“Courage!”

November 3rd, 2010 — 9:31am

Those two syllables can mean anything from braving the freezing wastes of Antarctica, the airless heights of Everest or the massed rifles of an invading army to telling a friend he has halitosis. In my case, it recently manifested as driving all the way from Montpelier to our urban home in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. In my own car. Into the corporate limits of New York City. By myself.

It could have been a lot worse. I chose a slack time of day, by New York standards, and didn’t cross the line into the borough of Manhattan, which in my fantasy would have resulted in being instantly crushed like a bug.  It wasn’t much different, and perhaps not even worse, than driving in Boston, where the highways are largely populated by escapees from the Danvers Asylum for the Criminally Insane. And I’ve been doing that without incident for a couple of decades now.

The only thing we country bumpkins really need to know about driving in the Big Apple is that New Yorkers are used to cramming themselves into really small spaces due to ridiculous real estate prices. This compacting skill and inclination extends to the interstices between other people’s cars on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Also, being laconic by nature and fanatical about privacy, they see no reason to signal that they’re about to merge into the 18-inch space between your Prius, whose frontal dimensions you have never completely grasped, and the back of the Urban Assault Vehicle ahead of you (humongous SUV’s being the one exception to the cramming-self-into-small-spaces pattern of Gotham living. Where in God’s name do they park these things?).

I’ve always had something of a dodgy relationship to driving, if you’ll pardon the expression. Being raised in Scotland in a Council housing scheme where nobody could afford a car, I’d taken a series of buses to school every day and rarely had the privilege of riding in an actual automobile. When we emigrated to America, where cars were as much of a necessity as a roof over one’s head, the era of the four-wheeled dinosaur was still in full flower, and our family’s early autos were land yachts that would require two parking spaces by today’s standards.

I was in no hurry to learn to drive; we could only afford one car and my father needed it to get to work, so I wasn’t likely to get much time with it, and there just wasn’t the tradition in Scotland of equating a driver’s license with all the freedoms of adulthood.

I finally got my license when I was nineteen and, while trying to pick my way down a narrow street over sophomore-year Christmas vacation, plowed my dad’s giant beige Dodge Polara, Moby Dick, into a line of cars belonging to a group of partygoers at a nearby mansion. Thankfully, they were too liquored up to mind a great deal, and this being Virginia, were downright gracious about making sure I wasn’t too traumatized by the event. They even offered me some spiked eggnog to help me calm down , which I was wise enough to refuse in case the cops were eventually called in.

Moving to Vermont and living on a steep, windy hill produced a new kind of driving panic: dealing with winter. My first car, given to my spouse as a graduation present, was a rear-wheel-drive sedan with no traction to speak of. On one hideously memorable occasion I did a one-eighty on Route 2 coming into Waterbury; on another, only a miracle saved me from wiping out the Volkswagen bug ahead of me when I lost control on an icy hill.

I joined a vanpool and resolutely refused ever to take a turn driving the van (which was frequently piloted by a pool member we named “Mad Dog,” who enjoyed reading the morning paper as he drove).

Eventually, after one or two more black-ice incidents that caused my insurance carrier to cancel on me, I learned to deal with Vermont winters and moved on to cars that could handle them. Urban traffic is something else altogether, a Darwinian game of chicken in which polite deference can be fatal.

Add to the congestion the complications of New York City’s so-called “alternate-side parking” rules. On the streets that surround our Brooklyn aerie, there are red-and-white signs that tell you when you have to move your car from its hard-fought-for parking space for street sweeping. On our stretch, it’s 8:30 to 11:30 on Tuesdays. On the next block, it’s Thursdays.

The good news is that they suspend these rules, as duly reported on all the local radio stations, for practically any occasion you can think of. In the week of November 1, for instance, there are suspensions for All Saints’ Day, Election Day, and Diwali, which I learned is the Hindu festival of lights. So if you work it right, as I did recently by moving the car from the Thursday street to our Tuesday street, you can leave your car in a given spot indefinitely.

People in New York actually drive their cars to work and to stores and other things we use them for in Vermont. My hat is off to them. Maybe some day I’ll even venture out in between journeys to and from our two residences; the Brooklyn Bridge seems like the ultimate test to me. But then I’d have to find a parking space in Manhattan, and that would take a level of courage I’ve yet to attain.

