Wednesday, 16 December 2015 10:48

Versed in Country Things - A Peopled Summer

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Versed in Country Things - A Peopled Summer

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks, where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Corbin advertised the place for sale in a New England magazine; in the spring and early summer people came by to look at it, and I did my best to sell it to them because I thought it was a beautiful place and a bargain (five thousand dollars for fifty acres), but I'm afraid they were only window shoppers. They were a reminder that we had to move by Labor Day. I had been trying for some time to get a job, but academics looked askance at a man who had spent the last two years not only unacademically but also inexplicably, although I said as little as possible about my actual doings. A couple of colleges were interested, but when they found out that I had no money to pay my way to distant interviews, their interest lapsed.

I was anxious, of course, but because of my Micawaberish temperament, not nearly so anxious as you might think. Something would turn up, and meanwhile I went about my usual tasks. There were some changes around us: Not long after he dropped us, Otis was fired from the creamery, and his response was to hole up in his house, drink all night and sleep all day. Although we saw his light burning and snatches of TV noise would float across the gorge, we did not see him again that summer. With binoculars we watched his garden, the one we had helped him plant, grow and thrive, ripen and decay, saved from being overwhelmed by weeds only by the black plastic, because Otis never went near it.

Miff left his brother's place in Toonerville and went to work for a farmer about ten miles away, and he stayed there as long as I knew him. There were two other hired men, Billy and Noah, as well as Billy's wife, who did the cooking, and they all lived in a house across the road from the farmer's. Miff brought them to see me "on business," as he put it. They were jolly and loud, much younger than Miff, not alcoholics in the sense he was, but they liked a beer party on Saturday night. We finally worked out this deal: every Saturday they brought me the fixings - malt, hops, sugar, yeast, bottle caps - for four cases of beer (four times twenty-four sixteen ounce bottles) and took away two cases. I then made four cases, two for them and two on my own account. They wanted it as strong as I could make it, so by using wine yeast and testing the wort with a hydrometer, I added enough sugar to bring it up to thirteen percent, awful stuff that tasted like whiskey, but they loved it.

What puzzled me about the visitors that summer, and we saw many more than the year before, was the constant recurrence of the Beautiful Simple Country Life theme. I could not foresee that this was the vanguard of what would be a swelling horde. As yet, we didn't really understand the phenomenon, but we would get a thorough education before the summer was over, sometimes dramatically.

I have already explained how once we realized we were becoming actors in fantasies about our own life, we discouraged BSCL people simply by not playing the game, by not giving the expected answers to their leading questions. Now we were getting tougher cases. When, despite our discouraging attitude, they got that goofy look and said things like, "I love your Simple Life," I would take sterner measures: "Good. Let's go out and turn the manure pile." Or, "Help me slaughter a chicken; you hold the legs while I chop the head off. Mind the blood." That worked with most people, but a couple of friends were obstinate. Charles, for instance, the New Yorker who printed our jelly cards, had been one of the gang of helpers during our first week and had been up several times since. He was the first person to utter a phrase which I have heard, with sinking heart, innumerable times over the years. "I want to live like you." (There is an even phonier variant: "We live the way you do.") The first time he said it, I retorted that he didn't know what he was talking about, that a week of our life would send him rushing back to his well-paid job in the city, sobbing with gratitude for the complexities of modern sophisticated urban life. The second time I enumerated details of our simple life. Thereafter I shrugged and said nothing.

Charles had recently married an enthusiastic young woman, Gretchen, who also said she wanted to live like us, and to that end they often made trips to Vermont to look at real estate. One evening in early July they pulled into the dooryard with Gretchen's parents as we were romping in the grass with the children, all of us barefooted. We took the visitors inside, gave them tea and wine and Jo Ann's wonderful gingersnaps, and were hospitably attentive. The parents had emigrated from Germany in their youth, and their life work had been running a market garden on Long Island. Gretchen was their only child, and they were very proud of her college degree and teaching job. I plied them with questions about their farm, and they seemed, for the hour they were with us, to have a fine time.

