include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Before the Mellowing Year, Book Two, Part I by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Before the Mellowing Year

Book Two, Part I

by

Jeffrey Anderson



Copyright 2018 by Jeffrey Anderson

Smashwords Edition


This story is a work of fiction.

Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.


Smashwords Edition, License Notes

Though this e-book is being distributed for free, it remains the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reprinted or reproduced without the permission of the author. If you like this book, please encourage your friends to download a copy at Smashwords.




Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well,

That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring,

Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.


“Lycidas”, vv. 15 – 17

John Milton




Before the Mellowing Year

Book Two, Part I


North Carolina


Zach and Allison walked side-by-side on the pine-straw path up the gentle slope toward the contemporary house—a brick split-level with a low-pitched roof, long overhangs and lots of glass—nestled into a wooded hillside and overlooking a farm pond to the east. Zach noted all these details without consciously thinking about them as the late-day sun hovered behind the dense greenery to their right, shooting the occasional shafts of light onto their profiles, shoulders, feet, leaving marks like thumbprints before retreating, returning. He pictured in his mind that same sun rising sleepy over that pond, wisps of morning fog pulled across it like the lingering veils of the bygone night till the sun rediscovered its power and certitude, shrugged aside those veils to fall full-weight on the pond, the hillside, the house, the waiting breathless fecund countryside.

They’d arrived in Shefford along with their cats under that same sun late the day before and set up temporary residence at the Goodrest Motel, a nearby mom-and-pop establishment where mom was Sally Deerfield, a round-faced, round-bodied friendly soul who’d already told Zach her whole life story twice, all the way from the soft spot on the top of her head she was born with and had never hardened (she peeled aside her brassy blond beauty-parlor hair to show him the dimple) to the bunions on her feet that forced her to wear the soft-sided canvas slippers; and pop was Bill Deerfield, a quiet but efficient man with an ever present grin and watchful eyes.

They’d spent most of this day—their first full one in North Carolina, first anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line—familiarizing themselves with Avery’s campus—collecting maps and brochures for them both, course catalogues for Zach, employment listings for Allison; setting up interviews for tomorrow (with the English Department Chair for Zach, for a clerical job in the Bursar’s Office for Allison), and walking around the beautiful campus with its Gothic-style stone buildings and grassy quads peppered with massive oaks offering welcome shade from the very hot June sun.

And now, exactly at six-thirty, they were walking up to Barton Cosgrove’s house located about five miles outside of town in a rolling mix of open fields and dense woods, set to meet the famous author for the first time over drinks and dinner. Zach had contemplated this meeting for well over a year, since stumbling on Cosgrove’s work while reading along the banks of the Charles River and following a convoluted path and unlikely sequence of chances both grasped and missed to end up here—enrolled at Avery to study writing with Cosgrove starting in the fall. In that year-plus, he’d generally avoided thinking about such a potential meeting for very long because if he did think too long on it his breath grew short and his hands started to shake.

But tonight, in whatever God or Fate bequeathed composure, Zach felt completely at ease, though in that calm his senses were in full employ, taking in every sight and sensation and nuance since rising from the motel bed after a brief nap and showering and dressing for their meeting. Though told by Cosgrove they should dress casually, Zach had on a long-sleeved white Oxford-cloth dress shirt and gray wool slacks with black dress shoes, and Allison had on a raspberry-colored knit dress he’d bought her in Boston. Both their outfits were a little warm for the day’s temperatures, but neither had lightweight dress clothes as part of their limited wardrobes. In New England, such clothes were rarely needed and seemed a wasteful extravagance.

They mounted the brick steps to the broad entry landing. Zach glanced for a second at Allison, gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. She gave him a thin, anxious grin in return. He took a deep breath and grabbed the brass knocker to give it two sharp raps. The noise echoed past them and out into the still evening.

Almost immediately (had he been waiting there? for how long?) Cosgrove opened the solid door and looked out at them from the shadow with a warm and playful smile. He looked like the pictures on the dust jackets though less stern and forbidding. “You must be Zachary,” he said in a deep and resonant voice.

“In the flesh,” Zach said.

“At long last,” Cosgrove responded and extended his hand. “Welcome.”

Zach took that hand, smallish and soft, and returned the firm grip. “Thank you,” he said simply, not sure if those two words came anywhere near conveying all he felt at that moment but powerless to say more.

Cosgrove nodded, retrieved his hand, and turned to Allison. “And you must be Allison.”

Allison nodded and shook his hand. “Pleased to meet you, sir,” she said.

“Likewise,” he said then stood aside and gestured for them to come in.

The living room—with its cathedral ceiling and dark-stained beams, its blond wood paneling on one side and wall of windows looking out onto a mossy backyard and more woods on the other, paintings and artistic photographs covering every inch of wall space, sculpture and artifacts covering the coffee tables and shelves and window sills, a large fur rug in the middle of the wall-to-wall taupe carpet—was quite unlike anything Zach had ever seen: intimate and personal yet somehow intimidating, like a museum or a sanctuary.

Cosgrove took their drink orders—white wine for Allison, bourbon on the rocks for Zach (“A man after my own heart,” Cosgrove intoned)—and disappeared into the adjacent kitchen. Zach, relaxed but with his senses still more heightened (if that were possible) looked to Allison standing a foot away. She gave him a little shrug followed by a tentative nod—so far, so good. Zach nodded a silent agreement then promptly looked away, resuming his unprecedented voracious consumption of all the moment had to offer.

Cosgrove returned with their drinks and they sat together on a short-backed loveseat upholstered in gold crushed velvet. He sat in a matching armchair that backed onto the wall of windows, the broad woods beyond.

Cosgrove raised his glass from out of that backdrop. “To Zach and Allison on their first day in Shefford.”

Zach and Allison raised their glasses. All three leaned forward in their seats, clinked their glasses as one in the dim air over the coffee table.

