This post is the first of several I hope to make over the next weeks and months as I return to writing short stories, something I didn’t do for the years I turned my creative energies to raising children and mentoring young writers at Middlebury College. I’ve written about the opening of new doors to creativity over at bgblogging, about how I’m experimenting with posting drafts in this space, seeing how reading in-process fiction here helps me to revise, and if anyone will find these stories and comment on them.
My Grandpa Darwin, the town dentist, allowed people to pay him in skins and hides. Actually he preferred it. He covered a lot of his bills that way, too, the number and quality of mink, fisher, beaver and otter according to the quality of his respect for the recipient. Road kill was a particular favorite of his clients, and though he acted as if it was an insult to go out to the parking lot to peer in the back of a pick-up and handle an animal hit by someone’s lousy driving, there was something about the heart stopping all at once that made for good taxidermy — if he got it within an hour of the accident and the thing hadn’t been flattened, just like that he’d shut down the practice for the day and hustle over to find his brother Copernicus.
Darwin and Nicky, as people called him, never let anyone accompany them to their traps, not so much because they didn’t want to reveal their secret sweet spots, but because they firmly believed that their own scents had so intermingled with those of the forest and fields running up and across the Canadian border that no beaver, mink, bobcat or otter had a clue to be nervous when they were setting their traps. If it was a problem that people needed tooth pulling or cavity filling during trapping season, when the two of them would head out without notice and not come back for weeks, Grampa Darwin didn’t seem to mind. Dentistry was what he did, not what he loved. And since he did most of it for free or barter, he had a loose sense of schedule and a loyal clientele. That several buildings burned to the ground while he and Great Uncle Nicky, chief of the volunteer fire department and thus holder of the station keys, were out in the mountains or swamps didn’t strike either one of them as out of the ordinary. It was just as things went.
I grew up surrounded by hides, heads and full-body specimens and could probably earn my living at it if it had appealed to me, but I don’t know that they have a use for taxidermy where I live now or a female taxidermist where I lived then. I knew that some people thought all those dead animals were weird, disturbing—my mother, for one, but that’s understandable, her not being from here, of here, but from the south, having followed a draft dodger to the border and then losing her nerve before crossing with him. She was out of money and so got a job at Great Uncle Galileo’s boarding house, making the beds, making the breakfast. There she met my father, who was not a draft dodger but a volunteer fireman and firewood supplier, and so he shipped out to Vietnam and was, by all reports, never the same again.
She finds it ridiculous that she has never been accepted as from here and I am even though her life has been threaded through the place for over thirty years and I stayed for eighteen.
Long before I was born, Grampa Darwin delivered the bodies to Great Uncle Galileo—Leo–legendary taxidermist and middling farmer, at least until he lost the fingers on his right hand in the thresher. Anyone could tell the difference between one of his heads and anyone else’s. Leo’s specimens encircled the wall around Grampa Darwin’s dentist chair, all with teeth showing, even the deer with their soft vacant eyes, the moose, the bears. “The bears bare it, get it?” was his favorite office joke.
My mother wasn’t the only one who didn’t like the fur trading. Gramma Lorna wouldn’t allow the heads in her house, not even the deer, nor the skins or the meat, rarely Leo or Nicky, for that matter, and what Gramma Lorna said, went, so Grampa Darwin spent an awful lot of his time down in town at his dental office. When I didn’t want to face the torture of the school-bus ride home or of my mother beating dinner into submission, I’d walk over there. The place smelled more of fur trader than of dentist, since hides, tiny to enormous, were draped over the chairs in the small waiting room. The only magazines lying about had to do with the pursuit of wildlife, and as he drilled away, he gave folks tips on humane practices in the field. It lent me a certain social cachet as a kid, drawing one group to me—mostly boys–and pushing the rest away. During high school, after my 3-7 shift at Wendy’s, I’d head there on my way home, if truth be told, to cut the edge of grease and hamburgers from my nostrils. I became a vegetarian at sixteen, not because of my family’s trappings, but because of fast food.
