I wake up confused. For nearly a year, I didn’t for a moment think of going back, only of how I left. Now, though, I dream of a distant, brightly lit room at the top of a staircase, where the early-morning August sunlight plays at confounding the treads with the risers, floorboards, joints and grooves, making infinitesimal molecular adjustments, contracting, popping quietly, accommodating the warmth, and it seems a wide gilded slide. I dream of the stairs and the light and the white wheat bursting yellow saffron open spaces below that were once home to me and my aspirations and my acquisitions, the refrigerator with the water that comes from its door. I wake up with my mouth desiccated and my tongue poking out like a tuber parched from too much dry heat in this cold climate where the snow eats all the moisture in the air, and I walk into walls thinking I am going downstairs for a glass of water.
There is no downstairs here.
Mornings, sometimes, I hear ringing; and I rummage blindly for the nightstand, where there is no nightstand and where there is no clock, and where there is no place, where I am expected to be. I draw the dog up close. I try for a few more minutes of remembered warmth.
I make coffee even though I’ve lost my taste for it. Still, it seems the appropriate thing to do. Then I sit wrapped in a blanket on a weatherworn Adirondack chair and look out at the distant mountains and the vacationing hardwoods in the fore and the river road interwoven in between. I listen to the gusts of winter winds blow, and the sound of the interstate in the distance, and I tell myself I am hearing waves break on the other coast; but I can’t be fooled, I know too much.
I try to coax the dog onto my lap. She has developed a phobia regarding this specific chair. She will jump up and settle into the chair when it is empty; but when it is occupied, now, or most days, here with me in the morning, she sits shivering at my side and paws endlessly at my shin, seemingly wanting up, —but she won’t jump up, and if you pick her up, she’ll have none of it. She will jump right back down and reassert her position, paw poised. We sit like this for as long as an hour, each looking at another other and wanting things.
In between wanting to go home I feel guilty for wanting to leave the dog alone so I can go into town for more coffee and breakfast. I wonder what she thinks about being left alone here, about having this isolation imposed upon her; I wonder if she understands that it’s much the same for me, except that I can turn the doorknob. I wonder if she tries to turn the doorknob after I leave. I wonder if she wakes up at night and walks into walls, thinking her dog door is there. I think about her captivity. I think that dogs wish they could work doorknobs. If there were something else to do, someplace to take her where she could run all day, eat people food, where squeaky toys are never in short supply, I think I might.
If I resolve to try for breakfast, which is a big if among many—if I make it out the door, if I belt myself in for the five-mile drive, if I make it down the driveway and onto the pavement, I keep in mind my right to indecision. I remind myself that the car is a low-pressure environment in which I can continue to consider my options. I allow myself alternately to want to go to breakfast and not want to go to breakfast. I ponder the topic impartially; judiciously, I see all sides. I am all for breakfast at Lovelane but am dead-set against it where Blood Hill Road intersects with Route 5. I am ambivalent when I reach the river road but skeptical once more when I cross the bridge. I think about what I will order. I weigh options along the way. I remind myself that because this is my one true breakfast of the day, because even though you can always have breakfast foods for lunch or dinner these are technically not breakfast. I have an obligation to myself to make my one true breakfast the best breakfast it can be.
I crave pancakes often but hardly ever order them. I crave pancakes mostly at night, in anticipation of breakfast the next morning. I put myself to sleep with thoughts of dollar-sized pancakes, which are my favorite because they are slippery and thin and a little rubbery in a good way that exhibits technological superiority in their class: their density calculated with micro-precision, their pores sized within a fixed variable so butter and syrup pool and absorb in a calculated way, their ideal ratio of mass to surface area, of hotcake to butter to syrup, each best-of-breed bite predetermined with exacting goodness. I nod off, thinking of whipped butter, extra whipped butter, and real maple syrup. I spend the drive the next day trying to muster the same excitement. You can’t muster that kind of excitement on demand; that kind of excitement is the kind that is a whole day in the making.
Some days I think that I might have an omelet. I used to order omelets at home. But at home I was not on a budget and here I have put myself on a budget, which, although it allows for breakfast, does not allow for omelets but, still, they sound good and I free-associate, thinking the omelet idea can lead to other things.
