July 16, 2010

A Wedding, Fog, and Scary Driving

Jen will stay at any party, wherever it is, whoever is throwing it, until no one’s left dancing, until the empty bottles are getting cleared away, until finally somebody throws her out. She’s a reckless, coarse, boy crazy flirt, following with strict single-mindedness the long line of unremitting alcoholics in her family, none of whom seem interested in wearing seat belts. She once got tossed out of her SUV to get her head slammed twice: first by the door frame and next by a lamp post. She has the staples in her skull to prove it.

Now she had a wedding to go to, but the drive back was a problem. “The deal is,” Jen said, “is that you drive back. I don’t want to worry about getting fucked up. And also you can’t complain. I’m not leaving early just because you’re bored.” Jen knows me well. I’m usually ready to say goodbye to people just after saying hello. I also don’t drive much but I desperately need the practice.

And I am plain bored of Vermont. Bored, sick of the town and its people, its lazy contractors who’d rather go fishing, its trashy women, its cheap clothes, its merciless deer flies, its sixty-year-olds wearing muscle shirts, its fat, stupid underclass, its bushy mustaches on the cow-faced men, and its raspy, clacking drawl that makes the drawn, prematurely-aged women sound like two-pack-a-day smokers. A chance to leave this village of the damned was a good enough reason to endure a wedding. The ceremony was about an hour south on a hot Saturday. Jen’s best friend, Janice, a waitress, pregnant with her second child, was finally marrying her perennially underemployed boyfriend, a carpenter for hire and ex-Jehovah’s witness.

By 11 o’clock, I’d had about enough. I’d done the drinking, the eating of the barbecue, the watermelon, the blueberry pie. I’d done a little bit of the dancing, and the charming of the parents of the bride, who, for some reason, had taken a shine to me, a total stranger, the step-father proffering joints all night long and reminiscing over his two failed marriages, and the mother asking about my height.

“How tall are you, six-two?”

“That’s right.”

“I’ve always liked tall men.”

“You have?”

“But I always end up with the short ones.”

By now I’d pulled out a book and decided to settle on the well-lit porch to read until Jen was ready to go home.

She was incredulous. “You are such a gay pussy.”

Jen was comatose by the time some of us dragged her to the car. I had only an inkling of how to get back home. I had counted on Jen’s coherency to navigate and talk me through the hard parts of the driving, like highway merging.

Within ten minutes, on winding roads with no lights and defiantly empty of signage, we were lost in the pitch black. I worked my way up to Middlesex, got on the highway by hitting the gas and praying, exited a few minutes later at Waterbury, and somehow drove all the way back to Middlesex on a farm road. This happened twice.

“Jen, I have no idea where I’m going.” She was curled up in the passenger seat like a cat. Like all cats, she ignored me.

“Jen! Wake up.”

“Doing great, keep driving.” A wet murmur, like an infant. Her head had fallen atop her chest. Every minute or two Jen’s frame jerked, as though she had the hiccups. She made snuffling noises.

“But I don’t know where we are,” I whined.

“That’s great. Just drive.”

I finally broke out of Middlesex, got on a main road, and drove the wrong way until South Duxberry. Once we were turned around, once I got my footing, the fog fell. Oy, the fog. Ahead of us just a thick coating of steaming milk. To see better, I leaned over the steering wheel like an old grandmother driving to church.

“Jen, there’s fog. Lots of fog, Jen.”

The windshield bloomed with condensation that was impervious to wipe downs. I drove 10 below the speed limit and even that seemed too fast. But for the car behind me, the car driving so dangerously close, its headlights just a few feet away from us, the driver of that car, I guess he thought I was driving too slowly for his liking. And he wanted me to know it.

“Jen, there’s a guy right on my ass. What do I do?”

“It’s okay, keep driving.”

“Jen.”

“Keep driving.”

I just about slammed the brakes so the idiot would hit me. We would have had it out in the deep mist like two Nordic warriors. But then the divider line turned into dashes and with a great roar the tailgater pulled out and blew past us like a Stephen King ghost car, its engines blazing and explosive. He disappeared into the fog ahead, racing to some late-night Cheez Whiz snack his fat wife promised him back at the trailer.