Comment » | Brooklyn

Joys of the ‘Hood

September 16th, 2010 — 12:23pm

Finding our home away from home in Brooklyn

The narrow, dim stairway, smelling faintly of roach spray, loomed straight up for three floors like a Hitchcock movie. Following Wayne and the landlord’s mother up the stairs, I caught my husband’s eye and gave him a thumbs-down. The prospect of humping groceries and laundry up that endless staircase was too daunting to contemplate.

One more flight led to the apartment we’d come to see, a one-bedroom on the top floor that Wayne had spotted on Craigslist. I’d given up on that site myself after a couple of phone calls with guys who sounded like Ukrainian pornographers, but even working with the ubiquitous local realtors, who also handled rentals, hadn’t got us far.

The first surprise was all the light flooding in from big southeast-facing windows. The appliances were new—not fancy models, but gleaming like the fresh paint on the walls. The rent was half again as much as our Montpelier mortgage, i.e., reasonable by New York standards.

Then there was the bedroom—unlike most of the glorified closets we’d seen, big enough to hold both our bed and a dresser and still leave room to walk around. From the roof you could see the skyscrapers of Manhattan, Lady Liberty, and the Coney Island parachute jump—a 360-degree view.

We told the landlord’s mom we’d get back to her. Back on the street, the sky, which had been darkening steadily, let loose in torrents. Caught without raingear, we ducked into the nearest storefront along with half of the neighborhood and were wafted off our feet on fumes of garlic, sesame, and lox. We’d stumbled upon Terrace Bagels, rated by the New York Times as one of the six best bagel bakeries in all of metro New York. That did it.

Windsor Terrace, unknown to us until two years ago, is a wedge of streets in northwest Brooklyn between Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery, which is almost as big as the Park and arguably more decorative. (Green-Wood is the final home of such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Boss Tweed.)

With brick and frame rowhouses, modest by New York standards, and lines of four-story buildings with apartments above and shops below fronting its three-block-long commercial hub on Prospect Park West, the Terrace is one of the highest points in Brooklyn. That’s a bit like saying it’s one of the highest points in Amsterdam. Like neighboring Manhattan, Brooklyn was first settled by the Dutch; known as Brueckelen in those days, its low-lying swampiness must have seemed comfortably familiar.

We’d spent our first New York year sharing a huge co-op apartment overlooking the Brooklyn Museum and the Botanic Garden with its owner. It was a bit like living with your mom, except that Mom in this case was a lively African-American woman in her mid-70s who’d known everyone from Alvin Ailey to W.E.B. Du Bois and had been married to a Namibian freedom fighter. With a subway entrance close enough to swan-dive into, it was very convenient, but the trains rumbled beneath us 24/7, orange sodium lights burned on the Museum, and the yobs on their crotch rockets, zooming down the parkway at 2 a.m. like a bunch of angry hornets, got in the way of sleep. The rent was too high, especially for a place that never really felt like our own. Virginia Woolf is onto something.

We focused our search at first on Park Slope,  a neighborhood of large, genteel brownstones on tree-lined streets sloping gently down west of Prospect Park. However, we were daunted by stratospheric rents and the hordes of narcissists-by-proxy bowling pedestrians aside as they pushed their Harvard-bound progeny down the sidewalks in strollers which gave new meaning to the term Urban Assault Vehicle. Park Slope, we learned, is where Manhattan bond traders go to breed.

Nearby Windsor Terrace has a looser, slightly scruffier working-class vibe, with people of all shapes, ages and colors living over the Korean groceries and ethnic restaurants. Hispanic kids on trikes chase each other around the sidewalks on warm nights, watched over by groups of chatting parents. There’s a huge Catholic church painted pink inside, an Irish pub that only has Bud and Bud Light on draft, a New Zealand meat pie shop where the artsier young folks like to hang. Farrell’s, the pub, didn’t allow women until sometime in the 70s when Shirley MacLaine stopped by and nobody had the nerve to throw her out.

You can eat cheap in Windsor Terrace. Joe’s Pizza (whose else?) has huge pizza slices for three bucks, and you can get five killer garlic knots for a dollar. Or for a recovering Brit like myself, indulge in a steak-and-kidney pie from Dub Pies for five bucks and change.

Our own favorite watering-hole is tucked away down a side street. Rhythm ‘n’ Booze (I am not making that up) is the last refuge of the genial Italian and Irish geezers who used to own the neighborhood. “What can I get yese?” asks the slender, dark-haired waitress from Antrim. It’ll often be a perfectly done pair of pork chops or a generous slab of grilled salmon, for half of what you’d pay in Manhattan. Accompanied, of course, by a fresh pint of Brooklyn Lager, brewed in nearby Williamsburg by people who know what they’re doing.