By Pleasant Street, I will have convinced myself that I do not want breakfast at all because it’s not working out so well in my head. Because I am hyper-self-aware, because I am on to myself, I continue on the additional block to Main Street, where it remains touch-and-go until I park.
Briefly, ham and eggs sounds good.
If there is parking on the opposite side of the street, I have to suppress my urban urge to swing a U-turn before I reach the intersection. I know that by the time I get to the post office turnabout and make my way back, the available spot might be gone. I try not to worry. I think, Don’t worry. Sometimes I say it aloud and check my expression; I look for earnest self-assurances in the rearview mirror.
The corned beef hash is salty and satisfying, just the way it tastes from the can, but homemade. It is like the ham that way, but better.
If there is no convenient parking, which occasionally there is not, and which is surprising because it’s not all that big of a town, I give up. Because I understand the importance of seeing the bright side of things, I look into the mirror and say, “This is as good as it’s going to get.” I could struggle against fate, but why ruin even a semi-good thing? Driving in circles only further erodes what solace I can take in the moment. I loop around and head back the way I came. I tell myself that if today’s breakfast can’t be the very best breakfast it can be, why settle. There is always tomorrow. I’m also careful to set reasonable expectations. I say, Or the day after.
Because I am on a budget, I am always looking for ways to maximize my dollar. At the coffee shop where I sometimes have breakfast, I used to order the Two-egg Country Breakfast with Bacon for $6.99, which is what my mother would call highway robbery as though she had experience with such a thing. Still, it’s two dollars less than an omelet. I always order a tall glass of ice water and a cup of coffee, which costs a dollar. The cup of coffee is bottomless, so a dollar isn’t so much, but it took a long time before I could get the counter waitress to keep it flowing, and I don’t like to ask for my cup to be refilled because it ruins my experience, so at first, until she caught on, I paid a dollar for only one cup of coffee.
I like my eggs scrambled, and one day when there was plenty of parking and I was there and seated at the counter but still not sure I wanted breakfast at all, I ordered the One-egg Country Breakfast with Bacon for $5.99. When it came out there were as many, if not more, eggs than I was used to getting on the two-egg plate. I nosed around. I asked a few leading questions. I found out that the scrambled eggs are all pre-cooked and kept on a steam table or some such thing in back so that when you order a scramble, the cooks just ladle it up and don’t give much thought to whether you asked for one or two or more eggs, and this got me to thinking: The single egg à la carte is priced at only $2.99, still highway robbery, but not if you get four eggs for the price of one; plus toast is free with any order and so is a handful of cheddar cheese melted on top, if you say it that way—like the cheese is no big deal and you can just as well do without it. So now I can get out of there, sans home fries and bacon, for as little as $3.99, which includes a bottomless cup of coffee and which isn’t highway robbery at all.
At breakfast, I talk to Ruth, who works the counter. In the beginning, Ruth and I had communication issues. For instance, the first few times I ordered the single egg à la carte with a handful of cheddar cheese melted on top and a side of wheat toast she charged me for the full One-egg Country Breakfast, and also, she did not refill my coffee. But we’ve worked that out and now I call her Doll and get to say things like, “The Usual, Doll,” and she doesn’t look flummoxed like she did the first day when she had to ask for my order three times and still got it wrong.
At the coffee shop there are only female waitstaff and they call themselves The Girls, so I call them that also, but only in my head because I have no real reason to ever address them as a group. The Girls gather at the end of the counter and chat when business is slow, and sometimes I sit there so I can listen to their conversation. Usually they are talking about girly stuff like lingerie and pop bands and boys. They talk like they are decked out in pajamas and painting their toenails and they are all sixteen. Sometimes they talk like they’re trailer trash, and someone says that she bent her car around a tree the night before because she was driving stoned, and I imagine them all in too-tight bell-bottomed jeans with zip-around flies, smoking Marlboro Reds and flipping their Farrah Fawcett curls. Sometimes they all stand with their arms crossed over their chests and stare out across the dining room without saying a thing and I think I know exactly how they feel.