Cosgrove settled back into his seat after a full sip of his bourbon. “And with best wishes for many more to follow,” he added in that deep voice that made it sound more like a promise than a wish.

Zach took another slow glance around the room then leaned forward in his seat. “Professor Cosgrove—”

Cosgrove halted him with a quick thrust forward of his free hand. “Out here or anywhere else except on campus, I’m Barton. On campus, I’m Professor Cosgrove or Dr. Cosgrove or Mr. Cosgrove; and you’ll be Mr. Sandstrom. It’s a valuable formality I learned at Oxford and maintain here, against considerable resistance, of course.”

Zach nodded acceptance. “It may take me a little while to learn the habit.”

“It’ll come naturally soon enough.”

Allison said, “What about me?”

Barton smiled. “Why, you can be Mrs. Sandstrom long as you like.”

“How about Allison?”

Barton nodded. “Done.”

Zach completed his stored compliment. “Barton, you have a beautiful and distinctive home.”

He nodded thanks.

And thus they were off and running—sprinting already—toward friendship.

The balance of the evening passed in a relaxed and comfortable mix of casual conversation, jokes (a couple of Barton’s more than a little off-color) and laughter, and surprisingly unguarded allusions to future involvements and interactions (these between Zach and Barton, with references to shared endeavors beyond the academic mentorship—yard work and household repairs and even an exercise plan to help Barton get his “middle-age donut” of a waistline back inside, rather than over, his belt). Following a half-hour of conversation in the living room, Barton collected their empty glasses, invited them to take advantage of the available bathroom, then led them toward the front door for the trip to the restaurant. On the way there, he paused to tinker with something in the hall closet (and surely not to retrieve a jacket on the warm evening). When Zach asked him about this, he said he was arming the alarm system he’d had installed following recent break-ins. It was the first residential alarm system Zach had ever seen and noteworthy for both its extravagance (reinforcing that his new friend was clearly well-to-do) and its necessity (why should a house in the country be so vulnerable to theft?).

They rode in Barton’s Mercedes sedan (interestingly, after his stint parking high-dollar cars in Boston, the ride in this car impressed Zach less than the alarm system had) to the county seat of Axton, a sleepy colonial village ten miles to the west, driving through farm fields and woods that were surprisingly similar to those of Zach’s Connecticut childhood, especially the dairy farm that Barton called “Happy Valley” with its picturesque barns and a silo and Jersey milk-cows milling idly in a pasture in the golden setting sun. Allison sat in the back so Zach could have the roomier front seat to stretch out his long legs. Both Barton and Zach made efforts to include her in the conversation despite this separation—frequently glancing over their shoulders and asking her questions—but they also couldn’t help losing track of her as they delved with animation into this observation or query. Thus, not thirty minutes into their acquaintance, Allison was already relegated to the role of observer in this threesome, a separation that only deepened in the weeks and months to come, despite conscious efforts—like those comments over the shoulder—to minimize the exclusion.

They ate dinner at the Cornwallis Tavern, an ancient inn and restaurant that supposedly housed General Cornwallis himself either before or during (depending on who was telling the story) the Revolution. The fare included fried chicken, mashed potatoes, squash casserole, green beans simmered with fat back, creamed corn simmered with fat back, collards simmered with fat back, and lots of fresh-baked biscuits and rolls, all served “family-style” in large bowls refilled as needed. Dessert was delicious warm cobbler—apple or peach—topped with ice cream. The owner, Edward Hollins—a tall and slightly stooped old man with an animated jowly face and a shock of bottle-blackened hair and dressed in a blue-striped seersucker suit despite the warm day—stopped by their table several times in the course of the evening to share corny jokes with Barton and a wink and a smile with these newest guests. And their waitresses, twin sisters identically dressed in colonial-style full skirts and frilly blouses, also freely exchanged stories and jokes with their affable host. It didn’t take Zach’s heightened powers of observation to see how open and spontaneous and friendly the social world of the south—at least this part of it—was, and how dramatically different from New England’s icy stoicism, silent judgment, and implied threat. Zach decided on the spot (didn’t take much convincing) that he far preferred this world to the one he’d just left permanently (he was certain, that quick) behind.

They returned to Barton’s house along the same now darkened country roads, passing on the way a former gas station advertising “All Girl Staff” in red neon just as a T-shirted trucker was exiting the painted-over glass entrance. When Zach asked rhetorically “Wonder what he was doing in there?” Barton replied, “Why, he’s come and gone”—as it turns out, a comment on not only the trucker’s “hand relief” release (Barton’s phrase allegedly gleaned from the District Attorney as to what forms of contact were allowed in these establishments) but also the last vestige of formality or decorum. Whatever the future held for their nascent friendship, it would be discovered and built outside the bounds of politeness and reserve—that is, built on a southern foundation (that included massage parlors as well venerable old inns with seersucker bedecked proprietors).

Back at Barton’s, they shared a nightcap—Zach had more of the bourbon only without the ice, Allison had a sip of Bailey’s chocolate liqueur, and Barton had cognac in a green-tinted brandy snifter—and more stories and jokes. Just before parting, Barton grabbed a copy of his latest book—a collection of translations from the Bible—and inscribed it as follows:


for Zach and Allison—

on their first day in Shefford

with warm and strong

good hopes for many more

from

Barton Cosgrove

17 June 1979


And with handshakes and smiles and numerous expressions of thanks—surprisingly, in both directions—the occasion of their first meeting ended and Zach and Allison headed back to the motel room and a good night’s sleep.



2


They finished their interviews in the early afternoon of another clear and somewhat cooler day. Rather than returning to the motel (that had already grown somewhat claustrophobic), Zach suggested they take a ride in the countryside, try to get a better feel for their new home.

Allison said, “Sure—which direction?” They had maps of campus but no road maps for Shefford or surrounding communities.

“We’ll just pick one and give it a try.”

