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Monday, May 6, 2013

My Field Work Term, Bennington College, 1984 ( I think)

At the end of a dead end road, one cow we chased behind the fence, there were geese honking in the drive, and barn swallows swooping. From the sun’s heat birds slipped into the shade of a barn.

The house was old with an old man smell. Some of the rooms stayed in time like photographs: a chair, an empty hanger in a closet, sunshine on empty floorboards.

I am not afraid of heights, I silently chanted, climbing up the ladder to paint the crevice where generations of wasps had papered and wed their lives to this house.

Their sound gave me the feeling that they were preeminent poison bearers, and in a fatigue of heat I climbed down. A record turned. Bessie Smith sang. For some reason I remembered the old man had said something about a woman's backside being the best. I felt and dressed pretty modest. 

The plate from which the record was made came out of the basement. “There is a madness to every method” was another thing the old man said. The bark of the locust tree was also rugged and deep, casting a large and wonderful shifting shade. It’s limbs spooky and beautiful giving way to fern like arrangements of leaves.

Those zig zagging lines that cut up the trunk, I just had to touch them before I walked out that evening. I'd walk so far, that I’d catch up with the moon. Full past the barking dogs, until I returned to the look out spot, near the farmhouse in Valley Falls New York, where you can see Vermont on a clear day.

I saw that full moon blink, shut, open, and then just one small sliver of a different moon was left, and me apparently the only witness. My moon disappeared before my eyes.

The old man said only, “Artists can have very strong imaginations.”

He served our dinner, which was precisely what he hired me to do; besides painting the house -but I gave him a new appreciation for his cooking. I knew he was a little bit crazy when I took the summer work, but he seemed nice enough, and interesting. I suppose he needed company beyond the barn swallows, and that cow that we so awkwardly chased.

He brought up wine from the cellar, and chocolate to eat while watching his big screen TV, Champagne and short bread, fish and shrimp, plus he baked bread on Tuesdays, and went on talking about races: horses and greyhounds. And jazz vibrated against the rhythm of the heart through the house all summer, while my days of memory pumped the fields all green and hungry.

By pulp art he once made his living, his wife, whom he had loved was gone. She was a paralegal, that's all I knew, and that he gave me dark blue beads that had once been hers, with gold sparkles in the glass, and I wore them till they seemed to disappear like the moon.

He had a deep dark wooden piece of furniture he called a taboret for oil painting. It was stocked with oil paints, I remember greens, blues, browns, and of course black and white.

“Paint,” he said.

He encouraged me in every way.

“And this suspicious looking thing- called a computer –is very useful if you like to write. Write,” he said.

He even took me to the dump to look for good junk. About the house painting, he didn't care much.

“Just slap it on, I don't think prospective buyers will notice much.”

One night in a rainstorm I walked through the living room and lightning shot through the window, hit the glass covered desk, balled up, and bounced through an adjacent window. White light streaked across my path. Yes, it is good to be alive and especially when so close to death. He got his gun for the woodchuck in his garden. This is a place of beautiful sunsets, an openness so rare in the Northeast, in this verdant green, a southern softness. Here the relics I love, tractors filled with buzzing bees, broken trees, fallen fences, and deer dashing in a meadow.

I met my first husband that summer. I was ready to read meaning in the clouds as we rested in that field, and also through the maze of Indian ink in his letters, where things seemed to be decoratively hiding. The known and unknown quivered on Lake George for me.

Many a night the old man and I sat there under the influence of wine and cookies or his favorite and mine, rhubarb sauce over vanilla ice cream. He had it stashed in jars, from years of companionless eating, and old-fashioned habits.

One thing that pained him about me was my silence, and disconcerting eyes. It was his story I was here for. He didn't want to admit that I might be the last ear for it, and neither did I. His greatest fear would later come true: He would die, by first living with a stroke no control, just another old folk, in a home.

I took a bus and visited grandma, in Marshfield, and she assured me that men over 80 have no sex drive, and that artists do have very strong imaginations.

I did not call from the bus station to be picked up.  I walked from North Bennington to Valley Falls.  Driven by stubbornness, shyness and curiosity - I carried my laundry bag of clothes, and saw many things that I remember less than my thirsty red-faced exhaustion when I got home, to the farmhouse.

The next year I went back to check on him and the house lacked his presence. I went on to ask the neighbors, and they told me, he had a stroke and now lived at the nursing home in North Bennington. I visited, but he didn't seem to know me. He didn't seem happy or unhappy.

I came back the next year and brought my new baby. He seemed not to understand - and he was gone the next year.

I’m remembering one day when we went visiting some friend of his. What I remember is the taste of her homegrown cantaloupe melting in my mouth, dripping and resplendent to the rim. And as we left, the back door threshold under the boughs of trees - I had to know the name of those trees, as much as the phone number of my beloved. Hazel trees he said, a male - and a female, she has the flowers. Bees overhead, wove through their tangled limbs becoming one arch, the stone threshold below was worn down by many comings and goings.


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