Today, Ruth is working the dining room and a girl who I recognize but do not know personally is working the counter. I hear her ask others if they would like a refill on their cup of coffee, so I think that she is not my kind of person, but I’m feeling good about breakfast so I sit at the counter anyway. I order the usual but not by saying The Usual, because she would not know what I mean and I already think she’s going to have trouble. Instead, I order in detail. I order a single egg à la carte, scrambled, with a handful of cheddar cheese melted on top, wheat toast, a cup of coffee and a tall glass of ice water with lots of ice. I emphasize the ice because people in these parts don’t always hear that you want extra ice. When I don’t mention the ice, I’m lucky to get two or three cubes; lots of times when I ask for extra ice I get only four or five cubes and have to send the glass back with more-specific instructions. The waitress brings my coffee and then paces the counter end to end three times like she has OCD and then brings me the glass of water with only a small handful of ice floating on top and I have to explain that I want her to fill the glass with ice and then add whatever water the glass will hold.
I like ordering water when I’m out, partly because the water at the place I rent tastes a lot like metal or sometimes salt and partly because the fresh ice that is generated by restaurant icemakers is, on whole, superior to the homemade or bagged variety. I figure this is because your freezer at home is not used only for ice and the smells from whatever else is in there commingle with the ice and mess with its flavor. Restaurant ice machines are ice-only. The ice is fresher because of volume, plus, the fresher stuff is on the top. Because it’s so dry here in the winter and because I don’t drink so much water at home, I like a sip of refreshing ice-cold water before my coffee. Only this time, there was the coffee first and then the pacing and then the water and then the trouble with the ice, so you can see how things weren’t off to such a good start.
When my eggs arrive, I can see the outlines of two half-melted squares of cheese. The cheddar is grated, so I know right away something is up. To be fair I try a bite and my mouth is swamped with the synthetic goo of misguided American know-how. When I explain what’s happened, when I tell her that I requested cheddar, not American cheese, she says I asked only for cheese and that I did not specify cheddar, therefore the American variety. She pulls out her notepad and refers to what is written there, or rather what is not written there, as evidence. She points with the pencil she keeps behind her ear; she taps on the pad as if it is the final word on the matter. I could argue the point but decide instead to ask simply if I can get a new plate with cheddar and she says she’ll put in the order but she’ll have to talk with the manager about What To Do.
When she disappears into the kitchen, the guy on the stool next to me leans in and says: There are more important things in this world than cheese, and I am unsure whom he is siding with. I think he may mean that there are people who aren’t getting any breakfast at all, and I maybe should have thought of that before I had the waitress trash the first batch of eggs. I think that because I am a guest here and this is not my home, I should have kept quiet and eaten what was put in front of me.
When I left home, I was angry, which is an understatement. I kept trying to trash my house. There were workers there at the time, getting it ready for its new owners, and I would fly into these fits of rage and tear through the place, breaking things. I once tried to throw a club chair out the second-floor window and onto the street, but it wouldn’t fit. I did succeed in breaking the window though, which provided at least some satisfaction. And on the few days when I could find a way to laugh at things, I’d point out to the workers how committed I was to keeping them employed, but mostly I was the only one laughing when I said this. When I wasn’t destroying things, I was destroying relationships. I felt a lot like I had to destroy whatever was left be-fore it could destroy me, and now I find myself thinking that there is some truth to the whole baby/bathwater maxim. Except a baby, you would for sure notice if it were in some bathwater you were going to throw out, but when you’re down, friends are harder to spot.
Some mornings I don’t get out of bed until it is after noon. The dog often has to pee before noon but she will hold it in exchange for extra time warm beneath the covers. The mornings that I spend in bed, the dog and I spoon like lovers. She lays on her side with her legs stretched way out in front of her and her back pressed up against me and I curl around her, my knees almost up to my chest, and she lets me drape one arm over her. We cannot be intimate at any other time of the day or night. We do not snuggle up together on the sofa. She will not sit in my lap while I read. She will allow herself to be scratched on the belly or behind the ears but will not settle in for the experience. With her, it’s all business during our waking hours. We even have separate chairs from which we watch television, but in the mornings, maybe because her bladder is too full for her to move, I can negotiate this small intimacy.