On weekends when I’m in town, we go for walks in the Park, threading our way between softball games on the Great Lawn, watching the dogs chase ducks in their very own swimming pond. Sometimes we do takeout for dinner and go up on the roof to watch the green lights twinkle on the Verrazano Bridge.

Windsor Terrace isn’t a perfect neighborhood. Graffiti disfigure many of the rolling steel shutters that hide store and restaurant windows at night. On weekends before the Monday pickup, trash spills over the sidewalk bins and flies around in the street. Many of the stores and restaurants only take cash; the ATM charges mount up. And I do use the word “schlep” more often lately, especially when that three-story staircase looms and I have a full suitcase or a bulging laundry bag. But it’s friendly and quiet and real, and less than forty-five minutes from Broadway, and when I’m there, it feels like home.

1 comment » | Brooklyn

A MODEST PROPOSAL

September 16th, 2010 — 11:19am

People who think manufacturing or high technology drives Vermont’s economy are way off base. As anyone knows who has driven down Route 12 on Labor Day weekend, it’s yard sales. One runs a veritable gauntlet of them on every major roadway from the first nice weekend in April to the last one in early November—not just yards, but garages and barns and fire halls and churches too.

In addition to being a basic industry, the sale of unwanted junk is a major component of Vermont’s tourist economy: witness the annual Chelsea Flea Market, when the entire population of that shire town, along with associated out-of-town and flatland hustlers, lines Route 110 and both Town Greens with aluminum folding tables with wonky legs, and sets out to extract maximum revenue from whatever they are eager to be rid of: one-armed dolls, canning jars without lids, polyester doubleknit pants in lime green and burnt orange, those thick cheap vases in which you get arrangements from the florist when you’re in the hospital, crockpots, espresso makers missing a key valve, salad spinners in various stages of grunge, dolls in garish crochet dresses that fit over rolls of toilet-paper, Brady Bunch lunchboxes, and dot-matrix computer printers.

They’re getting more and more prevalent, and more desperate. Witness the pathetic and ubiquitous little piles at the corners of lawns all over the state, topped with a piece of corrugated cardboard sporting a big “Free” in Magic Marker capitals, without which they would be mistaken for items left out for the Casella pickup, which is where most of it will end up eventually.

A number of key demographic trends are driving this phenomenon and, by inference, the rise of eBay and the decline in America’s traditional retail economy over the last decade or so. Simply put: the majority of the population has reached an age at which we have too much stuff. Baby boomers have peaked in their “wealth-building” years (also known as their stuff-accumulating years). Many are looking to de-clutter and simplify their lives in a quest for spiritual purity. In this they are hampered by the determination and cunning of their aged relatives who are downsizing into assisted-living facilities and senior housing.

My mother, for example, routinely presents me when I visit with cardboard boxes, tied up with string and package-taped to withstand earthquakes, whose contents she refuses to divulge. “They’re just a few wee things I thought you’d like to have,” she says, all Scottish-American innocence. “I could always throw them away, but they belonged to your grandmother…” These I will open at home to find such heirlooms as a holey pair of my grandfather’s socks and a few of my grandmother’s Kleenexes, mostly unused. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one.

I’d better confess right here that I have a hard time passing a yard sale by. Every now and then, there’s something amazing that you feel sick just to think of having missed—the ultimate score. A sleek black leather jacket that I wear on my forays to Brooklyn comes to mind. A barely-worn full-length mink which I presented to my mother on her 80th birthday, thereby fulfilling one of her life-long fantasies. A Balans chair knockoff that’s kept me from repeat back surgery. Worth every nickel, all of them.

Multiply my situation by a few score of millions, and you have the great American stuff surplus. It doesn’t help that dollar stores are now blighting the landscape with an unending supply of cheap Chinese-produced tchotchkes and enough plasticware to have solved the energy crisis had the oil from which they were made been used for fuel instead of feedstocks. The seductiveness of “look what you can get for only a buck!” has done its part to clutter the basements and garages of Vermont.

