Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Simple Life

Five years ago, we left New Jersey to live the simple life. We figured we’d kick back a little, ride the horses, grow some tomatoes, maybe even spin some wool. Nah, not spin wool. Who am I kidding? I can’t even hem a pair of pants. But I figured I could manage a couple of tomatoes. This is what an average morning is like for me now:

I get up at five and get the fire going again. Even though we put in new heat, and the plastic on the windows, which are also new and shouldn’t even need plastic, and even with the woodstove going—which before we moved to the country, I thought would be romantic—I am still freezing my ass off here.

I get the coffee going. I read a few e-mails. Then I get the kid up and out to school. This involves cries about homework that was forgotten and suddenly remembered, papers that need to be signed that I wasn’t told about the night before even though I asked, the need for new pencil lead or hand sanitizer or a one-inch binder with a picture of Hannah Montana on it or else she’s going to get into big trouble, plus disagreements about whether the child is warm enough or looks nice enough (“You look like a rag-picker!”) and won’t she please let me make her some grits or a nice soft boiled egg?—Toaster Strudels are okay once in a while but not every morning. Might as well eat a candy bar. Kelly says that’s a good idea. Kendal’s mother let’s her eat candy in the morning. Then I let her go out the door with her coat hanging open and no hat because I can’t stand to annoy her one more time. I tell myself, she knows if she’s cold.

Next I get Kurt up. I make numerous trips up the stairs. The first trip consists of loving kisses and cheerful statements such as, “It’s a beautiful day in Virginia!” and “Com’on you handsome devil!” On trip number four, there is rough shaking, lies about what time it really is and warnings that if he’s late, his boss might fire him. This causes hysterical laughter. It doesn’t necessarily get him up.

But I can’t keep farting around. I have to go outside to feed the horses before they start stampeding. I peek out the window and see them leaning against the fence, trying to pop the boards off. They are staring at the house hard. They think if they concentrate hard enough, they can will me to come out. Actually, it works. I tell Kurt he better get up because I’m not coming back—I’ve got to go feed. He kicks the blankets roughly like there’s a big spider after him and furiously pulls them over his head and barks “Go away!” Now his feet are sticking out of the covers but I don’t say nothing.

I go downstairs and feed the dog. After he’s done, he takes a drink and forgets to close his mouth when he exits the bowl area. Half the water dribbles onto the floor. I step in it. I grab a new pair of socks which I keep on the shelf by the phone just for this reason and put them on. I put his blaze orange collar on so he doesn’t get shot in the woods. I put on my boots, a ski mask like the kind burglars wear, my Giants jacket if it’s normal cold, or the heavy duty mother that’s made for Michigan or Maine, if we’re getting an Arctic blast. Meaning really really cold. I top it off with Thermolite gloves with micro insulation (don’t ask me, that’s what it says on the tag and I assume that’s how it translates from the Chinese writing on the other side). They are so thick I can’t wiggle my fingers. I have to keep taking them off to do things like pick up the newspaper or open up the trash can. Which defeats the whole purpose. My fingers are numb before I even get to the barn.

The horses are thrilled to see me. They adore me, those horses. Why wouldn’t they? A large part of our relationship consists of me feeding them. And it’s not easy. They all have to be separated or else the herd leader, who lives on air, will gobble up his grain and then go eat the next-in-line’s, who in turn will go eat the grain belonging to the one below him and so on. (Not unlike the Wall Street guys.) This will leave the old guy, who needs the most and takes the longest to eat it, with nothing. (Kind of like our senior citizens.) So I catch them all and separate them. (Similar to government regulation.) It’s tricky. When they see me, they are like a busload of sugared-up school kids let out for the summer. Run! Yay!

While the horses are eating, I fill the water barrels, drain the hose, feed the barn cat, empty a fifty-pound bag of grain and empty the ash can which weighs about thirty pounds. I carry a bucket of water with me to pour on the ashes in case they’re still hot and that weighs about twenty pounds. I’m like a Dutch girl carrying two buckets to the dam. Next, I get kindling, more batteries for the electric fence which is dead again since they don’t make anything in America anymore, and I bring some moldy hay over to Pearl and Eldon who will give it to their cows. Then I pick up manure.