In the afternoons, it is difficult for me to separate now and then. Obvious lines are drawn easily enough. Now there are trees and mountains and rivers and lakes; then there were shiny buildings and sparkling sidewalks. There were expanses of ocean that more often than not was of the color belonging to a midsummer storm, but still, and portending of something ineffable. Now, I complain about the weather that is regularly below freezing; then I kept quiet, afraid to scare off what little warmth I could find.
There are vague lines too. Then, I had my work to fill my days; now, I work at filling my days. This is what philosophers call a crisis of the supratemporal heart. My housemate is a senior at the college. Justin is a philosophy major. I know nothing about philosophy. Before I met Justin, I could not tell you, for instance, what a vague predicate is. But Justin explained to me how there are no absolutes, only endless continuums between all matter and that to the degree that each of us perceives matter’s position on a particular continuum more or less favors a particular absolute, which makes me think about which side of the life/death continuum I’m on. It also makes me wonder: If a chair bears a remarkable resemblance to a zucchini, is it still a chair? Alternatively, is it a zucchini that maybe feels like a chair, say? Justin says he’s thinking of moving to Montana to breed horses.
In the afternoons and when Justin is around, he and I get stoned and collude to cause mayhem. We think of elaborate heists. We spend hours planning the perfect crime, but just for kicks and to keep our minds sharp. We have one where we figure the perfect kidnapping. To make it fun as well as profitable, we decide to mark a freshman from a public and wealthy family that Justin will select after some covert reconnaissance ops involving a curvy secretary in undergraduate admissions. Because freshmen drink a lot and because their bodies have not built up the proper tolerance to alcohol, they are often passed out, and because the dorms where freshmen are required to live are easily accessed by ringing the buzzer and announcing, “Pizza,” we figure freshmen are easy marks.
The plan is simple. We will dress as squirrels. Because we live in the woods, these particular woods where the squirrels enjoy predominance, they have the run of the place. Every morning you can hear them feuding and everyone knows they are up to no good. A squirrel capper is very plausible.
We will fashion our disguises from actual squirrel pelts so that the evidence we leave behind will be strands and tufts of real squirrel fur. There is a genius to our costumes beyond their realistic squirrel-like exteriors; we will fit short stilts to our shoes that will leave small squirrel footprints in the mud; investigators will make and study plaster casts of tiny-clawed imprints and the search will be on for regular-sized squirrels, not enormous plushy squirrels. Justin says that our weight will leave deep impressions, that they will guess that our weight belies our size. I say that they will assume the weight to be that of the passed-out freshman that we are hefting.
We will drop copious nuts from pockets sewn into the lining of our disguises to further our subterfuge.
A handful of night dwellers—students, janitors, food service workers and others of questionable sobriety—will come forward only to corroborate our careful deception. Carried off by squirrels, they will say, and who is going to ask for a description at that point. Really. Everyone knows what a squirrel looks like. They were large squirrels, they will say, They were inconsistent with typical expectations of the size of a squirrel. All accounts will be dismissed, citing the pitiable deterioration of promising young minds made soupy by frequent inebriation.
We will keep our hostage freshman entertained in the basement of the house we share, which we will cleverly disguise as a frat house basement so that the freshman will feel both privileged to have been selected and bound by the unspoken rules of a secret society.
He will subsist on nuts and water from self-feeders we buy at the feed store.
We will demand that in large bills (because the authorities will be expecting us to request small bills, they will be caught unawares and will not have time to mark the large ones) to the crook of an old oak on the college green.
Justin says, —set free thousands of squirrels on the green. The squirrels will rush the oak, restocked with varietal nuts. The authorities will be overwhelmed with suspects, and we will slip in dressed as ourselves, and make off with the loot.
I think a series of squirrel-related escapades is in order. I am interested in the idea of a squirrel crime spree—every day a new Squirrel Land caper making headlines above the fold. Justin, sobering up, says he has to keep his grades up and his record clean.