That proved to be a risky strategy. The first road they took passed modest residences for about a mile before suddenly dropping them in the middle of a sprawl of low-income housing projects, complete with boarded up windows, thick iron bars across storefronts, and loitering ne’er-do-wells on street corners. This was an unsettling level of inner-city poverty to rival the worst of Boston’s Roxbury slums—and here just a couple miles from Avery’s Ivory Towers! Zach did a quick U-turn (hoping not to rouse the ire of one of those resident watchdogs) and high-tailed it back to their starting point at the gates of Avery to try again.

Their second attempt, though less dangerous and troubling, was no more successful—a promising windy and deserted road through thick pine woods deposited them at the dead end of a sewage-treatment facility, complete with large pools of fetid sludge and the accompanying piquant odor. Allison laughed. Zach shook his head as he backed the truck into a gravel turnaround.

“We’ll head out toward Barton’s house,” Zach said as they retraced their tracks, leaving the facility and its lingering odor behind. “We know there’s pretty country out there.”

Allison nodded agreement, still chuckling at Zach’s bad luck and annoyance—what did he expect, just striking out with no idea where he was going?

The well-paved and well-marked road to Barton’s already seemed welcoming in its familiarity though they’d only driven it twice, and one of those times in the dark. Zach understood that this easy familiarity derived not from the road or the terrain but from the person, and the personality, of the one who lived on it—Barton had a way of making one feel not just welcomed but needed, important. Though at some level Zach suspected this attention was innate in Barton, and extended to all those he met; at a much more urgent and active level, Zach wanted to believe it was the product of a special connection between him and Barton—the same connection Barton’s story in the anthology had exposed and tapped that day along the Charles River. At this moment in his life, Zach needed desperately to be needed, to matter to someone in a critical and singular manner. He was bold enough, and reckless enough, to hope that Barton might be that someone.

The road was deserted until they passed a state highway patrol car coming from the other direction. Zach slowed down, not sure what the speed limit was out here, or if he was above or below it, and not wishing to rile the local law. Then they passed another police car, this one from the Shefford Police Department. A little ways farther, there was a county sheriff’s car waiting at a crossroads stop sign.

Allison sat up straight and looked to Zach. “What’s up with all these cops?”

Zach had already fed all his careful observations—multiple agencies, rural countryside, bright afternoon, no sirens or flashing lights—into his unfailing engine of deductive reasoning. “Must be a policemen’s picnic at some area park or campground.”

Allison nodded, reassured (and forgetting, for the moment, that Zach’s instincts had so recently led them first to a ghetto then to a cesspool).

This new calm lasted only a few seconds, till the highway patrol car with its lights flashing but its sirens off roared past them at perhaps eighty miles an hour, flying in the direction they were headed. Then another—Shefford Police—with its lights on swerved around them and disappeared around the next bend in the road. They were almost to Barton’s house by now and Zach had a sudden sinking feeling in his stomach—what if something had happened to Barton? where would he and his new and hope-filled future be then?

Driving very slowly, alert to the sudden appearance of patrol cars from any direction, his senses on edge for all sorts of reasons, Zach guided the truck around a sharp curve in the road and cruised slowly past Barton’s gravel drive that wound up toward his house sitting on the hill. Though it was barely visible through the thicket of honeysuckle and wild rose and blackberry vines entwined in low underbrush beneath the taller treetops, the house appeared quiet, the drive empty, the hillside calm. Zach breathed an audible sigh of relief and drove on down the road, hopeful that whatever disturbance had produced the flurry of law-enforcement was in their past, behind them on the road and in their lives.

It wasn’t. At the next crossroads, perhaps a mile farther on through mainly thick woods, they encountered a terrifying scene. There were many police cars—too many to count, though well over a dozen and perhaps twenty or more—from various jurisdictions parked at all sorts of askew angles in the road, along the shoulder, and in an adjacent field. Over that line of cars, Zach could see steam rising from what appeared to be a wreck near the stop sign of the intersection. Deputies and officers were unloading shotguns out of car trunks. Two pairs of tracking hounds were baying and dragging their handlers behind. A highway-patrol helicopter was just now descending out of the clear blue to land in the broom-straw field beside the road, directed by an officer on the ground wildly waving his arms.

In the midst of this chaos, no one noticed Zach and Allison and their truck stopped in the middle of the road—as if at a drive-in watching the latest shoot-em-up, only it was broad day and the action was unfolding in three dimensions not two.

“What the hell?” Zach muttered to no one.

Allison tugged at his shirt sleeve. “We need to turn around and get out of here,” she said firmly then added. “Now!”

Zach made a deliberate and oh-so-slow three-point turn in the road and drove back the way they’d come, leaving the frantic scene to play out in his rear-view mirror, then gone as the truck dipped into a shallow valley and curled around a bend in the road.

Again on the quiet and deserted road (had they really seen what they’d just seen? was it possible?), Zach speculated, “Escaped convicts?”

Allison was not of a mind to accept Zach’s deductions. “I’m just glad we didn’t get caught in the middle.”

Zach could only nod agreement.

Then they came up on Barton’s house, and saw the drive full of police cars with flashing lights and a stocky sheriff’s deputy standing at the entrance to the drive with a shotgun at the ready diagonally across his chest. Zach’s heart plummeted to the pit of his stomach and stayed there.

Zach remembered every minute of that afternoon in vivid detail for the rest of his life—except for the ride back to the motel. That trip was not even a blur but totally lost to memory. He’d guess he broke every speed limit (no cops left to arrest him), ran through stop signs, cut off or swerved around any delaying traffic; but he couldn’t say. Maybe Allison remembers.

What he next remembered was dialing Barton’s house number (he’d given it to Zach while they were still in Boston, in case their travel plans changed) on the rotary-dial phone in their room at the Goodrest Motel. Zach can still hear the two rings on the other end after the phone completed the connection—the longest rings in a life peppered with fraught phone calls.

