September 7, 2013

The Drunkards of Hobson

“You can’t run from unhappiness,” Paul said. He wore his herringbone workman’s cap, ink-stained in the

A Vermont town’s drunkards get some airtime.

right corner. He had returned to Vermont seeking to modulate, with trees and fresh air, the manic depression he had previously tried to modulate by drinking. But Paul forgot that drinking is woven into the texture of life here; it is as much a part of the day-to-day as bluegrass and rolling hills and cheap prefabs and red barns. Vermont had resolved nothing for Paul. It’s an alcoholic’s paradise.

“But it’s so pretty here!” I whined. “Why am I still miserable?

We sat on the crumbling steps of the café’s porch, a summer day under the hanging flowers. Paul clutched a coffee cup, pulling it toward his chest as though it held the relief of an icy beer on a hot beach. Meanwhile, I watched Hank on his rusted bike coming up River Road. He peddled by the café toward the general store. Vermont winters had worn his face down to an olive slab sheathed by a mottled beard, pointed and stained yellow at the mouth, thanks to years of hand-rolled cigarettes. Hank lived in the Evergreen Apartments, a shabby two-story row that hugged the river’s edge at the iron bridge. He appeared every day at some point and some where. He might have been in his sixties or a hard fifties. At any rate, the kind of old that started early. He wore a soft hat that made him look like Merlin. Additionally, when on foot he grasped a carved walking stick.

“What a chump,” said Paul. He frowned, upset that the general store would sell Hank beer, knowing full well that he was one of the two town drunks. But in Hobson, when everybody knows that one thing about you, there’s no point in either party pretending it away.

It was music night at the Spoke and we settled in for some beer drinking and bluegrass listening. In place were the usuals. The philosopher. The case worker. The house painter. The carpenter. The gentleman farmer. The beer brewer’s marketer. The Tuesday night beer special dampening the wooden planks. The pizza’s burning crust. The elderly hippies. The swaying skirts. The barefoot dancing.

Outside for cigarettes. There was Hank, sitting on the bench that rested against the Spoke’s cedar shingles. He cradled a paper bag from which he had produced a can of beer.

“How’s the music?” he uttered. Of course it was gravelly, his voice.

Someone said, Hank, the music’s okay. The banjo sounds pretty good. He said it loud, talking on an old-time long distance call loud, or if Hank were deaf.

“I know, I can hear it from out here.” Hank’s eyes darted. “Sort of.” He laughed, and the beer can shook in his hand, reminding Hank that he held it. He slugged it down and pulled out another from the paper bag. “Anyone got a cigarette for me?”

There were those who tolerated him, those who completely accepted him, and those who completely ignored him. The ones who tolerated him stayed within conversational range and responded to Hank’s attempts to engage, while those who accepted him — the contractor, the philosopher — talked to Hank as though he were one of them. The rest of us kept a distance. He was, after all, a kind of leper. The fourth way people interacted with Hank had now appeared. It was Pat, the manager of the Spoke, and he came outside, red-bearded and furious, to give old Hank the what for.

“You can’t be bringing in your own beer!” Pat hollered.

“But I’m not inside.”

“It doesn’t matter. This is still part of the bar. Put it away!”

Hank resisted. “I’m not bothering anybody. I’m just sitting outside.”

“Get rid of your six-pack or leave!”

Sentiment turned against Hank. You could feel it. For some reason the humiliated don’t always bring out sympathy in crowds. Once that feeling against Hank aired, it normalized. Hank stood up. Pat warned him never to show up again with his own stash. In our minds, we knew the path that Hank would take home. From Main Street he’d make a left on River Road and walk down to the bridge, to his hovel at the Evergreen Apartments. It’s because Hobson is so small that we knew where Hank would go, that we knew, collectively, where Hank, and each one of us, actually, were at any given moment.

In New York, it’s easy to become lonely among the hordes. There are the reminders with each passing face that your soul languishes without contact. In Vermont it’s the opposite problem. There’s nobody here. Your miserableness is your own, not confused by what you think you’re missing. Also, the people you cross paths with here are unfriendly on the whole, so you don’t want to get to know them anyway. The obnoxiously long winters brutalizes them, only for the blink-of-an-eye summers to betray them. But if you stay around long enough, something amazing happens. A web of intimacy begins to frond its way around you. You become part of some kind of morphic resonance in which you are aware of all your neighbors and they’re aware of you. It’s not a commune of hippie love exactly, but it’s better than nothing.

The other town drunk, Ben, I’d seen thrown out of the wings place, mostly because his sometime drinking companion, an overweight florid woman who wanted to talk with everyone who didn’t want to talk to her, bothered everybody while he silently looked on. They blamed him, not her.

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Mr. Gower

Ben reminded me of Mr. Gower from It’s a Wonderful Life, that sentimental Christmas movie of the 40s. Ben was a tall, shuffling, quiet drunk. He didn’t talk to people the way Hank did; the window into his soul was the bemused, grizzled, half-smile of the observer who has given up on his people. He looked like the kind of drunk, who like Mr. Gower, was someone else once. An accountant, a shop owner, a physics teacher.

There must be a school for the drunkards who live in rural towns. They must be brought up on Frank Capra movies so they can get everything right: the shuffling, the rough voices, the haunted eyes, the terrible humor, the same clothes. It’s practically a job, the town drunk, with rare openings.

The café owner, Mary, who had recently admonished me to be nice to the pain-in-the-ass man buying my house, held a potluck on the porch of her café one Sunday. Cucumber salad, grilled chicken, beets and kale, potatoes and peas. It was a feast. At the tail end of it, with clouds crawling across the sky, Ben passed by.

“Ben!” cried Mary. “You want some food?” Ben looked confused. I think he just wanted to get a cup of coffee, even though the café was closed for business. “Come on in! Get something to eat.” Ben had no idea how to respond to this unexpected invitation; it was on his face, the confusion. Who offered him food? Who let him around other people?

“Thank you,” he said finally, and hauled himself onto the porch and inside the café where bowls of food sat on the counter. A few minutes later he came back outside, standing at a corner of the porch by himself holding a paper plate, eating. Thank you, he said again, when he was done.

Even Hank and Ben are caught in that resonant web that sits over a small town. Just the other night at the wings place, while playing poker on the video machine perched on the counter, who sits next to me but Hank. He had learned his lesson and now satisfied his need to socialize by buying a beer to nurse for nearly ever. And usually there would be someone around willing to buy him another.

“Hank,” I said. I had decided to rejigger my sentiments, to open myself to freakish people.

“Poker?” he said in his poker-gruff voice. “You winnin’?”

The game was Texas Holdem, and the machine, once understood, was easily beatable. Hank watched me play, offering a little bit of advice here and there, mocking the moves of my digital opponents. He was right, too; they were predictable. We exchanged some philosophical points on the game. When I left, I shoved a dollar at Hank so he could play himself.

This was life here. This was the reality of knowing everyone. You could only ignore them for so long. Against your will, you were stretched from one end of the town to the other, and you didn’t break because the town was so small.

You didn’t break.