Issue 210, Fall 2014
When I was nineteen years old, I dropped out of the Berklee College of Music, where I’d been studying guitar—the one thing I’d ever been halfway good at—to tour with a band that wanted a screaming lead player, and when that all got too stupid and wasted, I moved back in with my parents in Connecticut, stayed in my room trying to get scales and modes and arpeggios up to speed and coming to realize that never in a million years. My father was at me to go to work for him and start regular college in the fall; he owned a chain of furniture stores, and a salesman had quit at the one in Westport. Then Mike, my hippie older brother, called from the hill town in Western Mass where he was living in a cabin on a dairy farm, doing chores in exchange for rent, and said I should come hang out; it was a cool place, with a small lake and a bar, and maybe I could get a job playing. This was the summer of 1975. Mike picked me up at the bus in Greenfield, and I remember driving with him up along the river and the train tracks, through Martin’s Falls and Crowsfield, then taking the turnoff for Bozrah, over a concrete bridge built by the WPA, onto a narrow road out of the valley, following a brook with white water tumbling over the boulders, then past the town hall and post office, the church with the square steeple, the general store, and the white clapboard houses, and onto a farm at the top of a dirt road, and getting out of his car into the quiet, looking off at the green humpbacked hills, and smelling that good air. It made me think I’d had enough of the world, and I still think so.
Mike’s pot was so strong it made me paranoid, and the bar at the lake turned out to be all shitkicker music, so there went those temptations. I helped out some at the farm and put up a handwritten notice at the general store: “Lawns Mowed, Leaves Raked, General Yard Work, Reliable Service,” with Mike’s number repeated across the bottom where you could tear it off. He told me everybody here did this shit for themselves, but I’d noticed that people with money were discovering the place: two and a half hours from Boston, four from New York. I spent forty dollars on a decent used mower, and if somebody called I’d bring it around in the trunk of Mike’s old Ford Fairlane, which didn’t look too professional. Still, there’s a right and a wrong way to mow a lawn—my father taught me that—and I’d always rake up after, so the weekend people started asking if I also did handyman shit: put up a new gutter, fix a leak around the chimney, replace cracked clapboards, paint the house. Sure, let’s get together on a price. While I didn’t really know what I was doing, it was all pretty intuitive, and Mike’s farmer let me borrow tools and a ladder. When I got more calls than I could handle by myself, I talked Mike into coming to work for me. On account of my father, businessman always had a bad sound to me, but it turned out that’s what I had a gift for.
My company still does lawns and landscaping, anywhere in a fifty-mile radius; we cut, split, and deliver firewood, plow driveways in the winter. Our main business, though, is construction. I’ll still put on a tool belt myself, but a lot of days I’ll just be driving from one job site to another, making sure stuff ’s getting done right. At any given time I might have up to a dozen people working for me—master carpenter, plumber, electrician, a heavy-equipment operator who doubles as a mechanic, a girl to run the office and answer the phone, and a revolving cast of Asscrack Harrys for the grunt work. Though I’d rather do renovations and additions—I hate to see it getting too built up around here—if somebody comes in and buys five or ten acres and wants to put up a nice log house, I won’t turn away the business. I’ve probably done my own part in fucking up the look of things. I had to put up a metal barn on Watch Hill Road, where I’ve got my office, for all the equipment—backhoe, dozer, tractor and brush hog, plow trucks, a flatbed. I had them leave a row of trees so in the summer you can’t see it when you go by.
Mike moved to Alaska twenty years ago; he said it was getting too suburban here, which I took to be aimed at me, and I don’t hear from him anymore. He’d be sixty-eight, so he’s probably still alive, but I didn’t even know how to get in touch with him when our father died. My main guys now are Myron Stannard, Jesse Biggs, and Johnny Iaconelli. Customers love to watch Myron when he’s doing tree work: he’s a rock star up there in the cherry picker, with an Asscrack Harry as his chain-saw tech to hand up a fresh saw when the one he’s using starts to get dull. Jesse, who does the heavy-equipment piece, moved up here from Hartford to get away from what he called the crime—like there was just one. He’s the only black man in town. Both of them can bang nails and do whatever else, but Johnny’s my master carpenter. He’s not as old as the rest of us—he’s got to be late forties—and he’s been with me the shortest time. Myron warned me he could be hard to handle when he was drinking; still, he’s the best around, and I’ll take a drink myself. So will Jesse. They’re artists, those three. I’m the one who knows how to run a business, though, and how to deal with the clientele; I get why rich people have a hard-on for plank doors, woodstoves, Hoosier cabinets, and eight-over-eight windows. I keep track of sources for salvaged wainscoting and hand-hewn beams, or I can take a drawknife to a beam from the sawmill and make it look hand hewn. I bought an old house myself, on a dirt road. I’ve got three albums with pictures of all my projects; mostly to show clients, but some nights I’ll just take them out to look at them.