“Hello?” Barton said on the other end of the line, his voice shaken but very definitely alive.

“Barton, you’re alive!”

“Zach, thank God!”

“We were driving by your house—.”

“A break-in, the alarm summoned the sheriff, then a wreck and shootout down the road.” His deep voice was frayed around the edges by emotion and shock.

“But you’re O.K.?”

There was a pause before Barton responded. When he spoke, his voice was calmer though still taut with fear. “I was on campus collecting the mail and arrived home to find my house crawling with police. They’re still here. They say the suspects are at-large in the woods.”

“And your house?”

“A mess. My pistol is missing. Don’t know what else.”

“How can I help?”

“Zach, thank you. I’ve already called an old friend. He’s on the way and plans to stay the night. I think I’m O.K. but thanks for the offer.”

“Anything—just let me know.”

“I will. I’ll give you a call tomorrow. I want to hear how the interviews went.”

Zach was startled to be reminded of the time before the break-in. “They went well. I want to tell you about them.”

“I’ll call you and we’ll set up a time to get together.”

“We’re going to look at apartments tomorrow, but I’ll be sure to be in the room till nine in the morning and after seven at night so you can reach me.”

“I’ll be in touch once the dust settles.”

“Good luck, Barton. I can’t tell you how relieved I am that you’re safe.”

“Thank you. You’ve been a great help.”

“How so?”

Barton paused just a second. “For my life.”

“You’re welcome.”

Zach hung up the motel phone, certain now of his destiny and purpose.



3


They’d closed out their joint checking account and left Boston with $264 in cash. By the time they’d arrived in Shefford, that amount was down to $228 after gas, tolls, and lunch at a fast-food restaurant in Manassas, Virginia (where the pretty blonde server directed such a warm and open-faced smile and greeting Zach’s way that he actually looked behind him—to thin air—to see if she were addressing someone else). These funds represented the sum-total of all their liquid assets in the world. Weighed against these assets were the accruing debits of the cost of the motel room ($15.99 a day plus tax) gas as needed for the truck (purchased in two-dollar increments), and any food they had to buy for bare sustenance (generic toaster tarts for breakfast, white bread and processed cheese slices for lunch and sometimes dinner, dry food for the cats). Looming in the very near future were the sizable capital demands of their first month’s rent in advance and probable matching security deposit on whatever housing they could find, and the associated cost of utilities. And not too far beyond those demands were Avery’s tuition (whatever Zach’s portion was after the Financial Aid Office completed its calculations of his ability, or lack thereof, to pay) and the cost of books and other academic supplies and fees.

Both Zach and Allison were by nature frugal and conscientious with their money. But a spontaneous and somewhat reckless spending spree linked to their reunion following a painful estrangement had left them far-removed from both this frugality and a significant reserve of funds. Neither understood exactly how they’d gotten backed so deep into this corner. The expenses to close out their life and obligations in Boston ran far past their expectations and materialized after they’d already made lavish (for them) expenditures on clothing, nights out, and a long weekend at the Cape.

So now they were down to a few hundred dollars—Zach, against his conscious desire, could state the exact total at any given minute—and had no obvious source of additional short-term funding. Their families would no doubt loan them money if asked, but both were loath to make such a request, especially in the wake of maintaining little contact with their families since getting married two years before. They might apply for a small personal loan from a bank or request a credit card with a modest limit; but without jobs or a credit history, approval for either would be hard to come by. Both expected to be working soon, and with two incomes they should be able to restore their savings over time. But at the moment they were acutely aware of the obvious—a cash crunch loomed in the near future. And, with an attitude indicative of their age and their relationship, they refused to talk about the impending crisis or acknowledge it in any way.

Armed with the classified ads of the local newspaper, they spent a whole day looking at potential rental units. They’d already discovered that Avery’s married student housing had a waiting list, so they needed to look at off-campus options. There were several large apartment complexes within walking distance of campus—which would help save on gas and not penalize Allison for lacking a license, if she indeed secured a job at the university. Further, these apartments were quite affordable. However, they were impersonal, thin-walled, full of rowdy and loud students, and crammed together. Zach would’ve preferred a house in the country after two years in the city, but anything decent with space around it was way out of their price range. They did look at several trailers (Barton had proudly announced that he lived in a trailer for seven years prior to buying his home), but they ultimately agreed that trailer living was not right for them. They also looked at a garage that had been converted into a two bedroom apartment about five miles outside of town. It was on a side lot next to the landlord’s house, had a sizable yard around it, was reasonably well-constructed and maintained, and was priced within their budget. But the landlord, a pot-bellied forty-something divorcee with a crew-cut, spent a little too much time leering at Allison, seemed a bit too creepy a person to have living next door with keys to your house. Besides, the issue of the two of them getting to and from school and work and stores from this spot in the country remained a major obstacle.

So they passed on the converted garage and the three trailers and returned late in the afternoon to the place they’d started—Jacob’s Realty, manager of a large apartment complex a half-mile’s walk (uphill to school, downhill coming back) from Avery’s North Campus where most of Zach’s classes would be held and where the Bursar’s Office, as well as most of the school’s administrative offices, were located. There was a second-floor one-bedroom apartment available for immediate occupancy in the building closest to campus. Zach asked the portly rental agent if he could hold the apartment till the following afternoon while they checked into their finances and made a final decision. He laughed his jolly laugh that made his whole body shake and said, “For a sweet young couple like you, of course I will” while staring only at Allison. Zach nodded and said they’d be in touch.



4


“Zach, I’ve got a big problem,” Barton said while leaning forward on the loveseat. “And, quite frankly, I don’t know what to do about it.”

Zach gazed calmly but attentively back at Barton from his chair with his back to the window and the woods beyond, wrapped today in low dark clouds threatening rain or a thunderstorm. He kept his expression neutral but was secretly relieved to see a like-minded soul in the midst of the sort of spiritual angst that had plagued him more or less nonstop for nearly two years. He was also delighted to be brought into the confidence of one so revered and distinguished.

