to come along and take all this off her hands, and you can always tell when something's up, she's got another prospect on the hook. An old man—another ancient, faithful retainer, stooped, gnarled, with a spattered cap and overalls that hang drooping from their buckle-straps—shows up, bright and early, and starts slapping white paint all over the place. He speckles the greenery. He must be stone deaf under his cap; his portable radio jumps and jangles and blares like a loudspeaker. The lawnmowers buzz, riding herd over the grass; the garbage trucks back up, groaning and grinding and gnashing their teeth. The neighbors' miniature poodles (all the neighbors seem to own little white poodles which look like pipe-cleaners) sound off from their rhinestone-studded throats—abused little yips and yaps. Even the woodpeckers get into the act, typing away—hunt and peck—very unsystematic! In other words, life out here goes on—industriously. And it's not supposed to! It's supposed to stop, to hold still for us! Everyone knows that! Isn't that the proper definition of life in the country?
The tenants just wish she'd leave well enough alone.
This neck of the woods has always been a Bohemian stronghold in the summertime too, and it still is. The old resorts still gang up one right on top of the other, Hspuda's, Redimak's, Sixta's. The restaurants with thatched roofs and stencilled shutters; the dark little groceries where they sell shriveled sausages and heavy black bread and display all the mimeographed announcements—dances, raffles, Bingo. They'll cash checks if they know you. The strong community spirit definitely does not extend to outsiders. This is exactly the pattern the transition from white to black followed in the city—where all that dark bread comes from by the way, the husky loaves stickered with labels from bakeries in Bridgeport, Brighton, along Archer Avenue. These are the so-called “ethnic” neighborhoods—i.e., white working-class. Inch by inch the ground is contested in classic style; you read about bricks and fire-bombs hurled through windows, crosses burned on lawns, parents picketing schools. Everyone knows that Czechs, Poles, Lithuanians, Irish are more stubborn than Jews. At Zimmerman's, however, there are certain changes rung on these old stereotypes. Here it is the blacks who are the conventional, stable families, who own homes, who maintain them, who put up the fences and fire up the coals with lighter-fluid on their portable grills. The whites are academic-style Bohemians.
At seven o'clock in the morning Mrs. Bledsoe sitting on the screened-in porch across the way starts to give Byron his lesson in table manners. Mrs. Bledsoe is a round, brown, smiling woman who wears turbans, great dangling earrings wriggling like bait, long colorful robes. She looks like an African ambassadress—even when she throws out the garbage, the loose tropical sleeves flowing and fluttering, as she slams and bangs the lids. She takes in children from the ghetto to board in summer, so they can taste the benefits of country life: “And because I never had any of my own,” she says. (She pronounces it “get-toe,” in rich penetrating tones, to let you know it's not where she's from.) The little colony can be seen traipsing down the dusty path to the lake, Mrs. Bledsoe, her buttocks swaying in her long gown, forging ahead; the children scraping along in rubber thongs, striped beach towels over their shoulders. Later their wet suits hang on the line. Byron is the youngest, the puniest; the skinniest, blackest legs, the biggest ears; his belly slopes and pokes out the most. He wears a yellow beanie with something like a windmill or weathervane on top. When the others tease him, don't let him catch the Frisbee or take his turn at bat, he chases back and forth; frantic; I see the weathercock whirling on the top of his head.
I get very maudlin about Byron's yellow beanie.
“Don't slop your oatmeal, Byron.”
“What you say when you ask for something, Byron.”
“And what you say when you get it. You. Byron.”
I think she slaps his hands. The light of the young morning creeps across the dewy grass. But this is not exactly what I bargained for when I rented a house in the country; not the twittering of the birds in the trees. It makes me cringe. I feel it is partly on my account that Mrs. Bledsoe is making Byron's life so miserable, that he keeps getting it day after day like this. And it is partly on my account; her voice rises, carries sharp as a laugh—it means to be overheard. Byron ! Byron ! The other childern titter—who can blame them? A moment of freedom for them. They're not even permitted to go barefoot, Mrs. Bledsoe's so strict: “It looks trashy.” Whose world does she think she's making them fit to live in?
Our porch—we took this cottage for its screened-in porch, though it's in even worse shape than the rest—is full of garbage. Belle and Emile save all our trash so they can take it to the recycling center at the Bethlehem Steel Plant; that is their hobby. They belong to Zero Population Growth. They own two houses and three cars. (No, four; I gave my car to Emile on condition he never mention it to me again. It was the kind of car you have fantasies of abandoning; the man who sold it to me must have thought he had died and gone to heaven when he saw a sucker like me coming, with my great big smile.) Our refuse isn't enough for them; they go around collecting from other cabins too. Tins, jars, soda bottles, beer cans, great green jugs of Gallo and Pio Vino, stashed all over the place. Shopping bags buckling under their loads. Stacks of Sunday-papers, comics, and Rotogravures. Then there are the ecological experiments; piles of browning corn-cobs, rheumy watermelon rinds.
