#102 – APPEALING PLACE
There were houses down near the rushing water that seemed to cling to the high river banks in dangerously unstable ways. And it also seemed that the houses like Aunt Betsy’s up above Littleton’s main street could easily teeter and fall down steep hills. And there was mystery everywhere. People living in trailers. Huge, dark, shuttered factories. Bars with pool tables. Even signs in French for non-English speakers across the nearby Canadian border – this place was in spirit so far from the Anglo white summer towns and so close to unknown worlds. Something as appealing as it was somehow illicit.
A forbidden fruit aspect to Littleton – something far out from the confines of our world. It had been exciting as a child to know that Gaga was so plugged into greater worlds that he had a personal relationship with Littleton’s old police chief. This as exciting as his tales of early mountaineers conquering Franconia Notch. If someone in the family wanted a driver’s license, it was known, Gaga could call the police chief and the license would be issued without a test, no questions asked. When the new cinema porn spread to the mountains at the start of the seventies it was the summer movie house in Bethlehem that showed the films of Russ Meyers and other nearly hard core artists, not Littleton itself. But the turn off for Bethlehem was on the way to Littleton. And Bethlehem, with its status as the White Mountains’ resort for Jews, was in itself another aspect of the foreign and the forbidden.
And it was to Littleton that Lenny, wanted on gun and shop-lifting charges, was removed from the city by Aunt Betsy who took the boy, and his sister to this house up behind the movie theater. The good son Rob was at MIT at this point, so he was too refined to sink into Littleton the way Lenny and Lauryn did – Lenny still an outlaw, perhaps the only person ever to be banned forever from the Profile Golf Club for non-racial reasons. He had barricaded himself there with a girl he had captured and forced to come with him. It was at this that led a judge to send him to the army.
Lauryn was the perfect little girl in the city. The perfect picture of a sweet Victorian girl whom everyone said was so lovely. Then she was taken with her brother up to Littleton , which ended her time in a fancy French school and as a budding ballet dancer. And at that point she had begun to shine brightly in ways outside family experence. She had done something no one else in the family had ever done. She had become an extremely popular, cheerleader and more, high school girl.
One of the things for which I had nostalgia though I had never seen it was American high school life. I had gotten a slight sense of it at debating tournaments. And in the movie Peyton Place I had been deeply moved by the pictures of New Hampshire high school life. Direct experience had been limited to ogling town girls in Plymouth when we were there for a basketball game with the local high school. Especially the flirty and smooth, perfect except for thick ankles, unlikely daughter of our physics and chemistry teacher, a man so steely and grim we called him Grim behind his back.
In Connecticut when home from boarding school in the summer I had lusted after high school girls in tight swim suits at Compo Beach. Especially a dark girl named Yvonne, who was the daughter of our maid’s husband and was involved with swarthy Italian boys. And in the summer I had lusted after sultry young Barbara Serafini who sashayed into Sugar Hill village in sun dresses that made her seem to me like a remote movie star. Her family owned property, including a big old house called the Homestead Inn that was at the turnoff up to the Sunset Hill House. It looked like something out of Currier & Ives, though the Homestead Inn was never mentioned as an acceptable place to stay. Was it the Italian family name? I never actually met Barbara. I could figure no way to bridge the divide.
The boarding school girls in summer were as pretty as the high school girls at Compo Beach. Kitty and Terri were really prettier. Ruthie and Louisa and Alice and Ann too in certain lights. But they were not quite forbidden fruit. The girls at Compo Beach were more like girls to be masturbated over while reading Erskine Caldwell novels – Darling Jill on a sweltering day holding on to Will by tightening her vagina after he had come, or a very young girl nude from the waste up except for a wispy wrap dancing at a deep South whorehouse. Or, for that matter, the pretty rounded French girl in de Maupesant who saves fellow coach travelers by having sexual intercourse with a Prussian officer, though afterwards the people she saves treat her with contempt. Books held a different kind of reality, maybe more real than any other. Maybe like high school girls in skimpy bathing suits.