While my father lived long enough to know that at least one of his sons wasn’t a fuckup, I think it hurt him when my wife and I split up without having kids. That would be a whole other story, not really to the point of this one. You’d think Bozrah was a town where you’d want to raise a family, but the select board shut down the elementary school ten years ago to keep taxes down, and what kids there are get bused twenty miles down the valley. The ones who have anything on the ball get away as soon as they’re out of high school. Even Amber, the girl in my office, moved down to Greenfield for a while to go to community college. It’s only the Asscrack Harrys and their fat girlfriends who stick around, living with their parents, or in the shitbox houses people were putting up before the five-acre zoning came in, or over in Egdon where you can still stick a trailer on a half-acre lot. So we’ve got fewer people than we did in 1975, except now there’s an MIT professor, a Broadway actor and his boyfriend, a retired anchorman who used to do local news out of Boston, a Web designer, a mystery writer who supposedly sets her stuff in the area. What keeps this place from turning into a Lenox or a Stockbridge is that there’s nothing here. The nearest supermarkets are in Greenfield and North Adams, forty-five minutes either way, and the same for the nearest hospital, which if you’re retired could be a deal breaker right there. Since the general store closed, you have to go over to Egdon for gasoline or a quart of milk. There’s not even an antique shop. The old bar at the lake is now a restaurant called Locavore; you don’t see many cars outside, and when that goes under, I’ll be the only employer in town.
For me personally, it’s all good. It was my company that turned the Lakeside Lounge into Locavore with barn board and copper countertops; we built a writing studio in the mystery lady’s barn; when a guy whose company makes drones for the military bought the sweet little Federal house next to the town hall, we dismantled it, numbered everything, and put it back together for him in the middle of the hundred acres he owns on Charrington Hill. But I feel like I got in just under the wire. Last fall a real-estate agent from Pittsfield called me with an offer of four-fifty for my house, which I’d bought for a buck and a quarter. I hadn’t put it on the market—somebody from New York had just driven by while leaf peeping on the back roads. It’s like I’m finally one of the locals: if I were young and starting out again, I couldn’t afford to live here.
A couple of years ago, an investment banker bought the dairy farm where Mike used to work, and he comes up here for a couple months in the summer. His caretaker lives in Mike’s old cabin, which we moved out of sight of the main house. The Holsteins are long gone; now you see shaggy longhorns grazing on his sidehill among a flock of twisting metal sculptures. (It was Johnny who dug down with the backhoe and poured the concrete.) The guy also bought Billy Sibley’s little ranch house, just to tear it down so he wouldn’t have to see it when he turned onto his road. That got the locals’ attention.
Billy worked for me maybe fifteen years; before that he had a roofing business, and he built that little house with his own hands. Amber called him Uncle Bill; actually, he would’ve been her great uncle. Billy never got married. He built the house for his sweetheart when he came home from Vietnam in ’66—he’d put in his years and he saw where shit was heading—but she broke their engagement and left town, and that was it as far as Billy and females. The banker offered him twice what the place was worth, then three times, and finally Billy grabbed his chance to retire in style; his younger brother was already down in Florida. We got the contract to tear the house down; if we hadn’t, somebody else would have. I would’ve put Billy on something else while this was going on, but he said no, he wanted to do the job himself. Mostly he supervised, since his back was getting worse from sleeping on what he called a few-ton. Still, Jesse let him run the dozer when it came time to fill in the cellar hole.