It was two days since the break-in, and the living room seemed fully restored to its prior state. But there was a security crew replacing the alarm’s siren in the crawlspace. The original had been shot out by the desperados (thinking that that somehow killed the alarm, oblivious to the fact that the automatic dialer had already put through a call to the sheriff’s dispatcher). And carpenters were noisily at work in the basement, replacing the glass slider that had been used as the thieves’ point of entry with a heavy solid-wood door and a section of framed wall beside. Barton had called the night before and asked Zach to stop out in the early afternoon. While he didn’t specifically exclude Allison from the meeting, it was clear that he’d prefer to talk to Zach alone. And Allison was happy to have a few quiet hours in the motel room—to read and let the cats have some daytime playtime outside their cramped carrier.

Zach nodded slowly to Barton’s words, ready and waiting to hear him out. But he made no attempt at a verbal response. He’d let Barton—his life and plight—come to him.

As it turned out, that patient equanimity was exactly the reassurance Barton needed to take the final step to laying bare his soul to this tall and watchful stranger that had, really, never been a stranger—not since that first letter, those stories, their meeting, his intersection with this latest and worst trauma for years, at least since the death of his mother thirteen years earlier.

“This house has been good to me and my work for almost fifteen years now,” Barton said in a calm slow voice, the sentence a well-rehearsed speech in his head. “But the place has been violated—not just once but three times now. And this last was by far the worst. If I’d not stopped at Best Products to buy an electric razor, I’d have wandered in on them and would probably be dead. If those thugs were willing to shoot it out with a sheriff’s deputy, they would’ve had little compunction about killing one hapless college teacher.”

Zach nodded to this list of simple facts—no point in trying to magnify or diminish the account.

“As you might guess, I’ve thought about little else these last forty-eight hours—the violence, my vulnerability living alone out here, what it means for my future.” He paused and stared frankly at Zach, checked to see where he was on this joint journey.

Zach spoke then. “And—”

Barton’s eyes twinkled ever so slightly though his expression remained somber. “I can move into town and look for some degree of security in numbers and neighbors.”

Zach nodded.

“But my friends in town are fighting the same plague—break-ins and vandalism all the time. They kicked down Roma Davies door just last week.”

“No place safe,” Zach agreed. He’d only been robbed once—his truck that first early morning in Boston. The incident had troubled him for all of five minutes. He wondered what it would be like to have all this stuff to lose, to care about. Or was there something more at work in Barton’s crisis?

“I used to think out here was.”

“Could be again,” Zach ventured.

Barton studied him closely from across the room for several interminable seconds. “The detective says the house is too hidden from the road.”

Zach nodded. “I couldn’t see anything when I drove by headed out.”

“Says I need to thin out the underbrush in the gully.”

“I could do that. I’ve hacked my way through more thickets than Dr. Livingstone.”

Barton smiled and added the obligatory, “I presume” then went on to ask, “You want the job?”

Zach nodded enthusiastically to Barton’s hopeful gaze, both of them now far out on the limb of risk and reward—the same limb of reckless wager on fate’s greased rails.

After a pause, Zach added, “And I need the job. We’ve found an apartment and don’t have enough money to make the security deposit.”

“How much do you need?”

Zach hesitated. “Two hundred would probably be enough, four hundred would give us breathing room till Allison’s first paycheck.”

“She’s got a job?”

“Supposed to hear back from the Bursar’s Office today, but there was nobody else applying.”

Barton smiled broadly, his face lighter by degrees from the gray and grave mask Zach had met when he opened the door. “Congratulations! You two are well on your way.”

“Have been, for a while now.”

“The North Carolina chapter, then,” Barton delineated as he rose to get his checkbook.

Zach nodded agreement but asked himself—Written by whom?



5


So they took the apartment and moved in over the weekend, after the cleaning crew had gone through on the heels of the painters. It was the middle of five apartments on the second floor, street side. You entered directly into the small living room that included a sliding window facing out on the breezeway. Directly ahead was a dining alcove with a small kitchen to the right. To the left down a short hall was the bathroom, and to the left off that hall was the bedroom, in line with the living room and also with a small window facing out on the breezeway. The apartment had well-used shag carpet in the living room and bedroom and worn vinyl flooring in the kitchen, dining area, and bath. The windows looked out on a narrow road leading into the rest of the complex, and row upon row of rectangular buildings identical to theirs. There was little charm or privacy associated with this residence, but Avery was within walking distance and stores and shops within a short drive. In brief, the apartment was affordable and functional; and they could infuse it with the life and charm it lacked.

But first they needed furniture. They’d packed their clothes and cooking utensils and a few small end tables from Boston, and had the foam mattress from their days of camping in the carryall truck. They’d also disassembled their tall butcher block dining table with its trestle base, and somehow managed to cram it into the jammed full back of the truck. But that was about it—no furniture for the living room or bedroom, and nothing to sit on to eat at their dining table. Barton donated a simple kitchen table and chair to the cause. (“Wrote my first three books at that table,” he said nostalgically.) Zach could use it as a desk in the far corner of the bedroom. Over the coming weeks they purchased two unfinished wood stools with low backs that Allison stained and varnished for use at their dining table, and an upholstered chair and couch set from a furniture store in the country between Shefford and Axton that was going out of business. And at that point their modest apartment was modestly furnished and slowly becoming a home.

Allison started work at Avery’s Bursar’s Office the following Monday, walking up the hill to work with her brown bag lunch (a peanut butter sandwich, a Pepsi, and a banana) and no purse. Fortunately for her and their budget, the casual work clothes she’d worn working at The Hancock in Boston (khakis and corduroy slacks, cotton print shirts) were appropriate for accepting payments from students and sending out bills (though maybe too warm and dark for North Carolina summers—she could always roll up her sleeves, and often did). The job was rather boring, and her co-workers less diverse and on average a good deal older than those she’d befriended in Boston; but she did her best to adjust to the slower pace and milder manner of the south and, unlike in Boston, chose to be patient and moderate in her expectations, to let her life come to her rather than rushing out to find it. This was a prudent choice, as the insular world of her office staff (mostly native southerners and mostly with limited educations) would not have taken kindly to a pushy northerner.