One summer night when Lauryn was in her last year of high school I was making a rare visit, staying with Aunt Alice because the Farm House was full and by then there were no other Poole houses, I had helped her deal with her drunken boyfriend. He was a very local boy whose father had a heating business. We walked him to his house, less than a quarter mile away. We pushed him to his door. He bounced back. We pushed him to the door two more times, and finally he went in. And then Lauryn and I were outside on a warm night and suddenly she was up against me and we were kissing. And it was almost real, here with the prettiest girl in the Littleton high school, though I had turned 30 and was about to have one last affair in the city and then head off to what I suspected was the ultimate place of sex and beauty, Bangkok. The next day Lauryn said isn’t it funny that you drink a little and you can’t remember anything about the night? I said yes, true. This seemed to me a good way for both of us to get out of this one. So close to incest, this episode, though I told myself it was not technically incest since Lauryn was adopted.
Lenny had been away in the army. I had not given him a thought, though later I was sure he was never out of Lauryn’s mind.
#103 – BURGER KING GIRL
I stop at a Burger King on the strip in Rutland not far from where I found my car. This strip a regular people’s untidy place, not unlike Littleton, not far from tidy picture postcard versions of Vermont, which are not unlike White Mountains summer places. This bouncing, sandy haired, surely underage Burger King girl who serves me a bacon cheeseburger, a girl whose cute face is still a blank slate, flashes a coming-of-age smile that shoots me so far back in time that I can imagine myself going out with her, hay rides maybe, falling in love with her, planning a future with her, just as if I am 15, not 50, 15 and desperately in need of something in my life to transport me out of the trap I feel I am at in my second year, the 4th form year, in at an old-line boarding school. A school where I fight my destiny, which is to be at the bottom of the heap, and in a family in which my twin brother is their pride and I am expected to forever hold my place at the bottom wherever I am. And I am also trapped, as in school and family, in a country fallen under the sway of the swaggering senator Tailgate Gunner Joe McCarthy – whom I know all about now that I am rising in the school by becoming a champion on the debating circuit. McCarthy and the pretentious bully Douglas Macarthur, that ambitious, trigger-happy old general whom reactionaries up here in New Hampshire think should be president instead of Truman.
I can be so angry. Though cutting through family, school and country are Keats and Wordsworth and Thomas Wolfe and the sight and smell of fields and woods, the nostalgic northern birds cries, the fresh water ponds, mud and ice and all, and the northern rivers clear and sometimes foamy beneath old bridges – and Pattie down with girls form her all-girls boarding school, our sister school, for a joint glee club concert at the stolid but humble Plymouth State Teachers’ College – in the summers the Gibbs and Grout girls in the White Mountains, Kitty still someone out of dreams of a glorious future. Am I frozen in that time?
Or in all time? Here in Rutland one of the friends of Peter and Julie I am using as my friends is a cheerful woman who works in Washington for Senator Leahy and swears that 1986 is the year they are going to win the Senate back from the Reagan-dominated Republican party – the Republicans who, long before they became the Reagan party of racists, gave us McCarthy and Macarthur. And next week the hero Daniel Berrigan is going to be at an all-day rally at a small Benedictine place on a hill in central Vermont. Reagan and Berrigan, like in these battles I was fighting when I was 15.
Remembering now, as I drive, Pattie, Kitty, and my debating trophies and the gang that liked me in the summers. And girlfriends down through the years, and a recent wife. And also all the times alone. Like this time driving this entertaining car up and down and around the Vermont hills in lush summertime.
I see a girl in a Burger King who is so like what I find in time travel, and this girl looks me in the eye and smiles. And I wonder if any other times were as full of hope as this time. As I drive and listen to music I have missed in this car that is coming to feel like a machine for time travel. Hope based on what? Though I am convinced I am in a second life, much of what I look for is still in haze. The hope maybe flowing from my recent discovery that I am not alone in needing to know what happened in the distant past. What happened and why. Go right into it and find out what is there.
What a year this has been. And also, I am alone so much this summer in the car.
That girl in the Burger King – the same age as Patti and Kitty when I met them, one a girl for the summer and maybe forever, the other a girl briefly for the long winters – all of it a construction so fragile, so on the edge of there being nothing or no one at all.