Two weeks later Charles stopped by to tell us a strange tale. They were hardly out of sight of the house when his mother-in-law burst into tears, and begged Charles not to take her daughter to Vermont to live like that - the poverty! The squalor! Did you see those children? BAREFOOT! She painted a pathetic picture of her grandchildren wallowing in a northern Tobacco Road. Her husband, while refraining from tears, was also strongly moved, and again, it was the bare feet that had done it. All the time he had been forcing himself to be civil, to drink the dandelion wine and eat the gingersnaps, he had been filled with revulsion, sickening revulsion! Charles and Gretchen had to promise over and over again to clothe and shoe their putative children with reckless prodigality before the wailing and shouting subsided. A harrowing scene, Charles said, and I could well believe it. I didn't ask, but I'd bet that on the way to our place he told them that he and Gretchen wanted to live like us.

The most revealing BSCL episode occurred when Belle and Brad appeared at our door. She was a self-assured well-dressed woman in her early fifties who had been handsome once, and who still retained the carriage, the gestures, the habits of looks and laughter of a woman who has been much admired. When she introduced herself I knew who she was, because Paul Farrar knew one of her daughters and had gone to see them last summer at their place beyond Woodbury. I knew that her husband was the head of an important international agency in Washington, so I was surprised when she introduced Brad, a tall, broad-shouldered young man with dark wavy hair, gleaming teeth flashing under his cavalryman's moustache, and an air, a hint of some quality that I couldn't quite name but that seemed a little incongruous with a weighty figure on the world stage, at home in Zurich, Paris, Bonn, etc.

Belle was looking around the room with the beginnings of that fond and foolish smile associated with BSCL admirers. "Ralph was at our place many times, but I was never here."

Brad was looking around, too, but his glance was sharper, what I would call an appraising eye. Well, that probably went with his position; you don't rise to the top of a powerful organization without casing the joint, as it were. They sat together on the couch, and we made tea and put cookies on a plate (I was damned if I'd waste anymore of my wine on people who might denounce me as soon as they were out of my sight).

"I wish Brad could have met Ralph," Belle said, gazing fondly on him. She turned to us. "Brad's a sculptor."

He chuckled. Sculptor by night, cab driver by day, he said. Or was it the other way around? I was so confused, trying to reconcile these occupations with my notions of what went on at an international agency, just beginning to realize he was not Belle's husband.

"A man has to eat," he went on resolutely, "And until I break the stranglehold of the flunkeys of the art establishment, driving a cab is an honest way to earn a living!"

Belle put her arm through his and looked up at him admiringly. Jo Ann rearranged the cookies while I busied myself with the teapot. The quality that I had not been able to name at first was the touch of coarseness that marks the opportunist. I asked Belle if she were up for the summer. Not yet. She and Brad would be here for a little while to get the house ready for a later visit by the whole family and Brad needed a break from his terribly wearing labors.

When we served tea, Belle remarked that Corbin would never drink it when she offered it to him; nothing stronger than water for him. "He'd sit on the porch for an hour while his laundry was being done, and during that time he'd drink exactly one glass of water."

"Laundry? Did you say laundry?"

"Yes. Every Friday evening Ralph brought his laundry over to do in our machine, and that was when he'd talk with Arthur about the Simple Life. Arthur really looked forward to those evenings; he said that Ralph was a real cracker barrel philosopher."

"But in his booklet he claimed that he did all the laundry in the little rock pool beside the house. Or rather, his wife did it while he read poetry to her."

Belle smiled reminiscently, gazing inwardly at the vision I had recalled. "Yes, I remember that; wasn't it pretty?"

I looked at her with my mouth metaphorically open, but she was without guile. There was no point in pursuing that, so I asked her how Corbin got to their place. In his car, of course; he had one of the first Volkswagen microbuses. Funny, I said, that he never listed that in his expenses.

"Well, it couldn't have cost much; he got fantastic mileage."

It had begun to rain, and the children came running in. I can say without a blush that they were very attractive because they looked like Jo Ann, and Belle was much taken by them, especially by Nell who, with her blond pigtails and big blue eyes, was quite striking. Belle chatted with her and called Brad's attention to her.

I watched complacently while my mind was churning with Belle's revelations. For nearly two years we had been oppressed by the myth of the man, by the damned booklet, by the fuzzily insistent disciples, by my disillusioning experience living in the place where he claimed to have performed his wonders, and now this woman had begun to dispel the mythic fogs and what had loomed obscurely was beginning to look quite commonplace. From her description of the Friday night visits, for instance, I saw that the homespun philosopher role had been one of his major routines, and I realized that that was what the disciples were after: they wanted me to be like Corbin, to entertain them as he had done with Simple Living baloney.