Late afternoons are hardest. Justin goes off to classes or to write in the library, and I get insanely hungry and start to think about calling up old friends. And I have to be either profoundly high or profoundly bored to do this because there’s a lot of disappointment to be had when calling up people who are two thousand miles away and to whom you haven’t spoken since you drove away in a rage, mostly because (1) since I have nothing much new to report and no one is interested in my scheming, the conversations are generally one-sided, I ask questions and they say, “Oh, you know,” and (2) most are suspicious of my motives; they talk to me like my parents sometimes do when they think I want money. What I want is this: I want someone to tell me to come home, but no one ever does. They sometimes say, “You sound great,” and, “I really envy your relaxed lifestyle,” and occasionally even, “I worry about you.” Still, no one ever says, Come home.
I smoked an extra bowl last week; I inhaled some extra courage, called my best friend and said I had been thinking a lot lately about coming home. I said that I had burned so many bridges that I didn’t think I could. She was quiet for a while and then told me the weather was in a rut, having trouble maintaining a reasonable high. I know what it feels like to ask for a nickel and receive advice instead.
Sometimes I’ll tell someone how good it is to be away from the city, the commodity of self, the pricing and the selling of the soul, the pursuit of significantly priced inevitable obsolescences. I manufacture a new me and try it on to see if anyone else buys it. I say, “If you can’t get it for fewer than ten dollars, you don’t need it.” I tell them how much I pay for breakfast. They say, “Sounds idyllic,” and I can tell they are calculating their retirement and thinking how they might put a little more away each month so they won’t be forced to move to a small backwoods town like this. I say, “I don’t even lock my door.”
In the town where I live, everything is quaint, or antiquated, depending on your perspective. Even the necessary gas pump is full-service only, and you can say, Fill her up, then go inside for some groceries and put the whole thing on account, which means that they write your total on what looks like a card that would be in the front of a library book, and you don’t even have to sign for it.
In a town like this, you would think that everyone would know everybody’s name. But I don’t know many peoples’ names here because I mostly hang out, when I hang out at all, in the slightly bigger town across the river, and also because I don’t pay much attention when people say their names in the first place, and once they do, and if you haven’t been listening, it’s too late. Saying something then only means someone’s going to get hurt. When I go to the store and I say, Fill her up, and then go inside for some groceries and I say, Just put it on my account, and the girl at the checkout line does so without asking my name. I am thankful for the name tag she wears so I can say, Thanks Tiffany, and make myself believe she is none the wiser. Tiffany and I can continue to believe we are good friends.
The bigger town across the river comes with its own set of big-town worries. There is the matter of parking—which is not so readily available that you can just assume a spot in front of the post office or the bank or the coffee shop; you have to be prepared to circle the block as many as three times—which is also a matter of traffic management and which raises concerns about the larger issues of subsidizing the town’s income through metered parking versus raising taxes and of crowd control versus freedom of expression. All these things rear their beastly heads in the urban jungle.
Because big towns are big business between the hours of nine and five, I have to pay twenty-five cents per half hour to enjoy my $3.99 eggs with cheese and toast and coffee. I have to remember to factor into my budget at minimum an additional fifty cents for every daytime in-town activity. After 5 p.m., parking is a free-for-all and this brings out the population en masse. There is the traffic at 3 p.m. on School Street, when the public school lets out, and again at 5 p.m. at the intersection at South Main and College streets, where there might be as many as ten cars queued up because of the people getting off work and the people vying for free parking. There is always one of the five sheriff’s deputies standing in the intersection, busting gridlock, making sure that people don’t try to sneak through on the yellow light or turn right on the red. If you grow impatient and honk, the deputy shushes you with his insanely large index finger sheathed in form-enhancing Gore-Tex.
On warm summer nights, there is the problem of loitering, which can also be a problem of public drunkenness, under-aged drinking, and in many cases possession. Our reckless summers are documented in the police blotter, which runs twice as long in July as it does in, say, December.
21:12 Suspicious incident, 352 Descartes at W Goose Pond Road;
21:22 Suspicious activity, 352 Descartes at W Goose Pond Road;
21:36 Highly suspicious incident, 140 College Street near Headmaster Residence; subject tall, wearing gray hoodie
21:36 Suspicious incident, Heater Road nears the old Miller place; 22:22 Suspicious incident, School Street;
23:14 Suspicious incident(s)(?) 352 Descartes at W Goose Pond Road.