#104 – MOUNTAIN TOP
Dad and Uncle Nick and Peter and I rose before dawn the morning after hiking – with snacks for us and a flask of whisky for our elders – all the way up to the Greenleaf Hut at the timberline on Mount Lafayette – the highest mountain in the Franconia range – the official view of which was seen so clearly from White Pines out past the long, horizontal pained class window that followed the line of the long dining table, and out past graceful French doors that followed the formal sitting room end of the great room – through the French doors and outside among white bird baths and trellises on a perfect narrow lawn that ended at boulders laced with iron ore, and then after the boulders a thick, prickly wild blueberry field that ended at, still with no humans in sight, the deep woods my grandparents actually owned. That they owned the woods I had checked on some years back when helping a criminal lawyer coach a young cousin. Those woods that led to the grand mountains.
In the early morning we walked from the Greenleaf hut on a steep pathway up through rocks and scrub pine, carrying with us a small mirror. At the summit, under the direction of Dad and Uncle Nick, who had been doing it since they themselves were children, Peter and I tried turning the mirror in ways that maybe it would send flashes of light that could be seen as far away as at White Pines itself. Whether our small mirror worked, the wall mirror Gaga brought through the French doors at a prearranged time certainly did – great flashes of white light from the valley, like some sort of annunciation.
#105 – THE KILLINGTON ROAD
We go to dinner at a restaurant on the road up Mount Killington to its ski lifts. This ugly tourist road. I have been seeing it as I drive by in the daytime – a violent slash up the lower part of this still, despite bars and restaurants, somewhat green mountain, that becomes less green further up with all its violent ski trail slashes. When Peter had first been in Rutland, which was after his divorce in the city, he had been living in a very old commercial travelers hotel, filled with sixties kids and vagabonds, in the middle of town. He had worked as a busboy on the Killington road at a place called The Wobbly Barn, which was a very sixties bar-restaurant-night club where everyone was on drugs or drunk or both, right here in rural new England. I had driven up one weekend in 1970 with his stepbrother Jason, and so knew the drug and booze part as an insider. And now after Peter’s years in AA, his achievements in writing, his time as director of a state alcoholism clinic, his years doing PR for the Vermont state Fair, now a certified citizen, married again, married as well as published. Back now on the Killington road. Peter, his current wife Julie and I are here not at the Wobbly Barn, though it still exists. Instead we are in a dark restaurant with a Swiss or German motif eating rubber shrimp and salad made of wilted leaves, the kind of place that has sad stuffed animal heads on its wall, also a fireplace with flames coming from a gas jet behind in a fake log.
I keep excusing myself to go outside and breath the mountain air, breath deep, remembering who I am and why I am here, wanting to get in every moment of mountain time. Remembering mountain nights in the deep past with this cool air that already in August has the long winter in it.
Remembering actual time in mountains in the past – summers in northern New Hampshire with air so like this air outside the restaurant – mountains in other places – Slovenia and Turkey and northern Borneo, that had this air too. And remembering how I have this year been going over past times, stepping into the deepest parts of the past – the parts I had thought at every stage were not worth even thinking about.
It is like death to me inside that grim restaurant, while here outside in moonlight is the possibility of anything I want. I wonder if I am not just riding on Peter and Julie’s life up here, and I am getting increasingly impatient. And I think of the ridiculous transactional therapy with which he and Julie and all their friends are involved. And that they joined a study group devoted the Road Less Traveled, as if it were revealed scripture (not that I believed in any scripture). And they make fun of their cat for being so fat – like the way a schoolyard bully might make fun of a fat kid. And the morning of Julie’s 50th birthday a few days ago Peter was making fun of her for being eligible to join AARP. I am building up a case against my old friend, almost as if he is one of the villainous people of my past whom I now verbally attack.
I want to stay out here in the August mountain cool, look at the upper reaches of Killington in the moonlight, look at the moon. It is hard to breathe inside.