They know how I love to throw things out, so they leave notes for me:
Please save. This is not garbage.
That's not all. I nearly forgot the dishes of dogchow, boxes of kitty-litter. Belle and Emile have three cats and two dogs. It would, be no fun driving them all back to Chicago in the rear seat of a rusty Volkswagen, so the cats remain with us. Large, placid, easygoing Belle with her big hips and pale pony-tail, her long teeth like a rabbit's, straps herself in—stroking the old white dog on her lap. The young dog waves its lofty tail from the window. And out pops Emile's wedge of red beard, anxiously reminding us—just one more time:
Don't let the cats get out!
Don't let the cats get out. The cats are shy and strange and keep trying to run away. We have to shut them up whenever we attempt to leave; they hide from us, bound off, dive under the furniture; their tell-tale eyes glare from dark corners. One is black and white, fat and sleek and easy to catch; but Jacob spends a lot of time parked on narrow haunches, lifting the edges of blankets, poking his head under beds—the thick shocks of bushy dark hair sticking out aft—coaxing the starved striped tabbies.
“Here kitty kitties . . . here kitty kitties. . . .”
Frank and Jake are of an age and have always been close; being shunted around—their father and I were divorced when they were babies—has made them closer. Frank is thirteen now, he's pulled ahead; broad-shouldered, gruff-voiced (Arf! Arf! Arf)—almost hulking! His wrists protrude from the sleeves of his pajamas and the pants-legs look as though they've shrunk on his ankles. Nobody notices these developments with more interest, more awe, than Jacob. Their father has married again, he has a new wife, a new baby. I wonder if the boys feel at home there? Are they only guests in his house? Maybe they are on their good behavior, or there are things they are afraid to say? And isn't it the same for them with me? Mine is a makeshift sort of life; I didn't plan it that way, I just don't have all the pieces. I'm sure they notice. Do they watch out? Do they bite their tongues?
“I'm always at home where Jacob is,” Frank told me.
At first the boys played with Ralphie, a big heavy shuffling good-natured kid with a cowlick, and calamine lotion smeared all over his fat red cheeks. He'd gotten into some poison ivy. His hand was in a sling, taped to the wrist, the thumb in a splint and just the fingernails sticking out; a firecracker had gone off in his mitt on the 4th of July. He limped a little, lurched to one side—an ankle twisted falling out of a tree. The boys assured me he was just accident-prone.
Then Jacob started asking. “Hey Ma, is it all right if we sneak off after lunch and go fishing with Ralphie?” “Do we have your permission to sneak off after dinner huh Ma?”
“Sure. But who sez you have to sneak off?”
“Ralphie does. His mother's punishing him. He's not supposed to leave his room except to go to the toilet. But he climbs out the window.”
Ralphie's mother is Gladys, a schoolteacher; once widowed, once divorced; out here with her mother and five children. The oldest son is dead in Vietnam. Gladys is a blonde meaty woman with a ruddy, thick-blooded face; the old mother is bony and scrawny and white as a ghost. And yet the two women are unmistakably of one flesh; it's the way they carry themselves—six feet tall, with heavy slouching shoulders. Bison humps. It gives them a hangdog, defeated appearance; you can see they are used to being ineffectual. Ralphie's “punishment” is typical; the threats fly thick and fast and no one listens to them anyway. “All right, I'm gonna leave you right here then,” I hear the old woman telling the baby—sitting and bawling in a puddle in its diapers and pins, digging its fat little fists in its eyes. “You'll have to find your way back to Chicago all by yourself.”
And yet it was Gladys who finally forbade Ralphie to play with my boys—because, she said, they used foul language. Then the two rosy little girls had to stop playing with their friends for the same reason. Very soon there was no one left who had not offended in this way, and Gladys's brood had no one to play with. On the beach she spreads their blanket far from the rest, and passing in the road she won't glance up, keeps her distance—humped, slouching, her feet pounding with determination, her chin hung forward with a touch of pride.
You may be sure I enter into the spirit of things, narrow my eyes, set my jaw too. Hard feelings are so good for the arteries.
Something knocks off the lids of the garbage cans and scrapes and scratches in the middle of the night. What can it be? A fox? A masked raccoon? Everyone is secretly pleased with this creature, which is to us what the bears are to Yellowstone, ambling in under the tent flaps and eating up the peanut butter. When I hear it I jump out of bed and go scrambling for the flashlight, searching the darkness for a pair of eyes burning like taillights.