23:56 Wallet found on S Main Street,
—and our faith in basic human decency and that the wallet would be returned, (though less $40) is unshaken; we resolve to continue to believe in heroes and overlook minor deficits in their characters. If you aspire to small town heroism you can provide information that leads to the capture and arrest of anyone who is engaged in nefarious activities; you get twenty bucks, and the police net about $80 on average. We don’t perceive this as an inequity, we understand that nonviolent and uneventful crimes are big money makers for the town; they help pay to keep our rural streets safe at night.
Farther down Route 5, there is an even bigger though seldom occupied town that defeats the purpose of living in the woods: to get away from urban blight. It started out as just another small town, but they built a Miracle Mile lined with Supermarkets and then Megasupermarkets with themed produce sections that entertain as they freshen and crisp; they were soon joined by Superstores and then Megastores and then Supermegastores because there is no end to what we might need in bulk and at a hefty discount, and a Cineplex and a Long John Silver’s Family Seafood Restaurant that together provide a full evening of family fun—all of which has since been abandoned in favor of a new stretch of road with fast-food joints and ugly strip malls that sport stores that only sound like what you can find in the major urban center five hours south: Tracy’s and Sacks Route 5.
I drive to the even bigger town only when the town where I live or the bigger town across the river does not have what I need. Today I need fat pants. I need fat pants because I have put on weight for the winter. Here we say, Put on weight, because it sounds like we all mean to do it; like we eat extra in case we are caught out in the cold for days and have to survive off our extra and purposeful layers of fat. The even bigger town is home to three chains whose names are synonymous with some measure of quality: Gap, K-Mart and JC Penny. Shopping at the recognized chains means feeling like you have recourse should something go wrong. If the sales clerk can’t help you out, you can speak to the department head, and if the department head will have none of it, you can go to the assistant manager, then on to the actual manager and right on up through the ranks, right up to the CEO. You have appeals for days. You can appeal your case directly to the shareholders if you’re so inclined. Once you complain to Josephine at Josephine’s Pants, for instance, if you don’t like what she has to say, you’re all out of luck.
On the jeans wall in the Gap there are helpful signs designating cuts and sizes. There are charts that tell me that my new winter size, or any size even close, is available only online and not in stores, which starts to get me riled because I think that they are purposefully luring fat people away from public shopping venues and to their computers where they won’t embarrass any reasonably sized person with their discomfiting fat-person purchases. Then I see that there are plus-sizes on the top shelf. There is one pair of Hip-High Loose-Fit Boot-Cut Button-Fly Jeans in my size and I have to jump to reach them. I have to bounce several times on the balls of my feet to achieve significant height. I am wondering what they are thinking putting the fat pants on the top shelf. No one wants fat people jumping. No one.
I carry the ratty old pair that leaves red marks around my middle in a Gap bag and I wear my new fat pants out of the store, and I think that I am glad they were inexpensive because soon I will take up some physical activity that will allow me to fit back into my city clothes. Soon I will slip out of bed, eager to wear the Prada pants and the striped Dolce & Gabbana shirt. I will slip back into my old life and I will spend my days taking care to remember people’s names, to call them for dinner, to listen more, harder, to hold on to each word. I try to remember when I stopped liking people. I think it was when people stopped liking me.
I’ve had it with Marathon Santa. Marathon Santa lives about a quarter mile up the road. He is built like a bulldog with bowed powerful legs and a more powerful gut that he forces daily into layer upon layer of bright red and white body-hugging poly-warmth. Marathon Santa jogs—if you can even call it that since there is no urgency whatsoever involved in his efforts—back and forth along the road in front of the house I rent. He jogs every day all day long without regard for the weather. Marathon Santa jogs when it is ten below. Marathon Santa jogs when it is 80 degrees and 90 percent humidity; he does this with his red union suit rolled down to expose his great Santa belly. Marathon Santa is jogging when (if) I head out for breakfast. Marathon Santa is still at it when I’m looking out my kitchen window, waiting for the sun to set. He has, predictably, a white Santa beard, not neat and trim but long and scraggly and in which he stores, as I have observed closely on two occasions, various bits and pieces of roadside debris. He wears a cheap Walmart Santa hat that never leaves his sweaty Santa head.