People don’t understand how it is that a vegetarian chef has a barred owl, stuffed, on her desk or a mink poised on a branch high on her bedroom wall. My husband finds them an endearing eccentricity but cannot fathom why, on my rare visits to Vermont, I visit the Fairbanks Museum, an odd miniature of a Victorian-era natural history collection crammed with taxidermy, some from my family’s own hands. No one knows about the back of the spare bedroom closet, where lately I have stashed purchases made at stoop sales along my street: for almost nothing I’ve picked up a 1930s black and white plaid coat with a red fox collar, a moth-eaten beaver stole and a boxy bobcat swagger coat from women who’ve clearly inherited them and are embarrassed to have fur in their possession. Fur is so not okay in my borough. I’ve been asked if I’m a costume buyer for the film industry or a vintage-clothing collector. “Something like that,” I reply as I try not to put my face to the fur while they are watching, to search out what musk might linger, memory molecules trailing back to that waiting room. I don’t quite understand it myself.
Dusty, cob-webby heads from back in the day also lined up and down every wall in Leo’s boarding house, with their teeth tucked in, serving as hat and coat hangers—as a closet along the walls of some of the bedrooms. It was a pretty basic arrangement: a bed, a chair, a chest of drawers, an animal head or two with full rack. Creaky, bare wood floors. Ceilings sagging from the weight of the horsehair plaster after a hundred years. Windows that seconded as guillotines on account of their getting stuck if you tried to lift them open and then smashing down only when you were careless enough to have your head or hand hanging out. I half-suspected that Leo really gave up farming in a drunken swap for the boarding house and only lost his fingers as he was leaning out the window to pee. Lucky that’s all he lost.
The three-storied, balconied building peeled red. “I had a sunburn like that, once, too, but healed up pretty quick. Just waiting on this house to do the same,” was Leo’s line whenever anyone—my mother— complained about the place going to rack and ruin. We didn’t live there, though my father did, and so we went up most weekends. The Boarder House, as its sign read in fancy scrolled letters, sat squarely on the line between countries, half in the US, half in Canada, a line drawn on the floor inside to mark the crossing and a US flag waving from the border-straddling buck’s left antler, and a Canadian flag from the right. Leo informed new residents: “I’m the b-o-a-r-d-e-r patrol around here, so you better get ready to show me your passport whenever I ask. These fellas,” nodding to the heads on the walls, “keep an eye on things in the dark, being nocturnal and all, so don’t get any ideas about heading to the kitchen—over in Canada—in the night.” Of course in those days, you didn’t need a passport to cross over from Vermont. Where you could even find the border patrol, pretty much just a wave out the window did the trick.
These are stories I cannot tell in this place, but here I am tumbling into them as I stand in the kitchen, seeking the right bouquet of sage, rosemary and savory, splitting the spine of celery, peeling potatoes, stuffing peppers.
There they are. Were. In nice weather and not, Leo and my father sitting on the front porch days when my father had no orders for firewood, watching people drive across the border. There were few they didn’t know, and nothing really to see. Mostly they just stared out into space, at the air between here and there, since hardly anyone used that road. In those days I couldn’t understand the appeal, but on my weekends there tried to play along, guessing why strangers were crossing. We’d keep a list of license plates. I shouted with excitement when we spotted the one from the Virgin Islands; my father muttered something about it not being America, not really; Leo kept making bad jokes about the name.
To my knowledge, since giving up the farm and eventually his wife, Reverie, Leo spent his time dreaming up bad jokes, keeping my father company after work, and perfecting his famous moose jerky. Neither one of them went trapping or hunting. Grampa Darwin said it was on account of them having lost their taste for it. And so they spent their days on the look-out for illegal business: draft dodgers and smugglers of skins mostly. They both acted as though Canada was some kind of other place, as though they guarded the border between the north of Ireland and the south. Neither one of them ever crossed that border except in their own house as far as I know. My father was convinced that any stranger heading down from Canada was a draft dodger ducking home now that the war didn’t figure in anyone’s mind anymore. Other wars had come along to get in the way. When my father got to thinking that way too strongly, he’d drive into town to the VFW where people had things straight. Most of the other boarders, friends of my father’s and Leo’s with nowhere else to go, joined them out there in the evening, pretty much in silence, drinking beer and smoking, until the mosquitoes or cold drove them to their rooms.