I was grateful to Belle, and when they left, I invited her to come back any time. Of course, she was attracted to the BSCL, especially as it as embodied in our children. She would talk to them, or gaze at them with that goofy look, and then she would turn to us and say things like, "I admire your life so much!" Those were the moments when I almost wished for Charles's mother-in-law. But what could I do? If she were being foolish and sentimental (as she certainly was), it was over our children, and what parent can resist that? She thought of us as Corbin's followers, keepers of the flame, and she was going to write to him about how beautifully we lived the Simple Life he so eloquently preached. I tried to deprecate the idea in a polite way, I tried to turn the subject, I even encouraged Brad to talk about his sculpture (a non-starter). It would have been hopeless to argue or to try to enlighten her, as her acceptance of the laundry tale despite the direct evidence of her senses showed. It wasn't cognitive dissonance; she wasn't up to that level of rationalization, didn't need to be. Like the credulous zillions who would uncritically savor the glowing accounts of the Simple Life led by hippie homesteaders printed in practically every newspaper and magazine in North America over the next fifteen years or so, she was infatuated with the myth. It was pleasant to contemplate, elevating, and subtly flattering; to believe was to be sensitive.

We had many visitors that summer, mostly acquaintances who often brought along their own friends to view the bizarre Gardners. While I doubt that any of the visits had so dramatic an aftermath as the one by Charles's in-laws, I do not kid myself that anyone went away full of admiration. For a couple of hours we offered a sort of unique entertainment in their conventional lives, but it was too much, altogether too strong, too highly flavored. There was the strange life, the disreputable poverty, the primitive situation, and the forceful personalities of both of us. It was fine, even exciting for a short visit, and the more unconventionality the better, tell us another wild story, challenge us with your insights, thrill us and chill us with your daring views. I recognized gloomily that, like Corbin, I was becoming a cracker barrel ass in my own right, everyone's pet non-conformist.

I was lifted out of that mood by an extraordinary man with a Simple Living story that made our experience seem inconsequential. When I went to answer the knock on the door I expected to find someone standing on the porch, but Howard Bloom never stood anywhere. He had so much energy to expend that he was in constant movement, pacing, bobbing, stretching, cracking his knuckles, shuffling back and forth. He wore the thickest glasses I've ever seen, he had a prominent nose and bony chin that seemed almost ready to meet, and words, words, words tumbled headlong from his lips. He looked like a benign, absent-minded gnome and sounded like no one but himself.

I gathered from the torrent of speech that Corbin had sent him, had written to ask him to be his agent, to look the place over and make sure everything was all right, to help sell the place, "and so on and so forth," a favorite phrase that signified a change of subject. Now he began to apologize for seeming to snoop, but I assured him that I understood Corbin's solicitude for his property; he was far away and he didn't know me from Adam.

If I say that coming into the house and sitting down to tea and cookies subdued Howard, you must understand this relatively, as an easing-off in nervous movement but no let-up in the word count. How many people responded to Corbin's ad? Any likely prospects? He talked about the real estate business and then remarked that Corbin had gotten the ad free through a deal with a friendly editor. That was typical of him, too cheap to put it in the hands of an agent.

I put down my teacup. This was the first time I had heard anyone make an even faintly derogatory remark about Corbin. Then he said that Corbin was annoyed at not hearing from me for months. "That's his problem. I used to write regularly, but his replies were so obnoxious - here, I'll get the last one." I got the letter. "This was over a year ago, after I'd told him about the exceptionally cold winter. See, right here: 'What's the matter? Is the Vermont winter too tough for the professor?'"

Howard read the letter, holding it close to his glasses. "Oh, Corbin's a prick, everyone knows that. Besides, what the hell would he know about the winter? He never stayed here after October. And so on and so forth -"

"Wait, wait. Do you mean he never wintered here?"