Apropos of which, I think I’ve got an answer to the problem of rising energy costs, diminishing fossil fuel supplies, and the imminent demise of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. I need to preface this by noting that I yield to no man in my bibliomania—my house is at structural risk from the groaning contents of its bookcases— and I was far more creeped out by the Nazi book-burning scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” than even the infamous “Why did it have to be snakes?” from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

That said, I think the solution to Vermont’s energy shortages lies in the combustion of possessions which people have tried in vain to offload at yard sales. Chief among them: Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Honestly, have you ever seen even the most fanatical yard-sale vulture buy one of these? Yet there they are, on the lawns of every participant in Montpelier’s annual Liberty Street Yard Sale—piles of them in cardboard boxes with the flaps torn off, or stacked on the shelf of a scratched and dangerously tipsy wooden bookcase with “$5.00” scrawled in Flair pen on a piece of masking tape. “I’ll throw in the books for free,” the owner says half-heartedly, knowing the attempt to delegate his trash-disposal dilemma will be in vain.

Could even the most devoted literacy crusader mourn the fiery demise of the condensed works of Frances Parkinson Keyes and Louis Bromfield, or even the archetypally Victorian poetical works of Felicia Hemans (she of “The boy stood on the burning deck”),  particularly if the binding is mildewed to blackness from years in a damp corner of the cow-barn? Come on—I’m waiting. I’m not hearing any shrieks of protest. There—I thought not.

Near-infinite as the supply of these blights on the literary landscape seems, they’d need supplementation to constitute a reliable energy supply, which brings me to National Geographics. As eerily well-preserved as the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the Picture of Dorian Gray, or George Hamilton, they blind you with their taxicab-yellow glossiness in piles on a dusty old school-desk, glow in the web-thickened dark of barn shelves, and sit solid as brick walls in the aforementioned flapless cardboard boxes. No one wants them, but no one can bear to throw them out. There’s no question they have cool pictures, especially those that date from more innocent times when the only acceptable way to depict the naked human breast photographically was jiggling amid the beads and cowrie shells of African tribal dancers. This is also how most of us learned about the aesthetic and medical peril of Cooper’s Droop.

But if you really want them, you can get all the back issues of National Geographic on DVD—my husband has them, so I know this is true—so why not put all that slick biomass to some socially useful purpose? Burn ‘em, I say, along with the Reader’s Digest Condenseds and the cat-clawed cottage-square afghans in colors no one can stand to be around (purple, brown and mustard yellow—what was she thinking?) and the one, battered brown lace-up shoe, and whatever other combustibles are left over from yard sales and failed attempts at edge-of-the-lawn giveaways.

The economic development folks and the utilities should go for this too. There are jobs to be had, for roving fuel-gatherers with trucks and scales who’d pay the hapless yard-salers by the pound for such leftovers from their retailing efforts as can be made to yield up heat and motive power. Their trucks could carry a logo like “Shoes for Industry,” as the old Firesign Theater routine once proclaimed. And the state’s inventors could get busy developing chippers, shredders and pelletizers that can handle multiple materials, from mildewed book stock to polyester doubleknit.

Well, shoes might take a little gasoline for starter, but there’s heat and the promise of energy independence for our brave little state in them thar items, along with the afghans and the National Geographics and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and the back issues of U.S. News and World Report and AgriView and the stained polyester napkin-and-tablecloth set that’s seen one too many Thanksgivings and the bottomless cane-seated chairs so rickety and dried out there isn’t a hope they’ll ever again support a human tush.

And with all due respect to Central Vermont Public Service, they all smell a lot better than cow-poop.

Comment » | Vermont and Brooklyn

Heron Island

September 16th, 2010 — 10:37am

Worker protests, unbridled capitalist greed and the specter of international terrorism shadow the sunlit summer of 1903 in an America still reeling from a President’s murder by an avowed anarchist.

Widowed Rough Rider and Shakespearean actor Dade Wyatt longs to cast off the shadows of his own past and retreat to a quiet life as a security operative for pulp and paper tycoon Warren Dodge. But when Dodge’s plans to host Wyatt’s old commander, President Teddy Roosevelt, on his idyllic Vermont estate are imperiled by a guest’s mysterious death, Wyatt must descend into a maelstrom of desperate poverty, anarchy and class war to safeguard the President and bring a killer to justice.

Chapter 1

The boat gliding southeast from Heron Island to the Vermont shore might have held a courting couple out for a Saturday excursion, the woman reclining under a lacy parasol in the stern, the man pulling steadily and evenly on the oars.

“But, Mr. Wyatt, surely I can persuade you to join us for the ceremony?” Mrs. Van Dorn’s tone was half entreaty, half protest.

The oarsman paused, the lines of his arm muscles softening. His dark eyes met her china-blue gaze.