One time my mother came out onto the porch to complain about “this stuffed bobcat and that raging bear head in the sitting room being one too many.” Great Uncle Leo relaxed back into his chair, smiled, removed his greasy John Deere cap, replaced it, drummed his finger stumps thoughtfully along the side of his head, and said, “Ruthie, I’m surprised at you. You who lived here all those years, dusting the critters, talking to them all nice, not letting any of the boarders make off with a head when they moved out. And besides…” Here he paused, smirked, made eye contact with his audience, “you’re in the fur game, too. We’re just one big happy fur family.”
The men hanging about, including my father, punctuated his statement with sharp bursts of snorted laughter. They weren’t much different from the boys in school nudging each other and snickering whenever Polly Peaslee va-voomed past their lockers.
“You gotta admit, Ruthie,” my father recovered, “he does have a valid point.”
It was sort of true. When she arrived home from work as a beautician down at the dreadful Julius Scissor run by the even more dreadful Julia Laliberte (La-le-birdy), she reeked of old ladies and a toxic chemical cocktail. She cut, dyed, curled, straightened, swept and worked with more hair than ever Grampa Darwin and Great Uncle Nicky did. Leo did have a point indeed.
But my mother narrowed her eyes and screwed up her lips and shook her head the way she would, then turned away back into the house, slamming doors and then pots real hard. Great Uncle Leo cleared his throat, raised his eyebrows and winked at me. “Women. Don’t you go turning into one on us now.”
I kept my door locked at The Boarding House. Not because I was scared of the flotsam, but because my mother ordered me to or I might find someone had moved into my room during the hours I wasn’t there and thrown all my stuff out the window. My room was the only one that even had a bolt. People just didn’t lock doors up there. But no one said anything about it. It just was. When I edged into puberty, I left my door unlocked one time, just to see if I would come back from a foraging expedition to find my collections of dried flowers and wild herbs, my socks and shirts and pants, my training bras and underpants, my library books decorating the bushes below. Nothing happened except for her calling me on it. I told her I thought her concern was weird and I wanted to see someone just try to move in. They wouldn’t dare. That’s when she narrowed her eyes, screwed up her lips and looked at me good and hard before saying in the slow low voice, the distracting one holding onto a trace of the South, that she wasn’t kidding. Someone would try. E-ven-tu-al-ly.
“No way. Dad wouldn’t let them. And besides, they’re harmless.”
“No one is harmless.”
What could you do with that.
It’s how my mother sees the world.
And it is true, it had happened to her when she lived there in the early days. Several times apparently. At least that’s how she tells it. One of those who moved in was my father, only he didn’t throw her clothes out the window and he never moved out. She did, when I was born, because according to her and my grandmother, it was no place to bring up a child. She moved us to the edge of town, enrolled in cosmetology school and became a beautician who spent her days trying to fix what couldn’t be fixed. Again and again.
Gramma Lorna watched me for her. I think my grandmother was the only person she really trusted even though she didn’t exactly like her. Nobody exactly liked her. Nonetheless even when she traveled to the hairdressing convention once a year to learn the latest techniques and haul back product samples (none of which made the slightest difference in outcome), my mother would leave me with my grandparents and not my father, with strict instructions that I wasn’t to catch a ride with my grandfather up there until she got back. I trailed about after my grandmother who was as silent as Grampa Darwin was loquacious, as in control of the day as he was responsive to it. The best moments were when my father stopped by to drop off butternuts or wild mushrooms, ramps or asparagus, whatever edibles he happened across on the edges of his woodlot. Then she’d soften, brighten as though lifting her head from some difficult task just in time to catch a rare bird flying across the sky. If The Boarder House was a house of aimless men hanging about together, my weekday homes were houses of active women so busy doing that they weren’t ever really present. I felt suspended somewhere between, pinned to a clothesline spanning the distance.
There was really no other option but to leave.
For a long time I had no idea that people in places like where I live now would consider it strange to have parents living fifteen miles apart, seeing each other on weekends, not because their work tore them apart but because they liked things that way. “Those two’ve got one of those commuter marriages,” Leo explained to new boarders. “Only kind worth having. Woman out of your hair except on the weekends. By then you kind of want her there.”