It is the end of February and my holiday spirits have long since petered out and whenever I round the corner before the straightaway that leads to my driveway I think, If I see Marathon Santa, I’m going to run him down.
When you approach my street from Route 5 there are three state-issue signs stacked atop one another, each with helpful illustrations: At-Home Dog Trainer 1 3/10 miles, with a pictograph of a lively dog fetching a airborne stick; Relationship Specialist 1 2/10 miles, with a small heart encompassed in a circle that no one has yet thought to strike a line through, because that is not the sort of thing one does here, because vandalism is never funny; and Life Marathon Training 1 mile, with a drawing of a guy running—an icon that suggests your normal guy running. Do not be fooled—not by the commonplace iconography and not by the deceptive mileage markers; these are all Marathon Santa. Marathon Santa at once instructs people and their pets in matters of the heart, body, and psyche and, should you be driving down Route 5 with your pet or spouse or both and should you be suddenly in need of such services, how fortuitous that indicated here on the side of the road like food or shelter or gas you have options and can turn to your partner and say, Let’s stop in and see what the roadside Relationship Specialist has to say about your issues with monogamy.
Why Marathon Santa runs, jogs, walks, whatever, all day is a mystery to me. I would ask, but given the context of our two face-to-face meetings I am reluctant to encourage further communication.
Marathon Santa first came to my door in the fall just after the first big chill.
He said, The leach field’s bad.
He was rolling back and forth on his heels, giving off a Humpty-Dumpty air.
It was early when he jollied me out of bed, and I’m not used to people knocking on the door unannounced because people don’t drop by so much around these parts. I rubbed my eyes with both hands, my fists balled up, trying to get my engines running and said, Come again.
As it happens, there is a septic tank about one hundred yards from the house. Here Justin and I are more like family than housemates; here in this tank our lives commingle until, after some time and through the miracle of decomposition, all bad things become good again and our commingling escapes through the leach field and back to the water table from which a pump draws nice clean water that we use to brush our teeth and make coffee.
Marathon Santa came to my door looking like he had just been sleigh-jacked, burrs and twigs in his beard and tar on his hat, and telling me essentially that my shit stinks and that its stink was wafting up, over a hill, northerly, and down again one quarter mile, to stink up his property now that the temperature had dropped well below freezing—now when even as I could see the stink on him I could not smell it from only two feet away. I told him that I was renting but would pass the information on to the landlord. He responded by passing on a 10 minutes tutorial about septic systems and then waddled off down the driveway and back to the road.
Justin and I talked about the septic tank and the leach field that afternoon when we were stoned; once we sobered up, we couldn’t look each other in the eye for a week. Back home, I made typical use of my plumbing and never much thought twice about it; here I am forced to consider the subject at length.
Now Marathon Santa unceasingly waves to me. He waves like he is frustrated with me but must maintain appearances. I waved back for a couple of weeks until someone who called himself Selectman such and such, which because and I wasn’t really listening when he said his name so I had to stand there like a bad citizen, knocked on my door and asked where the septic tank was and I had to repeat the entire Marathon Santa story.
A week ago I was leaving for breakfast and Marathon Santa was peeling off layers of clothing at the bottom of my driveway. The weather had changed some, it was thirty-eight degrees, and that seemed like summer in comparison to the weather we’d been having so I was prepared to just let it go, meaning I was prepared to let up some on Marathon Santa in light of the weather’s reprieve. When I got to the bottom of the driveway he had folded up his red poly–fiberfill Michelin Man jacket and his red hooded sweatshirt and had placed them in a neat pile next to my mailbox. He was making the international sign for roll down your window. When I did, he leaned in and said that I shouldn’t park on the street because people sometimes really zip through here and they can’t see what’s coming around the corner. Which was good information, but irrelevant because I had not, ever, parked on the street—and, not that it was any of his business. I said as much, omitting the part about it not being his business, and he said, Sure, but just so you know. So I said, Okay, and took off for breakfast. By the time I reached Lovelane I had lost my appetite and turned around, and I had to watch Marathon Santa wave at me coming back, not even five minutes after my leaving, like my comings and goings on this street were finally starting to show some progress, like I might drive up and down the street all day with my window rolled down, Marathon Santa astride, the two of us discussing competitive rib roast prices advertised by each of the three major supermarket chains. I could see him jogging alongside me and wearing a smile, like this meant there was finally hope for kinship between us, and since then all I really want to do is run him down.