#106 – SOMETHING THAT IS LIKE SOMETHING
Standing there as if suspended in time, there in cool night air on the Killington Road with its touristy businesses, like that faux alpine place with bad food and stuffed heads of murdered animals – though I will have to get back for my friends think I have only gone to the men’s room. But I am standing under a clear sky, stars such as I never see in the cities I live in, a crescent moon in a cradle configuration, the scent of pine and other growing things in crisp clear air, which has winter in it already though we are in August, air that is filled with memory – including, if I search, memories of other mountain places, lonely Kinabalu in northern Borneo, the scruffy Julian Alps in Slovenia, the strangely refreshing Taurus mountains rising out of the dust of Anatolia – places where I have had moments breathing in something like such air.
This unique air that members of the old guard over in the summer communities of the White Mountains said was just like Switzerland – which to a point it was but they went beyond that point and said that in the White Mountains you could just as well be in Switzerland, these stark granite mountains with their avalanche scars and ski trail scars rising out of almost impossible to farm rocky farm land, most of it taken over by woods now, New Hampshire the opposite of Vermont, barely able to support agriculture, which was why it seemed so clear to me that, as outsiders had said, New Hampshire was right wing and cruel where Vermont was liberal and comforting, for New Hampshire was a place where you had to live by your wits, which meant a good deal of trickery in the name of Yankee shrewdness, trickery and lying and cruel anti-everything-except-us discrimination. This bare bones life by devious means being so admired by the old guard in the summer towns, who were mostly people who might hold jobs but were so far from the bare bones life they admired that they were also living on inherited wealth. And nothing in the White Mountains was tidy and cared for like the protected, also wild but basically man-made, landscapes in Switzerland.
Those friends of my grandparents. Those peers of my parents. And what about my own peers, the ones who were young over in the White Mountains when I was young there too, they had seemed so different, but from a distance I heard about people my age who went back, the only change from past generations being that those in mine tended to live in their winterized summer places all year round now that they had found they were not suited to the outside world.
This air. My youth. I see lonely headlights, a car coming down Killington, which strangely seems to mean hope. It has only recently occurred to me that though I have by this point lived in so many distant parts of the world it has always been in cities, never in countryside – maybe a stilt house on a tropical river but a river in Bangkok, maybe a little island-style white-washed house reached by old hillside paths, but that house only being like an island house for it was right in the middle of the old part of Athens. These and all the other places – from awful Beirut to even worse Luanda – much better Havana to much better Cairo. All of them cities. Why just cities?
The thought oozes in that maybe it is fear.
What was I afraid of?
My only experience with living in countryside was in childhood.
Here I am, I think, out here on the Killington Road just to breath the air, here I am moving back and back in time. Like something was lost back then, and for the first time since very young I am in countryside again – like I have moved back in time. Like a second chance.
#107 – ALONE AGAIN
And still in these days driving alone in Vermont I always keep in mind what was over in New Hampshire, where I know I have to go to follow the mystery of what went on back in that apparently sun-shiny place that might be tied to the darkness that became apparent years later – the bad ends these cousins of mine were coming to – and my late father and late uncle and still living mother and aunts as well, though it was easier to keep the failures of another generation at a distance than it was the failures in my own generation – like Margaret’s brother Fitz John, one of the favored ones, the family’s only Eagle Scout, who had kept being thrown out of places, Exeter, then Williams, for rather large scale thievery, and he seemed on the surface much like how everything in his mother’s house in Scarsdale seemed , as if put in place by Martha Stewart.
And I kept driving, and I kept stopping at those small state parks with lakes for swimming that were never more than a couple of hours apart, and I kept on going over to the that riding ring above Castleton for lessons in Western style riding from a raw-edge young woman in a family of people devoted to the little known world of competitive rodeos in Northeastern states. I kept going to the two big art galleries, the one in Rutland and the other to the south, still hoping, should I stay on here, that there would be more than sentimental barn paintings to sustain me.
And I thought of how in those wild meetings in Manhattan people had picked up on what on what a full, adventurous life I had had till now – and I wondered that I had hardly said a word about all the times I had been by myself, wandering the streets of lonely cities, often places where I did not speak the language. And I thought of the times I had thought I was in love, as well as the times between shallow relationships.