Zach started working at Barton’s the same day. He showed up at nine on an ungodly hot and humid day dressed in work boots and jeans and a T-shirt. Barton, who was just finishing his breakfast prior to starting his requisite three hours at the writing desk, handed him a bow saw and machete; and he disappeared into the thick underbrush of the gully between the drive and the road. Within minutes his entire body was drenched in sweat that had no hope of evaporating in the saturated air, simply accumulated until soon all his clothes and even his boots were soaked, as if he jumped into the nearby pond (an idea that looked ever more attractive despite Barton’s warning about leeches and water snakes). He would occasionally trudge up the hill out of the thicket to lap long draughts of water from Barton’s garden hose hooked to a spigot on the front of the house. He wished he’d brought a towel, or maybe two or three, to wipe his face and try to keep the sweat from stinging his eyes. He wished he’d brought an extra T-shirt (or two or three or four) to peel off the soaked one and have at least a few minutes of dry skin from the waist up. At some point, he peeled of the sopping T-shirt and tossed it up in the drive (it flew easily through the air, balled up and heavy with moisture) and worked the rest of the day with no shirt despite the buzz of horseflies and mosquitos, and the brush of poison ivy and poison sumac.

Promptly at noon, Barton stood on the front stoop and shouted down into the gully, “Even the slaves got a break for lunch.”

Zach peeked out at Barton through the dense honeysuckle thicket. “I didn’t bring a lunch.”

Barton looked toward the sound of the voice but couldn’t spot the six-foot-five-inch figure in the dense and shadowed vegetation. “I did,” he shouted in the direction of Zach’s voice.

“What’s Master serving?”

“Come on up and see for yourself.”

Zach hacked his way out of the thicket and walked out into the drive. He extended his grimy arms, the machete still in one hand, revealing his dripping chest and shoulders. “You don’t want me in the house like this.”

Barton laughed. “At least I know you’re working! Walk around to the back patio. I’ll meet you there with a towel and a clean shirt.”

Zach dropped his machete by the side of the drive and walked up the hill. On his way to the backyard, he stopped at the hose and rinsed himself off in the frigid well water, raising the hairs on the back of his neck and goosebumps on his arms. He shook himself like a dog, then walked back to the patio where Barton was waiting with a plush bath towel and an “Avery Reads” T-shirt with Barton’s face silk-screened on the back.

“That’s an extra-large,” Barton explained. “Leftover from last year’s library promo.”

Zach slid it over his head after wiping himself dry. It fit just fine. “Thanks, Barton,” Zach said. “But we might have to change the logo to ‘Zach slaves’.”

Barton nodded. “Works for me.”

Zach said, “That’s the idea,” as Barton headed back into the house to bring out the tray with lunch, leaving Zach to sit on the metal patio chair and rest in the cool shade of the huge beech with its massive smooth-barked gray trunk rooted just beyond the brick patio.

Lunch was an exotic mix of unprecedented fare and flavors for Zach, including a “sandwich” of pungent and salty Smithfield country ham spread and chunks of blue cheese between a toasted English muffin, spicy okra pickles on the side, home-made mint iced tea in tall and frosty glasses, and store-bought decadent rich chocolate cookies out of a dainty bag. Zach reminded himself to eat slowly and politely but couldn’t hide his voracious hunger or keen pleasure at the new flavors. Everything about the moment, from his host to the setting to the food, was an adventure of unimagined excitement and experience. It was there, on Barton’s patio and exhausted physically for the first time in years—exhausted in a very satisfying and fulfilling way—that Zach realized experience could surpass expectation, could launch one to a place utterly unknown and unplanned and unprepared for, and that such unexpected exposure (for better or worse, though preferably for better) was the height of life and living, the goal long sought but only just now found. That he’d been toying with just such unprecedented experience (almost all unpleasant) throughout his years in Boston was quickly forgotten in this new world, new Eden.

Barton studied him with a bemused grin. “You’re not afraid to work or eat.”

Zach looked up from his non-stop assault on the meal, wiped his mouth with the cloth napkin (another unprecedented refinement, for a patio lunch anyway). “Been doing both, far back as I can remember.”

“How far back is that?”

Zach didn’t hesitate. “Playpen on the screen porch, bottle with warm juice, stuffed animals herded into proper order in the corner.”

“Age?”

“One year five months, give or take.”

Barton nodded. “I remember that far back—Missy the family goat eating my diaper.” He laughed. “Memories that early are rare, judging from my annual poll of writing students. Don’t know what that says about us.”

“You mean blessing or curse?”

“Sane or crazy!”

Zach smiled. “Honoring the world around us.”

Barton nodded gravely. “My lifelong calling. Maybe yours too.”

“I can hope.”

“Be careful what you hope for.”

Zach laughed.

Barton didn’t. After a few seconds pause, Barton said, “Tell me about your family.”

And Zach did—family farm, six siblings, unending chores, constant competition for scarce resources and scarcer supplies of love and attention. Despite regional differences, it was a world very similar—and received, felt, very similarly—to the rural, family-dense upbringing Barton received a generation earlier in the small towns of eastern North Carolina. The two talked with relaxed pleasure and animation for an hour after the lunch was finished, then again late in the afternoon over drinks—a beer for Zach, gin on the rocks for Barton—and church-roasted peanuts (“Methodist Men’s Nuts” Barton called them then showed Zach the hand-printed label on the quart Mason jar to prove he hadn’t fabricated it) on that same patio. These exchanges were repeated on many subsequent days that summer, as Zach needed the money (five dollars an hour, a good laborer’s wage at the time, applied toward the earlier loan), Barton needed the clearing (and, once it was done, other maintenance around the yard and house), and they both needed the companionship and uninhibited sharing. It was a time of innocence and vulnerability for two people who, for very different but equally compelling reasons, would’ve thought innocence and vulnerability were no longer possible in their jaded and bruised souls.