“Asshole. Jerk. Cocksucker.” Despite the enumeration, I still felt like a gay pussy. And once again, that humid pall of humiliation settled on me.

A minute or two later, flashing blue lights in the rear view mirror broke through the fog. I couldn’t see the police car, just the blue and with it the instinctive feeling of terror that the flashing lights of authority generate.

“Jen, oh my god, the police. We’re getting pulled over.”

“Yeah, okay, drive.”

Moaning in Hebraic self-pitying despair, I slowed for want of anything else to do. There was no shoulder; there was no place to go. Instantly, the police car — a giant Cherokee — decided, by some miracle, to pass us, and like the car before it also disappeared into the fog.

“A tender fucking mercy. Finally.”

A few miles up the Cherokee appeared again, stopped and blocking half the road, still flashing blue, while the cop, standing dangerously in the road, dropped some flares. When I carefully drove around him, I saw that he had pulled over the guy who had been intent on running us off the road just minutes earlier.

“Justice!” I shouted. “Justice!”

Jen: “Yeah, doing great. Keep driving.”

A trip that should have taken one hour had taken two, but at least we made it back to the house in one piece. I dragged Jen, a gigantic puppet with no strings, across the lawn to the house. Her high heels scraped the ground. I pulled her upstairs and tossed her into the guest bedroom, and then went down to the kitchen and plucked a bottle of wine from the fridge. In Jen’s purse, yay, a cigarette. The smoke shot into the dark kitchen.

The next morning, the next very late morning, I wormed out of bed and looked for Jen. I harrumphed a bit until she opened her eyes.

“Hi,” she said.

“Welcome back.”

Jen stretched. She’s been living in a teepee for a year, so a bed must have felt luxurious.

“Where are we? In your house?”

“Yeah.”

She looked around. She yawned. She stretched her arm. There was the stink of old wine.

“So hey,” she said, “how’d we get back last night?”

“That’s a bit of story.”

“Well?”

“Let’s just say a gay pussy drove us home.”

– Vermont

July 10, 2010

Local Wisdom

Last week I gave my new neighbor in Vermont some advice. This was a milestone. This was the first time I knew something Vermonty enough I could use on a local. I introduced myself one evening while she was stripping the wallpaper in her living room. There was a hole at the base of the wall, stuffed with newspaper.

“What happened to the pellet stove?” I asked.

“They took it, the previous owners. I think it was a gift from the guy’s brother, so he’s giving it back.”

“That’s funny. You getting a new one?”

“I thought I’d just patch up the hole.”

“I have a pellet stove. Love it. It’ll bring down your oil bill.”

“Really?”

I was beginning to sound like one of those passive aggressive, know-it-all neighbors. I didn’t mind this at all. It’s about time I became a know-it-all up here.

“Oh sure. Why, they run on these little compressed wood pellets? They look like rabbit food? They get super hot after an hour. Heat up half your house.”

“Where do you get the pellets, though?”

“The pellets? Oh, any of the farm and garden places. Pre-buy a ton before winter gets going and then just pick up the fifty pound bags when you need them.”

I’ve never spent a winter in Vermont. I’ve also never pre-bought a ton of pellets. But it was all true what I was saying about pellet stoves. One of my neighbors told me.

She gave me a tour of her house. It was Sears job from the thirties when they still sold houses in their catalogs. That’s right, you could buy a home from the Sears Roebuck catalog. You could order a cheap camp or something practically the size of a mansion. They’d come in pre-cut pieces aboard a boxcar. “A man of average abilities can assemble a Sears kit home in about 90 days,” Sears promised. She had one of the midrange homes. “The Puritan,” Sears called it, a Dutch Colonial. Paint and 750 pounds of nails included.

When we got to her deck, she pointed at a line of trees that divided our properties.

“What are those black things strapped up to those trees?”

“Oh, those? Bat boxes. Yep, we get bats up here. They like to live in the bat boxes. Better than in your attic, eh?”

One thing I don’t know too much about are mice. They started eating the ramen noodles in the pantry and later I found one running over my cutlery.