“You’re very kind—but I promised Mr. Dodge a game of chess when I get back, and he is so rarely at leisure.” A slight, apologetic lift of one shoulder. “One wants to be a good guest.”

She leaned towards him, letting the shade of her hat-brim deepen the blue of her eyes. “I’m sure Warren would understand—don’t you want to see the new steamer?”

It was a perfect midsummer afternoon, the sky blue as a flag, dabbed with just enough cloud-fluff for decoration. Tiny wavelets danced on the surface of the lake’s darker blue. The Vermont III would be the largest steamer ever launched on Lake Champlain, and there was to be a band concert in Burlington afterwards.

Wyatt bent again to his oars.  “I’ll hope to have a ride on it before the summer’s out.  I’m sure you and Mr. Van Dorn will have a fine time.”

The rebuff stung, though gently delivered.  It almost spoiled the small victory of getting more than ten words out of him after a campaign of five days, an effort that must end with her husband’s imminent arrival.  She settled back among the silk cushions and let her gaze wander from the honey-colored ribs of the Adirondack boat, rolling slightly from her movement, to the play of muscle along Wyatt’s shoulders and arms.

A week’s sun had bronzed the cheekbones of his long face, and with the thick, dark mustache bracketing a wide, well-shaped mouth, he could pass for a pirate, or a lawman of the Wild West. Her mind’s eye pinned a sheriff’s star on his collarless white shirt, replaced the boater which shaded his eyes with a gray Stetson.

The Van Dorns often socialized with the Dodges back in the City, but this was their first invitation to Dodge’s private island with its newly built Camp. Her husband Gerald, a genial, portly merchant banker at Morgan’s, was to join her by train from New York. The company of Mr. Dade Wyatt, mannerly but laconic and thereby fascinating, had driven all thought of Gerald from her head. But the object of imagination and curiosity was not yet to be drawn out, and the shoreline was fast approaching.

“You will be here for Mr. Roosevelt’s visit, won’t you, Mr. Wyatt?”

The President had accepted an invitation to Heron Island for a few days in August, drawn by the promise of bird watching in the cool Vermont air and by a generational debt to his host, Warren Dodge, whose late father, a pulp and paper baron turned Congressman back in the eighties, had been a moderating influence in Roosevelt’s brash political youth. The Van Dorns, along with the Dodges’ Vermont friends, the Webbs and the Fisks, had been invited for a midsummer stay, and would later be guests for the great occasion.

Roosevelt’s visit was the last thing Wyatt wanted to talk about. A specialist in security and investigations, he had come to the island at the insistence of his friend Dodge to survey arrangements for the President’s stay.  He was joining the party for dinners as a fellow guest, but disappearing for much of the day to scout nearby islands and bays in the Adirondack boat.

Milly Van Dorn had done him a favor, Wyatt reflected, by requesting conveyance and presenting him with an opportunity for close observation. He watched her push back a strand of auburn hair and fan the faintest dew of moisture from the exquisite bow of her upper lip.  It occurred to him that, like many rich men’s wives he’d known these last few years, she might be inclined to other favors …

“I guess I’ll be back in August,” he said slowly.

“I suppose he’ll have to bring a lot of guards with him, won’t he? After that whole—debacle in Buffalo—I can’t imagine how they could have let that happen, can you? Hiding his gun-hand under a handkerchief! Shouldn’t someone have spotted that?”

It was Wyatt’s turn to be stung, and far worse. In the two years since the McKinley catastrophe, for which no one but himself had attached blame to him, he had stuck to such low-stakes assignments as nosing out labor organizers in Dodge’s paper factories and keeping watch on agitators in crowds for political speeches. Dull work compared with his prior life, but as much as his frame of mind could manage these days.

He’d failed once, and that failure had shattered a nation. And now Dodge wanted him back on the front line, this time to protect a man he revered as a reformer and as a commander. He could barely stand the thought of putting himself at such risk again.

He shook off the haunted vision and brought his gaze back to his companion’s. “And Mr. Van Dorn—he’ll be able to join you then too?”

“Unless Mr. Morgan has him off on one of his—acquisitions.” There was the faintest curl of the cupid’s-bow. “Though I dare say even he would have to excuse Gerald for a visit with the President.”

“Good for business, I should think.”

“I suppose so. I find business talk so tiresome, don’t you? But then I don’t even know what your business is. Perhaps it’s fascinating to you.”

“I don’t suppose anyone’s business is fascinating to anyone else,” Wyatt parried. “You’ve met the President before?”