My mother would start our weekends in all of their hair– cutting it whether they needed it or not. The new ones invariably needed it if they still had hair; the rest of them got snipped so often that their hair always looked just the same. I never heard them complaining though. She’d reserve special treatment for my father by way of a head massage as he sat out on the porch, her long thin fingers moving in circles around his scalp. He’d close his eyes and relax in a way he didn’t otherwise. I never heard the rest of them complain about that either.
I have wondered what Leo would think of my computer marriage, how we live in different time zones for months at a time, me the one staying put, cooking night after night, and he flying about.
I don’t ever remember my grandmother venturing up to The Boarder House. Not once. Stories circulated that bad feelings had come up between her and Leo years ago, back when she had been married to Great Uncle Nicky briefly before Grampa Darwin. That may have been, but I knew it also had something to do with my father choosing to live up there. Nobody would talk about it, not even my mother. She said, “That’s your grandmother’s business. If you want to know something about someone, you go ask them. I can’t abide gossip.”
Asking Gramma Lorna was something I was not willing to do. She had little use for the past. She had little use for much of anything except for cooking something out of nothing for my father. That and her good works, as she called them: collecting green stamps for the poor (i.e. my father), shopping for bargains at the thrift shop (i.e. clothes for us so loathsome that even she would shake her head and threaten to report Lucky LaFramboise and his store’s cheating lights), and organizing the flowers for church (i.e. in winter grabbing bunches of plastic flowers stored in the vestry and in summer holding up gardeners in town whose flowers she fancied and arranging the loot in the big white vase next to the altar). She just wasn’t someone you asked explanations of. When I got interested in her cooking, the way she uncovered layers of scent and flavor as she pulled together whatever was brought to her, she said, “Watch and do. Cooking’s not about talking, so don’t ask questions. You start chattering and you leave. Understood?”
My own kitchen follows a similar rule. I have a higher than average staff turnover on account of that. They think I’m being critical when really I want them to pay attention with their noses and tongues and eyes.
I pay too much attention. I am a stickler for balance of color, smell and taste, known in the restaurant world for creating textured combinations, mostly of wild foods, with sharply defined contours. White walls act as backdrops to the dining drama, no music masks the real sounds, and the amuse-bouche is an amuse-nez and amuse-oeil as well. What to me is the only way I can make sense of the world is compelling to others, but as an oddity, an amusement, a fad. They are merely curious tourists. I have given serious thought to leaving.
I am also prone to migraines, to bad dreams and visions of strange things ever since I can remember. Premonitions. Sometimes those things come to pass. They said I got all this from Reverie, but I’m not related to her and I hardly even met her; “Nonetheless,” they’d shrug. “Notwithstanding.”
For months now I’ve had a recurring encounter with Gramma Lorna’s doppelgänger when I see the woman who for years has been clanking about the neighborhood with her shopping cart loaded with black plastic garbage bags. It is so unnerving that I can hardly cook. I lose my way, my feel. If I didn’t own my restaurant, I’d get fired. I’d fire me. I should take a week off, drive up there, see what’s what, but I just can’t.
When the phone finally rings, I’m so jittery I drop the egg I’m holding. It’s my mother asking me to come up there. Right away. Things have fallen apart. I watch the yolk, pierced by a bit of shell, ooze into the jelly white. She needs me to help her move Gramma Lorna to a nursing home “before anything else happens. But well, you know her, she’s refusing to go.”
“Nursing home?” I repeat the words stupidly.
“You have no idea.”
I clean up the egg, pull carrots from the fridge and start slicing them into matchsticks.
Last time I was up there, a year ago, she was still driving Grampa Darwin’s cherry red 1963 Chevy Impala, a tiny white-haired lady prowling the yard sales for miles around, hunting treasure in the guise of powerful bargains she couldn’t resist. I thought she seemed fine, lightened. Grampa Darwin had succumbed to a lingering cancer that she called payback for all the killing. So what that she was hauling home china figurines by the bagful. She’d always been a shopper. So what that she was filling the house emptied of Grampa Darwin. It seemed natural enough to me. She was lonely and couldn’t say a thing about it. Even Great Uncle Nicky has sold his tiny house, taken with him all the taxidermy from the dental office and moved up to The Boarder House with Leo. “A couple of old loonies,” was all she would say.