6


Zach waited for Allison on a bench outside the hair salon in one of the two indoor malls in Shefford. Tess, a petite and pensive blond who lived directly below them with her sometimes live-in sometimes estranged police officer husband Chad, had recommended the salon, Master Marco’s, and used her connections to get Allison an appointment on this busy Saturday morning. This in turn filled Zach’s Saturday morning, as he had to drive Allison to the appointment and wait for her, since she didn’t have her driver’s license and refused to take the city bus (which, Zach had to admit, was unreliable and full of rough-looking characters). This obligation in turn forced Zach to decline Barton’s invitation to have lunch at his house with the poet James Dickey, who was passing through town on his way to giving a reading in Greensboro that evening. Zach was very disappointed to miss the lunch and a chance to meet the famous poet and public figure; and his disappointment fed into his growing annoyance at having to ferry Allison everywhere.

Allison noted his frown as she emerged from the salon with his wavy auburn hair freshly washed and neatly trimmed and thinned. “Looks that awful, huh?” she joked.

Zach hadn’t noticed her hair. “Looks fine, I guess.”

“Then why the sour puss?”

Zach was in no mood for this inane jesting. “Why won’t you get your license?”

Now it was Allison’s chance to frown. “You’re mad about missing the lunch.”

“I’m tired of having to drive you everywhere. I’ve got a busy schedule and it’s only going to get busier once school starts. There’s no reason for you not to get your license.”

“I couldn’t possibly learn to drive that clunky old truck with a clutch and a sticky gearshift.”

“Then we’ll get a smaller car that’s an automatic.”

“How are we going to afford that?”

“Allison, you’re just making excuses. Please think about getting your license. It’ll give you freedom to do what you want.”

“I already do what I want.”

“With me driving you everywhere!”

“You don’t have to drive me. I’ll get Tess or Sue.” Sue was her closest friend at work, the only other Yankee in the office—a transplant from Maine.

“They’re not going to drive you around on weekends and nights. They’ve got better things to do than tote you to appointments or the mall.”

“Then I’ll stay at home.”

“Why won’t you get your license?”

“People drive crazy.”

“You’ll survive; everyone does.”

“We just moved. Give me a chance to get settled in.”

“When will that be?”

“I’ll think about it.”

Zach shook his head. That was a long and heated discussion, and in the mall court no less (fortunately, there was no one near enough to eavesdrop), to end up at such a conditional response.

“That’s what you asked for, right?” she said. “For me to think about it?”

“When?”

She leaned over where he was sitting on the bench and whispered, “Soon, I promise.” Her hair smelled like lilacs—that sweet and delicate. She added a schoolgirl’s shy tilt of the head and soft pleading gaze. “O.K.?”

He knew that look and that voice well. It had always worked before, still did—until he recalled what he was missing by chauffeuring her around. He stood and said gruffly, “Are you ready to go?”

She looked at him with an apologetic grimace. “Can we stop by the paint store on the way back?” She added quickly, “It’s for the apartment—I need more varnish for the stools.”

Zach could only shake his head as he headed for the truck—Zach’s taxi service for the day, his life. Allison followed a few steps behind.


Thus Allison and Zach were set on divergent paths again. Or, more accurately, they continued in their divergence after a brief respite leading up to their move to North Carolina. This divergence had begun in the immediate aftermath of their wedding two years before, when they’d left the prison (and security) of their small town and large families only to discover how ill-prepared they were as individuals and as a couple for the challenges of growing up (and maybe apart) in a vast and indifferent world of boundless opportunities and hazards. This continuing divergence went far beyond Zach having to “carry” (as folks said hereabouts) Allison wherever she had to go. But that issue did highlight the main area of challenge for them both—that in many ways Allison was still the adolescent she’d been when she’d begun dating Zach six years ago at age fourteen, not only lacking a license but also lacking adult goals and purpose and, ultimately, identity. This wasn’t her fault or choice, and not Zach’s either. Rather, it was the product of the history of their relationship, and the insular and self-indulgent domain they’d created to escape the oppressive world (in their view, anyway) of their upbringing. They’d used that private realm and their marriage to leverage themselves out from under that weight—and it had worked! But now they were under a different weight, the weight of that obsolete interpersonal dynamic. They both needed to discover their adult selves, something they’d been trying to do for two years now. The fact that Zach was somewhat further along on this journey (both in age and introspection) and getting further ahead by the day through his friendship with Barton (and all the new experiences and introductions it included) and enrollment at Avery, made the challenge all the more daunting—for them both.



7


Barton not only employed Zach and fed him a majority of his meals (lunch every day he worked over there, snacks over drinks after work or on social occasions, and frequent dinners—sometimes including Allison, sometimes not—at his house or a nearby pizza parlor nicknamed “Hot and Saucy Pizza Girls” after a porn movie showing at a local drive-in or a barbecue joint down the road), he also introduced him to the larger world of art. Zach was fairly familiar with fiction and literature from his reading in Boston and at Yale. But he knew little about poetry and virtually nothing about the non-literary arts—painting and sculpture and classical music. Barton’s house was a virtual museum, with paintings of various genres and periods covering all the walls and stacked in corners and on chairs awaiting display, and many sizes and types of sculpture on the floor, tables and pedestals. He also had an extensive collection of vinyl records and tapes and made a point of playing the music of the great classical composers—Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Handel—whenever Zach was inside the house. Zach’s Lutheran background made him especially susceptible to the majestic chorales of Bach and Handel, but he also found himself utterly transfixed by a new (to him) Italian composer named Claudio Monteverdi. His haunting yet simultaneously serene and uplifting choral vespers uncovered a pietistic place in Zach’s soul he didn’t know existed, with the enrapturing Vespro della beata Vergine dissolving him in tears of joy the first time he heard it (sitting alone in Barton’s living room while Barton was pouring the requisite afternoon drinks in the kitchen) and was a refrain ever playing in his head through the months to follow.