“Well—no, not really. Gerald knows him, of course. But you must know him— Mr. Dodge told me you were in the Rough Riders! What is he like? I confess I’m dying to meet him. He sounds so bold. So manly. It’s all I could do not to tell my girl-friends about it. But they said we mustn’t, for security reasons and so forth.” She gave a little shrug and rolled her eyes. “As if anyone I knew would be a threat to him!”

“I guess you can’t always tell,” Wyatt said.

She frowned at him and pursed her lips. “Good heavens, you’re not suggesting…”

“Oh, not your girl-friends, of course, but—servants, for instance, overhearing things. We, ah, don’t always know what their outside interests are.”

Her eyes flickered away for an instant, but she cupped her chin in her hand and gave him the full strength of her blue gaze. “I dare say you’re right. What with being positively overrun with foreigners these days—I do love the new Camp, don’t you? It reminds me of the Webbs’ place in the Adirondacks—” Her backwards look brought into his line of vision a profile that could have graced a cameo.

The roofline of the shingled lodge was dropping out of sight now, the cliff-girdled island with its verdant lawns and copses of poplar and young maples receding with each stroke of the oars, the low hills of the Grand Isle peninsula blurring to gray-blue beyond.

“You’ve spent time with the Webbs?”

Dr. Seward Webb, an eccentric New York millionaire who had married a Vanderbilt heiress, had just built a railroad across Lake Champlain that joined the southern tip of Grand Isle to the mainland. Webb had hosted the President at Shelburne Farms, his hackney horse-breeding estate on Lake Champlain, the previous summer.

“We’ve known them for ages! Well—three or four years. I count Mrs. Webb as a friend—the doctor’s rather reclusive—oh, I don’t mean inhospitable, just quiet, he couldn’t be more gracious— Gerald had something to do with financing one of his railroads. And we met the Fisks last summer—such a delightful couple!”

Wyatt remembered that Roosevelt had been addressing a Republican gathering at the Grand Isle mansion of Nelson Fisk, the former Vermont lieutenant governor, when he’d received word that McKinley had been shot. Another sting of painful memory…

He watched the rosy color ebb from Milly Van Dorn’s cheeks as she lapsed into silence. In her flower-trimmed straw and dotted-swiss muslin, she was a picture for Sargent—no, it was far more personal than that.  She was having the same effect on him that the smell of bread wafting from a bakery has on a man who has not realized until then that he is hungry. Her cheerful prattle, which might in other circumstances have irritated him, seemed all of a piece with the sparkle and wink of the waves, the gossiping breeze bending the crowns of trees on the shore. He let it blow aside the veil of melancholy which had been closing in on him, felt in himself the desire to respond.

Through half-lowered lashes, Mrs. Van Dorn watched Wyatt’s arms keeping the boat’s pitch-and-roll barely perceptible as they drew towards the Vermont shore. He was too lean and muscular for a man of her class, where corpulence was a badge of success, and he didn’t seem much interested in the doings of society. Though his hair was still dark and thick, with barely a hint of gray at the temples, there was something in the set of his face—not lines, really, except for a few light crows’ feet she could see when the sun flashed beneath the brim of his boater— something that betokened the experiences of maturity, of one past some prime. Perhaps not even a physical prime, but a prime of the heart, of the affections…

The Webbs’ carriage would take Mrs. Van Dorn to Burlington, as they had arranged earlier in the week. She strained forward, wanting to have first sight of the boat-tunnel under the Sandbar causeway.

“Have you known the Dodges long, Mrs. Van Dorn?”

“Oh, indeed! About five or six years now.” She lit up with his renewed attention. “Shortly before I married Gerald, we were invited to their box at the Metropolitan—so that I could be inspected, you see, and—“

“—I dare say you passed!”

She felt his smile melt something in her core. “Are you fond of opera, Mr. Wyatt? I adore Puccini! Gerald thinks he’s sentimental—I can’t think how he’d know, he’s sound asleep halfway through the first act…” she wrinkled her nose and shrugged, trailing a diamond-dewed hand in the water.

“I’m told his Tosca was splendid—”

“Oh, it was!  So—grand, so passionate! But there’s something…terrifying about Tosca, don’t you think?”  She shuddered. “Killing for love. I could never do that.”

“What about dying for love?” Wyatt’s eyes were intent on her face. She looked quickly away with a little laugh.