I went out there to find that they had festooned The Boarder House with the skins and heads that had been moldering at the office, kicked out half the boarders and turned the place into a museum/trinket shop, his six varieties of jerky out and out bestsellers. “These flatlanders are dumber than moose, that’s for damn sure,” Leo said. “Buy anything. As long as you price it high and then say it’s on sale. You ought to sell our jerky in your fancy New York restaurant. Just don’t tell them it’s got meat in it. They’ll never know.” He and Nicky laughed loud and hard and huskily the way old men do.
The Boarder House has become quite a roadside attraction, it’s true, since the post 9/11 borderizing. “They’re raking it in,” my mother told me in an email. “And becoming the world’s oldest internet wizards. Nicky spends his time on websites like Heads ‘n Hides and Buckshot’s Xtreme Trapping. He’s talking about starting a blog.” She included the links. “They’re thinking of selling the jerky online, going national. Inter-national.” She also told me that my father recently moved to the family hunting camp when he didn’t come close to meeting the requirements to join the border patrol and couldn’t stomach watching those that could or being gawked at by tourists. Not to worry, she said. He was fine. Everyone was just fine.
But now my mother has called out of turn, in the middle of the week when I’m working through a new recipe for the upcoming forager menu, and all I can see while I listen to her try to slide without success into her slow low voice is the old woman and her shopping cart, rolling with intent until a wheel gets caught on the curb, a dog bothers the cart, or she imagines a slight. Then she comes undone in a low keening wail as she trundles on down the sidewalk. It’s the saddest thing.
My mother describes how Gramma Lorna spends her days packing the one suitcase. “You know the one.” I do indeed. Because she never ever went anywhere, I had asked her for it when I was going off to college, but she would have none of it. She was damn proud of that suitcase: “I’ll have you just know, it was free. From a yard sale over to Victory. Well, I was much obliged to take it off their hands. It’s no longer free and it ain’t for sale, neither.”
And now she’s finally putting it to use. Over and over. Gets up every morning and starts packing. Revealing stashes of clothes accumulated over the past seventy years. The new collection of figurines. She puts on her big tweed coat (never would wear any of the skins), drags the suitcase out to the car, somehow wrestles it into the trunk and herself into the driver’s seat, but by then she has forgotten where’s she’s off to, and my mother has the keys over at her house anyway. Then she starts in again the next day.
“Do you have any idea where she’s trying to go?”
“Who knows? Anywhere. Nowhere. She’s just packing. Doesn’t say a word.”
“What about Dad?”
I hear her sigh.
“She could move out with the uncles.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
I hang up the phone and email my husband. I look out the window where the long colors of an early fall morning have started to intertwine. I slowly straighten the kitchen, wash everything and put it all away. I call work and leave instructions with Jorge.
I’m the end of the line. There’s no way she’s going to a nursing home.
I go to the back closet and pick out the swagger coat and put it on. The scent rises from the hairs. I take it off, put it on again. I lay a small suitcase on my bed, fill it with my Vermont clothes. I could be my grandmother.
As I head out, I grab a couple of jars of pear chutney, set the three locks, change my mind, then lock them again. My new neighbor stares at me as we pass on the stairs. It’s as though I’m wearing road kill. Outside squirrels have been dropping nuts on my car and leaving little tracks across the hood. Down here they’re sloppy, lazy, fat, but they rarely get hit.
Driving up the long stretch of New York highway, I see deer hanging about along the roadside and will them not to run into the lanes of inexorable traffic. I’ve heard that in the suburbs deer are as docile as dogs, sleeping on people’s lawns, eating freely from gardens and hedges. The only deer you see in Vermont this time of year are draped across a car roof, hanging out of a pick-up. They’re wiley, skitterish. Or dead. Crossing Vermont in the near-dark, though, will place me in prime moose and deer, skunk and raccoon and bear crossing time—every critter taking to the roads when the guns fall silent.