This is when I do my best thinking. This is when I came up with the idea for this story. This is when I mull things over and decide what exactly my sister-in-law meant by that remark anyway and wasn’t that Amish guy who was selling ham steaks in the town market gorgeous? I didn’t know they could be that good looking. I mean, he was seeexxxxyyyy. I wonder if he is considered hot in the Amish world? Maybe they don’t think he’s all-that in those phoneless dark houses? Maybe they think he’s really ugly and that’s why they make him go and sell the ham steaks to the heathens in town who talk on the phone every waking minute? Every culture is different about what it finds attractive. Oprah did a show about a country that thinks fat ladies with big butts are the ideal. The fatter the better. Talk about paradise. We all ought to move there and take the pressure off. I mean, imagine being encouraged to gorge on macaroni-and-cheese and chocolate cake and bragging about your cellulite?

While thinking such important things, I make two trips down to the manure pile to dump the wheelbarrow. Four if the horses have been in the stalls. On the way back up the hill, I say something slightly derogatory about Kurt—okay, I cursed him—because the wheel on the wheelbarrow is still broken and he hasn’t fixed it. I can hardly push it. I stop to rest. The guilt I was indoctrinated with in Catholic school kicks in. The poor guy’s been working day and night for God’s sake! He’ll get to it when he can! I make a mental note not to vie for the clicker tonight. If he wants to watch Two and a Half Men or CSI even though it’s a repeat and The Bachelor’s on, that’s fine. I look at the beautiful mountain behind my farm and remind myself that this is my dream. I cry, “Look at that mountain, will you?! Just look at that, you ungrateful thing!” The dog runs over. I bend down and pet him. “No, I’m not calling you.” Then, recharged, I start pushing again.

I get wood. I hose out the broken wheelbarrow and wash the mud off the wheel so it’ll turn easier and squirt off my boots. Clumps of clay fall to the lawn. No matter how careful I am, my ankles get wet and my sweatpants are spattered red like I’d been slaughtering pigs. Which I would never do. Farm or no farm, I’m one of those hypocrites who eats meat but who thinks the people who butcher them are mean and cruel. Someday I am going to get a pig as a pet and call her something funny like Paris.

I drain that hose. I fill the wheelbarrow with logs and start pushing. Even with the broken wheel, it’s still easier than carrying it by hand. See, here’s the thing. All the wood-getting I saw on the Waltons or read about in books showed the people carrying an armload of kindling into the house, whistling, leading me to believe that that was all it took. A simple armload. No wonder I thought it was romantic. Anybody can get one armload of wood. One armload of wood would be worth doing for the atmosphere alone. But in real life, one armload is nothing. One armload would barely warm my cute little button nose. One armload of wood is like spitting on the windshield of the truck, wiping it with your sleeve and saying you’ve been to the car wash. It’s nothing.

At any rate, I push the wheelbarrow to the deck and make eight trips up the steps to the sliding glass doors on the side of the house where the stove is. Up and down….up and down….up and down….up and down….up and down….up and down….up and down….up and down—just to give you an idea of what eight times feels like. Only carrying about forty pounds of wood per shot. (Funny how I know how much everything weighs except for myself—I don’t own a scale and I’m not getting one and if I’m unaware that I put on a few extra pounds from all that Peanut Butter Panic Ice Cream, well then, so be it; after all this work on the farm, I think I deserve it.) I stop and look at the mountain again.

Then I check the heater in the well house and I spend ten minutes (while squatting because you can’t stand up in there since the roof is only yay high) turning it higher, because I’m paranoid the holding tank is going to freeze, then turning it lower, because I’m worried about my electric bill, then turning it up again, then down again. No spot on the dial gives me peace. Finally, I curse Kurt again because he hasn’t insulated the well house or fixed the door and if it was insulated and if I didn’t have to hold that door closed with a rock, I wouldn’t have to worry about this and I can’t do it, I can’t do it all, I can’t do everything here, I’m a girl, I’m just a girl, I shouldn’t have to do the guy stuff too!