“Good heavens! Not that either. All I meant was—I prefer La Bohème.  Poor Mimi! Have you seen—”

“No. I haven’t.”  She saw something in him shut down, shut her out. The causeway was drawing closer, and she couldn’t bear to let him slip away.

“Forgive my asking—is there a Mrs. Wyatt?”

“There was, once.”

He looked away, but she caught the shadow that passed over his face. He had paused in his rowing and she could hear the water drip from the oars.

“I’m sorry.”

“No need.” He forced a smile. “It’s been a long time.”

“How strange that a—such a cultured man as you should be alone.” She leaned forward, her face intent on his.

“Lot of that in the world.” He began to row again. “Wise to get used to it,”  he added, surprising himself with so disingenuous an addition.

“Oh, pray don’t say that!” She held up a hand in protest. “One mustn’t cut oneself off from life. One must turn to—to the comforts that friends can give.”

He looked over his shoulder. There were figures on the Sandbar causeway, waving at them, two black horses hitched to a yellow-wheeled wagonette behind them.

“It seems your friends are waiting for you already.”

“Do let us be friends, Mr. Wyatt!” She let a dimpled smile lighten the intensity of the plea.

Wyatt took a breath, returned the smile and plunged in his turn. “I should like that—naturally.”

“I could tell when we met that you were—a sympathetic person. How wonderful that we shall have a few more days on the island—to get to know each other better. And pray don’t worry about Gerald!” she waved a dismissive hand. They were closing in on the shore, where their voices could almost reach. “He’s not the jealous sort.”

She strained forward and shielded her eyes. “There’s Mrs. Webb, all in white—and those must be the Fisks.” She pointed to a slender, dark-haired man with a neat black beard and a tiny, plump currant-bun of a woman standing next to him, both smiling and waving at them. “Oh, look!  Dr. Webb came as well. They said they would all come, if it was a nice day, but I was afraid they might just send the carriage.”

“You’ll be in good company for the ride to Burlington, then. I’m glad.”

After the Burlington concert, the Van Dorns and Fisks would sail back to the island on the Webbs’ steam-yacht, Elfreida.  Dr. Webb, a compact, red-bearded man with gold-rimmed glasses, wore a yachting cap and a nautical blue blazer. He climbed down onto the rubbled causeway and shouted a welcome. His wife Lila hovered behind him with an anxious smile, the breeze ruffling the white silk flowers on her elaborate bonnet.

“Do be careful of your footing, Seward dear—be sure Milly’s got a good grip on your arm. How kind of you to bring Milly to us, Mr. Wyatt!”

Wyatt glided in along the bank of the Sandbar and threw Webb a line.  Mrs. Van Dorn rose, steadied against the boat’s rocking by Wyatt’s hand at her back. She gathered her skirts and, taking the doctor’s waiting hand, stepped gracefully out of the boat. She thanked her ferryman with a soft-eyed smile, wondered why she was left with the feeling that Mr. Wyatt had learned more about her on their little voyage than she had about him.

We’ll be posting new chapters of R.A. Harold’s Heron Island here about once a week. Download  Heron Island in full for the Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/Heron-Island-ebook/dp/B003Z0D29I/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2&s=digital-text&qid=1282493050&sr=1-1. For other e-readers, download the full novel from Smashwords at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/14659. Or order a print copy of Heron Island at http://www.wordclay.com/BookStore/BookStoreBookDetails.aspx?bookid=61329, on amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Heron-Island-R-Harold/dp/0983160902/ref=sr_1_2_title_1_p?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1291921860&sr=1-2 or from Powell’s Books at http://www.powells.com/biblio/61-9780578068626-1


2 comments » | Heron Island, a historical mystery

BRIGHT LIGHTS, SMALL CITY

August 18th, 2010 — 4:34pm

Or, why I didn’t leave Montpelier, Vermont for the Big Apple

When my husband landed his dream job as a foundation program officer in New York, we could have sold our Montpelier house and gone off to enjoy the culture, glitter and cuisine of  the world’s greatest city. Instead, we rented a small Brooklyn apartment and kept our home in the nation’s smallest state capital.

There were the three cats, for one thing; they don’t deal well with change. And the foundation appointment, though likely renewable, was initially only for three years.

Beyond that, Montpelier. Since emigrating in 1965 from a Council housing scheme on the fringes of Glasgow, Scotland, I’d sought in vain a sense of home in the howling suburban wastes of greater Washington, DC, the yuppie enclaves of Capitol Hill, and a jerry-built raised ranch on a scary-steep hill in Richmond, Vermont, a starter home where I stopped for seventeen years.