And I kept bringing myself back to my mission that was bring me so much life now, and so in my thoughts drifting to the past again and again between these trips I was making over to the White Mountains. And sometimes in my thoughts the White Mountains part would sometimes almost drift away, and I would be other places at other ages, not just the exotic lands I had chosen but often back in Weston, Connecticut, which I had recently looked in on in its current form as a tidy and costly rich man’s suburb. I would be there in my mind when it was still a basically New England town. When most of the men were not commuters, in fact most worked locally on small farms or places that were partial farms, on town road crews, and as journeymen small businessmen who built things and installed things and were paid to take care of what they had put in place.
And I was back in the World War II time when my parents became virtual farmers, the world’s least likely farmers, in order, they said, to get around food rationing, but now I wondered if they didn’t also have dreams not unlike the dreams my brother and I had once had of becoming such regular people that we might even be able to be farmers – farmers if our fantasy of running a log inn on a woodland road did not play out. For surely rationing had not been that tight an affair. We used to drive all the way up to New Hampshire in the green Plymouth convertible each summer, so gas rationing, anyway, could not be as strict as it sounded in the adults' complaints.
#108 – THE PIT
In that year Peter and I turned 11 and were plotting our return to Connecticut in our room on the 6th floor at 124 East 84th Street. This strange year when we had been uprooted from Connecticut again. The last time it had been to go down to a decaying resort in Florida for six moths , with Mother and Grandmother Clark but without Dad. No explanation then, and no explanation now beyond that living in the country was too hard for Mother and she needed a year off in the city. Peter and I prided ourselves on being country people. In Florida they had forgotten about us, and not even tried to get us into a school, and though peter read schoolbooks anyway, I wandered like a vagabond, my uncut hair bleached nearly white, though jungles and citrus groves.
And now this year they did just the opposite, forcing us into an Anglophile private school called Allen-Stevenson down on 78th street where Dad himself has been forced to go many years back. Our public school in Connecticut, in a sparkling building surrounded by woods, had been just the opposite of this new place. Because, they said, of ideas circulating by someone named Dewey – which strangely was also the name of our Negro handyman and chauffeur – there was no homework. We stayed in the same room all day, a place with students’ art work everywhere. As likely as a session on spelling would be a session on moving to music or finger painting. Each room had a big mural of hearty workers and farmers walking into what someone said was meant to be a socialist future. Something to do with Roosevelt and the dread depression, about which they kept complaining even when it was over. But now in the city we were marched, each time harsh electric bells rang, into different old dusty schoolrooms with old rutted desks bolted to the floor and harsh, foul breath disciplinarians who were constantly punishing me or ridiculing me because I could not understand Latin, or much of anything else. And we had to wear neckties and blazers and scratchy gray flannels. And after school, when in Connecticut we might do to some unsupervised, vaguely boy Scout event, or more like just roam, the boys in this all boys New York horror place put on comic opera uniforms of an organization called the Knickerbocker Grays and leave us behind to go off to an armor, sporting medals and always swords, to do some high society military marching thing or something.
So we were far away from what we had known – and in some ways not nearly far enough. Mysteriously, our grandparents Gaga and Nana, and their pretty daughter Betsy and her infant son Robin moved into an identical apartment on the 4th floor . Up in ours on the 6rh, where Peter and I had a room and Mother and Dad a bigger, room, and there was a fairly big room too for mother’s Southern mother, grandmother Clark, who made fun of the colored women who came to cook and clean, and made sure they gave us grits and okra with our meals.
And then more confusion. We had had nothing resembling sex education from school or home, though somehow we knew there was something very deep going on when we were up against girls, which of course we were in Connecticut. But there were no girls in this school we were in, no women teachers even. Which increased the longing for I did not know exactly what.
But a feature of our room was that it was on a direct line with the 6h floor in a building across the street where a very pretty, happy looking long haired woman, almost an adult, would lean on a window sill, lean out so she was partway through the open window, and she would smile, looking so happy there with practically with no clothes on. I had a reverie that went way beyond the dreams about getting back to the country. It did not even seem like a dream. A sweetly smooth and tanned naked girl, sweat running down her body, was on a ladder climbing up into the sunlight from a deep pit where fires raged.