“Whoa, you shouldn’t be in there!” I shouted. He looked at me without panic and then acrobatically squeezed through the top of the drawer and back into the cabinet.

I don’t know what’s causing the mounds of dirt appearing in the yard, either. Peppered throughout the back portion, near the wood, is the aftermath of what look like little explosions of sand.

“Moles?” wondered my gardener friend, poking a mound with a stick. “Or a vole.”

“A mole or a vole?”

“Maybe. It’s got to be one or the other.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I think moles are smaller.”

“Oh.”

“I just don’t understand why these are just mounds of dirt. Where’re the holes?”

I dropped that investigation and instead went to the café on Main Street to get some mouse advice.

“I got mouses,” I moaned pitifully.

Everyone had their own best solution to the problem. The hippie chick behind the counter said I should use a humane trap.

“What did those mice ever do to you?” she asked.

“Nah, they’ll just come back into the house,” said Big Bob.

“Snap traps?” offered someone else.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I once tried them in Brooklyn years ago and all they did was maim the mice. It wasn’t pretty.”

The girl behind the counter looked distressed, maybe even a bit ill.

“Someone told me,” I continued, “that poison’s the best way.”

“Nooooo,” exclaimed the café owner. “A friend of mine tried that and then she called me, crying. The mice were dragging themselves across the floor, foaming at the mouth, desperate for water.”

“Oh, god, I need to sit,” said the counter girl, looking green.

“What am I supposed to do then?” I said. “They’re all over the place.”

“I’ll tell you what I did once,” said Big Bob. “I trapped a bunch of them in a box I made, then dropped them in an old sack. Then I whacked the sack against the wall. That did them.”

I ordered an iced tea. “You guys know about pellet stoves?”

– Vermont

July 6, 2010

This is Vermont

Doctors. Hospitals. Gowns that open in the back. Petty humiliations. Anesthesia. The pulsing sounds of worn equipment. The carts with trays hand labeled “Intubation,” Airway,” and “Cardiac.” The overworked ER nurses. The banal pessimism of the waiting area. Since my surgeries, these are all the things I’ve grown to hate and yet remain connected to, like an expat becoming nostalgic for home. I had thrown off doctors and the like because I discovered the hard way that they tend to make things worse no matter how good their intentions. Still the strange allure of hospitals, these hermetic futuramas, once you’re infected by the processes of their nerveless efficiency, of the chaos ruled by procedural checklists, you never quite stop thinking about them. And you maybe even wonder how to get back under their seal.

“Griswold?”

“David!”

Griswold is a smiling, agreeable man. Usually I find his kind of relentless good humor repellent, but not from Griswold. I can’t describe how like a drug his always happy-to-see-you greeting is. Sometimes I look for him just to hear it.

“Griswold, take me to Cromley?”

It was a beautiful day in Vermont, one of the best we’d seen so far. Maybe too hot, maybe too bright, even, too cleansing. That “Vermont glare” that reflects off all those white houses, churches, and town halls. But it was still a nice respite from the weeks of rain and general dampness, our own weather specter that hates to loosen its grip on the valley. It was the holiday weekend and Main Street lay barren of people, like an abandoned desert town. I had limped over to Griswold’s house to ask him for the lift.

His face disposed of its contented glimmer. “Sure, of course. Let me get my keys.”

Griswold was a professional. A calm little nugget of action in emergencies. I had been a tad apprehensive about going for help – a fear of the “hypochondria” label. It’s a Jew thing. It’s because we really are hypochondriacs for the most part, so when something legitimately bad happens we turn into paralyzed deer.

(A deer leapt across the grass yesterday and stopped in the road, confused. She stared down toward Main Street before bounding over a white fence into the woods.)

We hopped into Griswold’s car and zoomed to the neighboring town where there was a small hospital called Cromley, probably sufficient for my particular problem. Strangely, I had been visiting this county for ten years and yet managed to have never become known to its emergency room staff.

On the way over, I told Griswold about what was going on.

“It’s probably hemorrhoids,” he said.