After a post-breakup stint in the Heartbreak Hotel (Winooski’s Woolen Mill), followed by a spell in a serviceable condo in Shelburne, the new man in my life pointed out that spending an hour and a half in the car to go to our Montpelier jobs—I was working for USDA at the time—was a bit of a waste.

“Montpelier!” I said. “It’s full of politicians and bureaucrats! If we move there, I might turn into one.”

“I got news for you, sweetie,” said my brewmaster friend Alan Newman when I aired this concern. “It’s too late.”

He had a point. Besides, Montpelier houses were a lot cheaper than Burlington’s. But I worried about the small scale of the place: wouldn’t there be a lot of nosiness and gossip?

An old State government colleague set me straight. “This town is full of people who came of age in the Sixties. We all did lots of things then we don’t want our kids finding out about.” Ah—mutual assured destruction and credible deterrence.

We found our house on a dead-end street, perched on a hillside and surrounded by carefully planted rows of old evergreens, a snug gray Cape with six-over-six paned windows and a glassed-in porch, perfect for a writing study.

Moving day in mid-January 1998 produced the worst blizzard of that winter. The van refused to make it up the steep little twist at the entrance to our street. Expecting rebuff or voicemail, we called City Hall around 4:45. Any chance a plow might be coming by?

“Let me see if Frenchie’s still out,” the kindly voice said. “If he is, I’ll send him up.” He was, and she did; we got a custom plowing to clear the way to our new driveway. It was a good start, and it’s only gotten better. In no particular order, ten reasons I never want to leave Montpelier:

  • The Kellogg-Hubbard Library, the community living room and learning center. Poets and master gardeners, historians and humanitarians share their bounty with all for free.
  • The New England Culinary Institute, or NECI. When I first worked here in the late 1970s, the dining-out options were greasy spoon or granola. NECI has inspired an explosion of friendly competition and culinary diversity for all tastes and pocketbooks.
  • The churches. A heathen myself, I’m struck by the generosity of spirit and living-out of values displayed by their soup kitchens, charitable fairs and other forms of social activism. As in medieval times, they’re also vital cultural sites. I’m still trying to decide who has the best flea market; the Methodists have a narrow lead thus far.
  • The festive, flavorful and friendly Capital City Farmers’ Market, especially now that we get to enjoy it twice a month in the winter as well.
  • Communitarian exemplars like the Excited Citizens’ Committee, led by Susan Ritz and Cheryl Fischer, who brought us the 2009 Montpelier Inaugural celebration, and Michael Arnowitt, whose semi-impromptu jazz concert raised money for a besieged hospital in Gaza.
  • The Valentine Phantom. This annual midwinter piece of benign banditry, in which every display window in downtown is plastered with red paper hearts in the middle of the night, wakes up the whole town with a smile on its face. Blessings on him, her, or them; may they flourish forever, and may we never find out who it is.
  • The Coffee Corner’s Front Table, Montpelier’s version of Dorothy Parker’s Algonquin Round Table. A daily gathering of gray eminences, urbane wits and irregular humorists, this assembly offers news analysis, trenchant commentary on current events, legal and home maintenance advice, and an occasional participant who shows up in a gorilla suit.
  • George Spaulding, the book maven’s book maven, found behind the desk at either Kellogg-Hubbard Library or Bear Pond Books. Only once did I ask George a literary question to which he couldn’t recall the answer. Five minutes later my phone rang; he’d remembered. He now hosts a monthly discussion for lovers of classic murder mysteries; if this were Japan, he’d be designated a Living National Treasure.
  • The Langdon Street Café, by day a haven for writers huddled over laptops with a cup of joe and  by night a raucous, family-friendly showcase for the area’s talented musicians. Killer grilled cheese sandwiches, smiling waitpeople and a pleasantly scruffy vibe make anyone feel at home.
  • And what other city has a City Manager who moonlights as the lead singer of a rockabilly band?
  • Oh, I almost forgot. No McDonald’s.

Having the house to myself for long spells while my spouse toils in New York deprives me of excuses for not writing, a writer’s second-favorite occupation. I’m lucky to have New York in my life too, and we enjoy it together for a chunk of each month. I miss my husband when he leaves Montpelier and when I leave him in New York. But time goes fast these days. And there’s always a moment when I get back, shut the door behind me, greet the cats, and listen to the quiet. And give thanks for being home.

1 comment » | Vermont and Brooklyn

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