Perhaps it is the concern over driving upcountry roads at this time of day this time of year, perhaps it is the smell of musk as the car warms up, perhaps it is the clutch of young deer grazing that make me think of my father. Of my mother’s sigh. Of the time—the only time—that he took me into the woods to load up firewood. My mother was at a convention, my grandmother had a doctor’s appointment, and school hadn’t yet started up again. I must have been eleven. He had a delivery way over to New Hampshire. We spent the morning in the damp loamy forest, silently working, he at the splitter, me stacking three cords of splintery beech logs, both of us tossing them in the truck. He didn’t even flinch when we crossed the bridge to New Hampshire. The people paid him in cash. It was a good day. On the way home we sang along with the country radio station. Nearing dark, we crossed the bridge back into Vermont, and rounded a sharp corner in time to see a doe run smack into a car ahead of us, leap back and fall. She staggered to her feet and fell again. The car kept going. As did we. The only sound, Loretta Lynn and her breaking heart. For fifty yards or so, and then my father stopped in the middle of the road, backed up and pulled over.
“You stay right there,” he ordered, something he did not ordinarily do.
I assumed he would haul the deer up into the truck and we’d head to Great Uncle Nicky’s. I’d never actually been on a roadkill run; there was an unspoken agreement between my mother and the family that I was not to be included in trapping, hunting, or gathering. Although I felt truly sorry for the deer, I felt a thrilling excitement at what we were about to do. I watched through the rearview mirror, debating how serious his order had been.
Without bending his knees he leaned over, put his hand down on her flank for a long moment, then pulled her to the side of the road into the tall grass, and beyond, out of sight into a thicket. There wasn’t even a bloodstain on the road. If someone came along, they’d think he was stopping to pee. I was confused, disappointed. I could sense Grandpa’s head shake, his mild disgust at the waste: “It’s already dead. It’s you or the turkey vultures.”
When he reappeared, I thought he had changed his mind. He turned back to the scrubby trees and pulled his pocket knife from his jacket and the small clippers he kept deep in his Carharts. He waved me over, hollering for me to bring the bucket kept right behind the seat.
Chokecherries. Of course. As the day dipped behind the horizon, we filled that bucket with the dark berries, our hands staining nearly black, not saying a word. My grandmother would turn the clusters into the most delicious fruit leather that would turn our teeth purple. But it was hard to concentrate with the air heavy with questions, the doe just inside the copse. It was as though she were watching us. Her death right at our feet.
Back in the truck my father put his hands on the steering wheel and looked over at me. “You’re wondering why I didn’t take her home. You’re wondering.” He stared back out through the windshield as though he was already driving. “Some lines just can’t be crossed or you can never get back. You’ll come to understand that.”
Driving up and over the spine of the Green Mountains, I ponder those lines, his lines, all their lines. There’s my grandmother filling her suitcase, my father his buckets. The old men filling their time, my mother her heart. Over and over. There’s a line I’m about to cross only I don’t know which side I’m on, which side I’m going to or if it matters.
I drive down into the valley, stop for gas at the far edge of a pretty village green, white houses beaming their warm lights out there, Vermont with a capital V. There’s a blaze orange sign in the mini-mart window indicating that it is a big-game reporting station, and a crowd of men, some in orange vests and hats, is gathered around a pick-up with its gate down. A couple of four-wheelers pull in. In this light, I can’t see for sure, but I know from the way they cluster at full attention, that it’s a 10 or 12 pointer. There’s a certain hush about them I recognize.
Geese fly by overhead, trailed by their long complaining sound. I finish pumping, go in to pay—the whole place smells like deer. There’s an easy bantering going on between the young cashier and a couple of the men at the beer cooler. The deli is busy, orders being called in and up, neatly, compactly, as they should be. On the counter is a box of moose jerky, Uncle Leo’s Original, with a drawing of him in wool hunting clothes, a silly grin on his face. I buy one. The girl looks at me funny and I think for a moment it’s because of my purchase until I see that it’s the coat. I smile and wave my moose jerky and holler, “Have a good one.”
I ease back onto the road and out of town. In an hour I’ll be there and then we’ll see, we’ll see if there’s no way back.