There was an urgency in my voice that stopped him. He looked at me closely. I think he was seeing me for the first time, really paying attention to me. "You read that goddamned pamphlet of his, didn't you?" He shook his head. "I bet a bunch of his disciples came around and told you what a great guy he was, right?" He shook his head again. "You need a talking-to." Pacing around the room, bobbing and weaving, gesticulating, pouring out the words, he told me in general and in particular about Ralph Corbin, and about much else relating to the subject. As he summed up:

Who cared whether he lived on fifty dollars a month or five-hundred? Who cared whether he lived here though the winter or mooched off churchy groups down South? Who cared how he did his laundry? Who cared whether he had a car or not? He lived just like the rest of us, but because he'd made up this moralistic crap that living poor was righteous, he had to make up all those lies about his life. Then he could parade his moral superiority. That's where the disciples came in. They were just nebbishes who wanted to live as he said he did, but didn't have the guts.

It was so obvious when he explained it that I was ashamed of my obtuseness, but he waved that aside.

Oh, we were much more foolish; we were absolute sheep. We got hooked worse than you did. That's how I know it inside out.

It was a remarkable story. Howard and his wife Edith had long been ardent believers in the Simple Life and its associated causes: vegetarianism, organic gardening, whole grain bread, bird watching, vaguely lefty politics, etc., saving their money for a move from the evil city to the wholesome countryside. A dozen years ago, when they were in their early forties, they had thrown up good jobs to follow Scott Nearing, whose paeans to the Simple Life convinced them that they could live on pennies per day. They moved to Vermont, bought a house near the guru, and before you could spell nature backwards, began to make unsettling discoveries, chiefly that Nearing had a trust fund, just as did the other disciples who lived nearby, so they could afford to pretend that they gained their livelihood by a few hour's work each day in the pumpkin patch, or whatever was their "cash crop" (a pretentious phrase still in use). Howard and Edith had no such resource, only their savings, dwindling fast. Another discovery was that the Nearings were sanctimonious autocrats, "Pricks like Corbin," he said, specialists in self-righteousness. Howard said Edith couldn't stand that, and that was the flaw, the opening, and then they saw the rest of it.

Luckily, they were able to sell their house and move north, where they found a nice place and congenial work. I owe much to them. They were friends for years, but the best thing Howard gave me at that first meeting: understanding, not only of Corbin, but of the whole Simple Life fantasy.

At the very end of August I landed a teaching job. How it came about is a story from another opera, but a hint, a whiff of the whole experience may be scented in this fact: when the president hired me he thought I was someone else. I borrowed a truck from the college, and when I drove up to the house on the hill, the first thing I noticed was Aster's empty tether. There was the stake in the ground, there was the chain lying in the grass, and there was her collar at the end of it. Until that moment all my thoughts had been about the possibilities of the job, the house we were going to rent, where the children would go to school, the details of a new life. Now, holding the old worn collar in my hand, my mind turned away from the future, and I saw an ending and a loss. Jo Ann came out of the house, saw me with the collar, and nodded sadly. She had sold Aster that morning to the cattle dealer. We knew that the cow had been the sign and symbol of our life on the hill, and now that life was over.

We were ending a life lived in a beautiful place that perfectly suited our needs, a life that had, in a way, been idyllic, especially for me. I was quite free of obligations except to my family. Securing food and fuel - milking the cow, tending the garden, making butter, cutting wood - were almost my only concerns, and those tasks done, I was ready for anything: a hike to the High Meadow, arguments for hours over the quiddities of Marxism, daredevil toboggan rides, writing and writing into the small hours. I was young and full of animal spirits, there was an early morning freshness in my outlook, a spontaneity about my acts and decisions.

Appropriately, with the assistance of some of the same people who had helped us two years before, we loaded the truck, and managed the move. The three older children were excited, and in the rushed activity of packing and loading the truck we did not notice that Curdie, who had come there as a two-year old and had no conception of anywhere else, was downcast. When visitors left us they "went down the road," and the phrase in her lexicon meant leaving the known world, so when, sitting between Jo Ann and me, we were actually pulling out of the driveway and turning down the narrow road where the boys used to walk to the school bus, she spoke up for the first time that morning.

"I don't want to go down the road," she said quietly, "I want to stay."

In the next issue, "Casting Up Accounts."

Read 1431 times Last modified on Wednesday, 16 December 2015 16:48
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