And then there was poetry. Through high school and college, Zach had caught fleeting glimpses of the power and mystery of poetry. Verses from Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” and Eliot’s “Prufrock” would descend at the oddest moments—“Black out; Heaven blazing into the head” at the sight of a dog trailing a leash struck by a car on Comm. Ave. (was that verse for him, the dog, or its wailing owner on the sidewalk?) or “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas” sitting on a barstool at last call at a strip club. But like most of his generation raised on the reverberations and visceral gratifications of rock and roll, poetry by and large seemed to him archaic and obtuse, an obsolete language couched in dense and impenetrable metaphor and allusion.

Until some of those same verses, offered with feeling and awe in Barton’s resonant baritone, sprung to life before his eyes and within his ears, not like “Lazarus come from the dead” (“Prufrock,” again), swaddled and encumbered in grave cloths, but like bounding gazelles full of life and vivid motion and unpredictable leaps of meaning and sense. With Zach’s attentive audience and full and reckless trust, Barton dusted off his sizable repertoire of memorized lines and shared them as occasion called and opportunity arose. He summoned forth and laid bare Shakespeare and Milton and Marvell and Cowper, Wordsworth and Keats and Tennyson and Poe, Dickinson and Kipling and Robinson and Yeats, Eliot and Frost and Auden and Lowell. And Zach, with an uncanny and previously unknown ear for recitation, memorized the shorter pieces on the spot and took the longer ones home in borrowed cherished volumes for rehearsal. With this permission and new-found passion (O.K.—obsession) Zach dusted off his Norton Anthology of Poetry from his Yale days and read it from cover to cover, marking the poems and lines that seemed to him the most powerful and thrilling, and reciting them to Barton at the earliest opportunity—even a few times calling him late at night to share his latest find over the phone. In this way, he stumbled on a poem by Keats that became for them both—in its romantic longing and its intimation of mortality and loss—the signature, and oft recited by one or the other or both simultaneously, poem for this period—their summer cut out of time, their romance held forth and grasped.


This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou wouldst wish thy own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—

I hold it towards you.


*


“It seems like you’re reaching too far outside yourself,” Barton said with slow deliberation.

For some reason this afternoon he’d chosen to sit in the chair backing onto the picture window and bright summer woods beyond, the chair where Zach usually sat if alone, leaving Zach to sit on the loveseat. From that position, Barton’s face and upper body were backlit by the leaf-filtered but still glaring sunlight pressing through the glass, leaving Barton in ponderous shadow and, Zach presumed, him in the full exposure of the day’s diffuse light.

It was a Tuesday in mid-August and a day off from yard work for Zach. About a week earlier he’d spent a whole day in a thicket full of chiggers and discovered on waking the next day the uniquely southern experience of the chigger bite—in his case, more than two dozen bites, huge welts around his ankles, behind his knees, and all up in his crotch, welts that drove him to distraction with their inflammation and itchiness. His body had reacted so violently to this unfamiliar pathogen that he’d spent two days in bed, doped up with antihistamine to fight the swelling. (It was the chemical secreted by the tiny insect, not the insect, that caused the reaction—contrary to local lore that claimed the insect burrowed into the skin and took up residence there, laying eggs and hatching whole families of chiggerettes to feed off and ravage your helpless epidermis.) Zach had recovered from the worst of his allergic reaction but was still a little tired and plenty itchy, his legs plastered with calamine lotion below his cotton shorts (and above them too, though he didn’t mention that to Barton).

In anticipation of classes starting in a few weeks, Barton had asked Zach for some ideas for his independent study project on a work of long fiction. (Barton was officially on sabbatical this fall, as he worked to complete his latest novel; but he’d agreed to oversee Zach’s independent study in writing, a course he was taking in addition to four regular classes in literature and history.) Zach had submitted three ideas along with sample scenes for each. And Barton had invited him to the house to talk over the proposals.

Zach fixed his steady gaze on the backlit Barton. “The characters or the themes?” Two of the proposals were vaguely autobiographical—a young man trying to find his way to adulthood through perilous struggle: with nature in one case, another man in the other. The third idea was for an idyll of farm life in a simpler era.

“The place,” Barton replied. “I can see you and what you care about in all these topics. And that’s good—young writers, old ones too for that matter, need to stay close to home, close to what they know. But there’s the problem with these ideas—they take a familiar protagonist and put him in unfamiliar territory. He won’t know where home is, or what it is.”

“That’s bad?”

“Usually.”

“Sometimes people have to shake their lives up to discover who they are.”

Zach thought he saw a kindly grin cross that shadowed face for the briefest of moments before returning to the instructor’s hardened stare. “If the author doesn’t know, instinctively and completely, where he is, what home is, then neither will the reader. And if the reader doesn’t know, then he will begin to doubt the author. That critical trust will be broken. You’ve got to start with what you know—characters and setting.”

Zach knew his disappointment was clearly marked on his face, in the fullness of afternoon light. He’d worked a long time on these proposals. Worse, he had no additional ones to offer, no other ideas or prospects available and classes due to start soon.

Barton broke his stony instructor’s stare and replaced it with a supportive and encouraging look that may have been personal or professional, or straddled the line between both. “Here’s what I’d like you to do. Go home and write me a letter about life on your family’s farm. Include the people and events that are most vivid to you. Don’t worry about structure or themes or narrative continuity. Just write a letter to me—not as your teacher but as your friend. Tell me the story that matters to you, that is inside your mind and pushing to get out.”


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-30 show above.)