How long since I smelled summer nights in the country? The air is sharply pure, your breath cracks; beech trees creak overhead like old weather-beaten barns. Mosquitoes sprinkle in the grass thick as the dew. The Little Dipper reminds me forcibly of childhood—gazing up at the pinpoints of light, sitting up late on our front steps. Belle took her class of inner city dropouts to the planetarium, and the kids clapped politely when the stars came out.
And what if the animal is only a rat? A cat—escaped? One of the neighbors' toy poodles with their jewelled collars and red ribbons? (No wonder they protest so much.) Or it could be Sadie, up to her scavenging and rummaging.
Everyone knows better than to start up with Sadie—hard enough to avoid her as it is. You wake up and find her face thrust darkly against the screen, her hand to her forehead, peering in. An old harpy head, streaked white bangs and beetling black brows. They are always twitching. “Just sniffing your flowers,” she says. She knows every abandoned house for miles around—she's looted them all. Prowling the woods in helmet and slicker, galoshes and thick gloves, got up like a beekeeper.
Sadie comes trudging down the loose rickety stairs to the beach—someone's going to do himself a mischief one of these days—her black rubber galoshes flopping their tongues, swathed to the chin in a conspicuously bright beach towel. Very conspicuous—it's mine! I was wondering what happened to it. It's wonderful though how everyone puts up with Sadie, the price you have to pay for a little fresh air.
Gladys lives on the other side of the same duplex (seven of them in two rooms), so the women have been carrying on a running feud. Naturally you hear everything through the cardboard walls, and Sadie is forever thumping on them with her broomstick. I was talking to Sadie in back of the white frame cottage when Gladys came charging 'round the bend, her head lowered, very red in the face.
“All right Sadie, I give up, I can't take it any more. I'm here to beg you—is that what you want? Beg you to stop it.”
“Stop what?” says Sadie, not at all taken aback (as I was), but raising her glass to her lips. She was seated in a deck chair, drinking white wine out of a shrimp-cocktail jar. All around us fresh odors of scissored grass.
“Stop swearing at my children!”
“They swore at me first.”
“Sadie! They're children!” Gladys's voice was thick, deep in her throat; she was choking back tears.
“They started it, I didn't.”
I'd never seen Sadie so composed. She sank back calmly in the arms of the striped chair, stretched out her legs—one ankle in its rubber galosh crossed atop the other—looking up at Gladys, her black eyebrows raised above the rim of her glass. And they weren't even twitching; her nervous tics had disappeared, stopped like a clock.
“I beg you Sadie, leave us alone. What harm have we done you? We try to keep out of your way—I shush my children all the time when you're at home. Why do you have to make my life so miserable!”
Gladys's face was getting thicker and redder. All at once I understood—not a moment too soon, considering I'm in such a good position to appreciate—looking at her hunched shoulders, swollen angry jowls. A cornered creature, at bay. One husband dead, one divorced; a son killed in the war; five unruly children, a nagging mother—a life of constant reproaches. She was beside herself leading a manless, unconsoled existence; the fear, managing alone. And of course pride.
Sadie smirked and sipped her wine.
I got up and took Gladys by the arms. “Come away, come away Gladys,” I said. “Can't you see she's enjoying this? She loves it, she thrives on it, this is what she lives for. You're no match for her. It can only hurt you.”
“All I ask is a little peace,” Gladys said. She had begun to cry in earnest and her big sunburned peeling shoulders were shaking.
I put my arms around her, meaning to press her cheek to my shoulder. But since she's a good half-foot taller than I am, that was impossible. So I put my head on her shoulder instead.
“Why can't we have a little peace and quiet?” she cried. “Why oh why does it have to be so hard? I come up to the country with my children to get away from all that. But it's just the same here. Why do I feel this way? Why am I always so angry?”
She rocked and sobbed while I patted her on the hump, mindlessly, like burping a baby. If not for Sadie! For the damned cats and the garbage and kitty-litter! If Mrs. Bledsoe would just quit picking on Byron—in the tender hours of the morning at least! If only we could remove all these extra distractions. . . .
And yet in spite of everything the first thing that happens when you get to the country is that everyone starts talking and scheming about giving it all up, moving out here altogether, living here year-'round! They've had it with the city—dirt, crime, crowding, corruption. To the country! To the country! It's only a matter of rearranging the querulous details, our circumstantial lives.
So where is it then? Where is the rightful life that is awaiting us? Where is this undiscovered territory? Where the air is clear and consciences are clean? How do we get there? How do we cut our path through this wilderness? How do we run up our flags and stake our claims?
The tyranny the tyranny of these dreams of peace and quiet.