Billy stayed with his nephew for the time being; the nephew, Amber’s father, was a drunk whose wife had quit her job and walked out, leaving him hard up for money, so he charged Billy fifty dollars a month. Amber got on the Internet and found Billy a bunch of Florida listings, but he didn’t like any of them, and when Amber dropped out of school and moved back up to live with her boyfriend over in Egdon, he got an efficiency in the senior-housing complex there. He’d quit working by then, put the house money into CDs that didn’t pay shit—I told him not to—and started collecting social security. The first good day in spring he’d always be on the lake in his aluminum motorboat; Amber’s got a picture on her phone of him holding a largemouth bass that measured sixteen inches. He and Jesse used to go deer hunting—Jesse was a vet, too; he’d been at Hamburger Hill in ’69—but when they went out last December, Billy had so much trouble walking that they had to turn back after an hour. In February, Amber told me he was in the VA hospital down in Northampton, and they didn’t expect him to go home.
When I came into his room, they had him sitting up in the chair next to his bed, in a white gown that showed his hairless shins. He had a few days of stubble. Clear plastic tubing ran down to a bandage on top of his hand from a bag on a metal rack.
“Hey, bub,” I said. “How you feelin’? You look pretty good.”
“Is that so.”
“What are the doctors saying?”
“Well, they don’t dance all around the mulberry bush like they used to. Get my affairs in order, that’s the quotation.” He rubbed his stubble with his free hand. “Amber’s been helping me out on that.”
“Jesus, Billy. I’m sorry.”
“Not any sorrier than me, I’ll tell you that.”
“There anything I can do for you?” I said. “I bring you anything?”
“Not a thing.” Shook his head again. “Nope, I’m all set here.”
“How about music?” Billy would always have his heavy-duty Makita radio going while he was on a job. How many times in his life had he heard “Layla” and “Hot Blooded” and “Alison”? They weren’t even songs he grew up with.
“I don’t care about it. Amber asked me did I want to borrow her iPod, iPad I guess she’s got. Borrow. I don’t know why that tickled me.” He lifted his chin at the television that had women’s softball on mute. “You ever watch these gals? I’d hate to have to be standing there when one of them winds up.” He ran a hand over his face. “Come to think of it. It’s a funny thing to ask a man, but I got my razor in that drawer, and I don’t like these nurses fussing around me.”
I found a towel to put around his neck, and when I was soaping up his face, his stubble felt just like mine. He had the same problem place I do—the corners of the mouth—and I told him to stick his tongue up under. “Now you look handsome,” I said.
“Sure, handsome enough to go right into the box. What kind of a day is it out?”
“Cold. They’re calling for another six to ten inches overnight. And we got to start tearing out a house on Miller Brook Road where the guy let his pipes freeze. You want to see some water damage.”
“Then I guess you’ll have quite a time of it.” He shook his head. “Jesse was by. Said I better straighten up and fly right so we could get back in the woods. Nobody knows what the hell to say. He had his mind set on getting a minister to come by.”
“You think you might want that?”
“Those birds? What I should’ve done, I should’ve just taken myself out in the goddamn woods. You want to think you’ll make up your mind to it tomorrow, and the next thing you know they got you hooked up like this.” He raised the hand with the needle in it. “I’ll know the next time.”
The lady I’d started seeing when Billy got sick taught at the community college in Greenfield. Amber had taken her for composition and said she was a bitch on wheels. This was before I ever met Kristin, but I can see how she might have come off like that. Back in the nineties I guess it would have been, she was studying to get her Ph.D. at BU when she got pregnant; she married the guy, which she said was the mistake of her life, moved with him to Stanford where he’d landed some big teaching job, and now here she was in what she liked to call the Land Time Forgot, grading papers while her eighteen-year-old was bumming his way around Europe. I met her at a bar in Greenfield where I’d gone after freezing my ass all day at Miller Brook Road. I hit on her because she wasn’t so young that she would’ve blown me off from the get-go. I had a few years on her but I was in decent shape from working. She must have let me keep talking to her because she couldn’t quite figure me out— a guy in the construction business that wasn’t a Republican? She said she’d never asked a man home with her that she’d just met. It turned out she liked to play rough in bed, and of course I was up for that. I think both of us knew the deal, but we started hanging out and pretty soon it had turned into a thing where I was pretending that she needed to finish this book she was working on and she was pretending that I needed to get back to playing the guitar. She was a good drinker, and we were both tired of not having anybody in our lives.