In the town where I live, there is Storytime every day at a quarter past five. Children are invited to dress in their PJs and join Master Storyteller Penny Pinkerton in the town library, where they will be read to and presumably lulled to sleep and then abruptly awakened only to be forced out into the subzero night air for the treacherous and slippery trip along icy roads home. I am tempted to attend Storytime in my PJs to help pass the time in the late afternoons. I wonder how such a thing would go over. I wonder if I fell asleep during Storytime if someone would sling me up on his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, like my father used to do, and if in the morning I would be home.
I can’t nap and this really sucks because napping is a good pastime. If I lie down in the middle of the day, my mind starts to race on repeat like an endless loop on an answering machine gone haywire, —I’m not home; leave a message. Beep. I’m not home; leave a message. Beep. I think about how I can never go home again, and then I get a buzzing sensation in my chest, and my limbs feel very weighted down, like all the blood in my body gave up on circulating and pooled in my shins and feet, my toes, my forearms and fingers, and it’s all very unpleasant.
I am hesitant to turn on the television before eight because as little as prime time television has to offer, the programming before prime time offers even less. When I think better of cold-calling old friends and when I cannot motivate myself to take on household chores or to make a meal, I pull the television up to the sofa and lie down for a look-see.
I subscribe to one movie package. This was the agreement I made with myself when I decided I needed satellite television but I also needed to mind my budget. Had I more perspective at the time I would have simply hooked up to the old antenna on top of the house and made do with movies at the local video store. But I did not have what perspective then that I have now, which is not to say that I would have it now if the situation presented itself again; I think I simply have lost perspective in a very broad sense. Occasionally the movie channels will come through with reasonably entertaining early evening fare. More often, they have scheduled, simultaneously on each of five pay-movie channels, five different and uniquely wrong-headed Molly Ringwald movies, or the like Provided the early-evening, adult content–oriented movie channel offerings do not feature such actors on par with Molly Ringwald, I can usually make safe passage to prime time.
If not I fidget. I wait for the TV to make the next move.
In the hours before prime time, I am reminded of all the reasons why I choose to live in the woods. In the woods, the Personal Investment Managers from Morgan Stanley do not pretend to care that I would one day like to retire to a warmer climate. In the woods, a cartoon cloud does not follow me around to remind me that I am depressed. Flowers do not grow from the frozen soil because I ask my doctor about Zoloft. I have had it with ads for erectile dysfunction. In the woods, erectile dysfunction is for pussies.
Once it’s dark, things seem more promising because a new day is coming on soon. I settle into the chair that I once tried to pitch out the window and I flip channels and marvel at my potential prime time agendas. I wonder who actually sits through the hour-long infomercials about home gyms or low-calorie cookers or cleaning products made with orange rind. I wonder if there is someone out there who watches for infomercials, who has seen them all several times, who recounts them to coworkers the next day over coffee or at parties: You know, I watched the George Foreman Grill Show again last night, and if you pay close attention during the second segment you can hear that he has a lot of insightful things to say about saturated fats and how they affect society as a whole; and that whole thing with the roasted chicken, it just gets funnier and funnier each time you watch it. I wonder: if Oprah has all the answers and if Jerry Springer has so many questions, why don’t they hook up. I wish Justin were around so I could ask him.
I wonder why any sane person would subject himself to such mind-numbing crap. Sometimes Survivor is on and I can’t help myself. I pull a pint of Ben and Jerry’s from the freezer and work on my waistline. While I watch television, I make plans. I plan for stories that I will write the following day. I plan for pancakes for breakfast and maybe a drive south to the major urban center for museums and shopping and general edification. I think I will take the dog for a walk if it is not snowing so she will not have to stare at the doorknob all day.