“Hemorrhoids? Really?” I had been thinking cancer. “I don’t even know what hemorrhoids are.”

There was no line to the triage nurses. Two of them, each in a scrub of a different pastel, sat behind the partition with faces steeped in boredom, shored up by some training. They had both finished with a couple of arrivals, who now stood around waiting to be taken into the ER. There was no line because this is Vermont and it was a Sunday morning, but mostly because this is Vermont.

“I don’t know if it will fly here,” I said, opening my wallet, “but here’s my insurance card.”

“Oh, it’ll fly here,” she said.

“David,” said Griswold, laughing, “any insurance will fly here.” This is Vermont applies to weather, hospitals, the DMV, drinking and pot smoking, women, drivers, and poverty.

“So what can we do for you here, today?”

I leaned toward the partition.

“Well, it’s my ass,” I said, trying for both discretion and nonchalance. “Something’s going on, I don’t know what. Hemorrhoids, maybe?”

“What are your symptoms?” she asked, too loudly.

“Pain, swelling, hurts to sit.”

“Bleeding?”

I looked around. At least Griswold was discreet; he had walked away. Everyone else was watching.

“No.”

The ER doors swung open and a middle-aged woman with self-important airs swept in to assess the waiting room. She looked at me.

“You’re checking in?” She was also too loud.

“Yes.”

“What’s your problem?”

“Pain. Swelling. Down there. My ass.”

“It’s going to be a long wait. We only have one doctor on duty.”

But this is Vermont, so the wait actually took no more than five minutes.

Here I was again. Inside a hospital. The adjustable bed. The oxygen outlets on the wall. The drip stands. It almost felt like home. I hadn’t expected to see all this so soon again. And why was I here? My ass. By now, half the town might have heard. An odd pain yesterday afternoon, difficulty sitting. Eventually, even walking hurt. Febrile chills around 11 p.m. Allergies? There was a high pollen count that day. Maybe it was a pimple. I get pimples everywhere. A good night’s sleep and resolution by morning, I convinced myself.

But the next morning was worse. So I shuffled over to Griswold’s. And Griswold drove me to Cromley.

“Hi, I’m Cindy. Would you go ahead and remove all your clothes and put on this gown? It ties in the back.”

Another humiliation to add to the ledger.

Cindy began to take my history.

“So what brings you here today?”

“My ass. Hurts.”

OK, I’ll take a look at that. Drinking?”

“Two or three times a week.”

“Good. Not too bad.”

Cindy sounded surprised. But then, a lot of heavy drinkers call Vermont home.

“Marijuana?”

“Well…”

She looked at me. “This is Vermont, you know.”

Within a few minutes, Cindy got called away by an ambulance crew that had just pulled in with a patient. She ran out to the nurse’s station to meet the stretcher: an enormous, aged woman being wheeled to who-knows-what-horrors by teenagers wearing some really cool kit.

A boy named Liam finished my history and vitals.

“So why are you here?”

“My ass.” Goddammit. “My ass.”

“Hahaha, you have a pain in the ass.”

The doctor walked in and took a peek.

“So what is it?” I asked. “Hemorrhoids?” Why not? I was getting older. Why not hemorrhoids?

“No. Not hemorrhoids. It’s called a Peri Anal Abscess. It’s infected. I’m going to need to lance it. It’s going to hurt.”

Apparently I had been riding the stationary bike too hard at the gym.

“You can yell if you want when I stick in the needle.”

I was lying on my belly. The doctor had pushed my butt apart with his rubberized hands and prepared to anesthetize.

“I guess,” I said, “this isn’t how you wanted to spend your Saturday.”

“Oh, it’s OK. I get paid for it.”

“Somehow I think I should also get paid for this.”

“Hold still now.”

Afterward, Cindy gave me a Vicodin, which got me instantly stoned but did nothing for the outrageous pain.

“Do you have a way to get home? You can’t drive yourself,” she warned.

“A friend’s coming back to get me.”

“You really mean that? You’re not just saying that to me?”

“Believe me, I don’t drive. Why would I lie about driving stoned?”

“This is Vermont, you know.”

– Vermont