Saturday, March 16, 2013

I went out tonight with my friend Doug.  He had some errands, and we got to the show on time.  It was the world premier of the story of Mark Utter, overcoming his autism to reach out and communicate.  He wrote the screenplay.  The movie is called "I Am In Here".  It's a VSA production by Emily Anderson.  Years of work.
The place was packed, the show was great, he's great, and afterward I felt like heading home (at 8:30, after being ill all week, and knowing that any good bands wouldn't go on till 10:00).  I am growing weary, but thought I'd enter this.  So how about a short story, to give the post some pith.

MY FIRST JOB IN VERMONT               c Charlie Messing 2013
                I was twenty-eight, my wife thirty, the kids four and six.  After living in New York City and Louisville, we had spent three years on Long Island, near my parents, where I had been stripping and refinishing furniture for a living.  I had come to realize that my job was bad for my health.  We wanted to move to the country, though I had no idea what I'd do there.  We chose Vermont because my brother and sister-in-law were there; we had liked it more and more each time we visited them, so we made the leap.  We had high hopes.
       We moved to Vermont in the Summer of 1974 and rented a little house which had been inhabited, for a year, by my brother and his family.  Overlooking the intersection of Routes 302 and 25 in Orange, the house had been assembled from several guest cabins that had once been clustered together on the hill.  Its wooden siding was pink with white trim.
       Thirty feet away, across the driveway, was a four by four shed, also pink with white trim, which housed the well.  Ten feet down the well was mounted a board, constantly damp, which was the platform one stood on while attending to the electric pump.  The pump was mounted on another board which was cemented into the curved brick  wall.  Often I was called upon to climb down the iron rungs and stand on that slippery and doubtful platform.  By the light of a 40 watt bulb I strove to solve the mysteries of the little pump which provided or failed to provide all our water.  The man who had assembled the cabins and installed the water system had had problems with the plumbing, and so in turn did we.  I had quite an adventure one cold day, crawling under the house to wrap heating tape around the pipes. 
       We had no car and no money,  so we applied for Welfare.  Fulfilling their requirements involved looking for work in my area, so at their suggestion I walked the roads in all three directions for ten miles or so.  I asked at every home, shop or store whether they could use any help.  No one said they could, but after a few days, the whole neighborhood sure knew I could.

       One morning we were awakened by a knock at the door.  My neighbor down the hill had come up to tell me about a day or two's work.  A woman in town had passed away, and the seventy two year old man in charge of town burials was in need of a helper.  He would split his fee of sixty five dollars with me.  My neighbor offered to give me a lift to the man's house.  I got dressed as my wife constructed a large whole-wheat cheddar cheese and alfalfa sprout sandwich.  She put it in a bag with a thermos of coffee, wished me luck, and I was off. 
       My neighbor drove down Route 302 and pulled into a driveway I'd passed many times.  The yard was neat and plain, the firewood well stacked.  The old house was in good repair; you could tell the folks had resided there a long time.  The only modern thing in the yard was a yellow Toyota station wagon.
       I got out of the car, thanked my neighbor, and knocked on the kitchen door as he drove away.   The man of the house, one of those old time Vermonters I respected a lot but couldn't read at all, let me in.  He had silver hair and glasses, and wore overalls. I waited in the crowded little kitchen while his wife finished packing his lunch.  I didn't know what to say.  They said as little as I.  They spoke a few parting words to each other, and I followed him out. We loaded the Toyota with a bag, two shovels and a pick.  We got in and he made a right turn out of the driveway.
       We drove up a side road closely lined with dense trees.  It wound around to the top of a hill and there emerged from the forest.  The town cemetery, surrounded by a wooden rail fence, spread over the slope.  I got out at his bidding to open the gate, and he drove to a bare spot near the center of the yard.  The view stretched over hills and hollows toward Plainfield in the distance.  Clouds drifted across the sky as I drifted about the graveyard reading the old stones, and the old man took out a chart and located the spot where we would dig.
       He staked out its borders with string as I brought the tools from the car, and then we started to dig a hole six feet deep.  The ground was full of clay and rocks.  After we got down a foot or so, we needed the pickaxe.  The shovels could remove the debris, but they wouldn't make a dent.  I'd never used a pick before.  I'd never dug in ground like that before.
       At lunchtime we sat in the car with our sandwiches and our thermoses.  As I ate my hand-sliced whole wheat sandwich, almost too big to bite, he ate three Wonder bread sandwiches.  One had a single slice of bologna, one had a thin layer of peanut butter, and one had a thin layer of jelly.  I had recently been learning a lot about nutrition.  I watched his old mouth move as he calmly ate the triangle shaped halves, one after another.
       We dug down about four feet that day, and I was to help finish the job the next day, but he decided that night that he could just as well finish it alone, so he sent a message to that effect, and we never met again.  It would have taken him only two or three days in any case, and it would surely have taken me a week.  He sent me my half of the fee as soon as he got paid, a few days later.

       But of course when I was with him I didn't know that I wouldn't be working the following day.  As he drove me home late that afternoon, a car came speeding towards us over the crest of a hill, silhouetted in the glare of the setting sun.  It was coming right down the center of the road, wheels astride the solid white line.  A car-length before it smashed into us, the old man flicked the wheel to the right and back again.  The other car zoomed on past. 
       He said, "That was close."  A minute or two later, he dropped me off at the bottom of my driveway, turned his car around, and I watched him go. 

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