Then, the nuns from Catholic school again. Sister Grace Gabriel is poking me in the head and swinging that crucifix like she is going to smack me with it. It’s brutal. I better toe the line and be nice. I make a mental note to check if I have the ingredients to make Kurt’s favorite dessert tonight. Maybe even give him a massage while he’s watching Two and a Half Men.

Next, I drag the garbage cans over to the truck, heave them up onto the bed and the dog and I go down to the dump. I pull over and pick up any litter that’s on the road. I stop on average from my house down to the main road about six times. Slam on the brakes when I see a Chick-fil-A wrapper, throw it in park, jump out, ding, ding, ding, the door’s opened with the key still in it so it’s beeping, the dog is rushing from window to window, whatever side I am on, getting drool all over the glass, grab the trash, shove it in the trash can deep so it doesn’t blow out, and jump back in. Effie drives by while I am bending down for an Old Milwaukee can. She taps her horn and an empty Wal-Mart bag flies out of the back of her truck. I get that too.

Back home, I clean the house (I suppose if I wasn’t a clean freak I could forgo this part, but I am, very anal and Felix Unger-like, so that’s not going to happen—I tried it once and went into a deep depression and I still have nightmares over those unmade beds and the coffee cup in the sink), do the laundry, stoke the fire, pay bills and make the phone calls. Kurt needs his cholesterol medication renewed. There was a mistake on the insurance bill. I have to call Kelly’s school where hopefully they won’t mention that she looks like a rag-picker and is not wearing a hat, and I need to make an appointment with the accountant and the horse vet.

On some days, I do what I call “an extra”—paint something, clean bookshelves or wash the blinds and the curtains which are full of soot from the woodstove. Sometimes I do errands. Sometimes they’re kind of fun like yesterday I got my hair cut at Wanda’s House of Beauty where the entire procedure cost me less than what my sister tipped the girl for doing my hair up in Jersey. I didn’t tell Wanda that—I don’t want her getting any ideas. Then I picked up ten bales of hay, two gallons of milk—whole for the coffee and one-percent for drinking—and one jar of peach butter that the lady in the bank sells for the rescue squad.

When the weather is nice, I somehow squeeze in riding a horse.

This is an average morning in the country. I didn’t spin any wool, but it was a lot. Next time I’ll tell you what happens after lunch.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bars and Churches on Corners

There are no bars in Virginia. I didn’t know places existed that had no bars. I tried to take my parents to a little hole-in-the-wall I’d discovered when I passed it on my way to the pancake supper down at the firehouse. There would likely be good atmosphere. Perhaps some fiddle playing and foot stomping. A farmer in overalls raising a bottle of cold beer to his lips, the heels of his rubber boots hooked onto the chrome legs of his stool, reeking of cow manure. Perhaps the brothers Dewey and Fred, on each side of him, slinging back a few themselves. The bartender would have a charming southern drawl and my parents would keep tipping him so they could hear him say, “Why thank you ma’am,” and “I surely do appreciate it sir.” But when we went down there, there was a sign on the door: “Closed Saturdays.” My mother asked incredulously, “What kind of bar is closed on a Saturday?”

The only bar that I found down here.

There are plenty of places to get liquor though. There are these ABC stores that are run by the state. The government is in the liquor store business down here. I don’t know how that works. I’ve never been inside one but I can imagine that there’s no Frangelico and no imported chocolates with raspberry liqueur centers.

You can also get booze from the convenience stores. Beer and wine coolers and I’m not sure what else because I’ve never really scrutinized it but I did see some MD 20-20, aka Mad Dog, in one of them, and I haven’t seen that grape flavored junk since I was 17-years-old and it was coming back up out of me after I drank too much trying to be cool.

You can also get some from your neighbor. The real McCoy. Moonshine. Just go next door and hint around. While leaning on your pickup truck door and he’s leaning on a rake, say, real casual, “I sure wouldn’t mind getting me some of that moonshine,” and then drop it. If your neighbor is not cooking up the stuff himself in the woods behind his barn, his cousin Jeb twice removed is, or the mayor’s nephew is, and one of them will be over right shortly. If you’re having a baby, you might get some without asking. It’ll be in baby food jars marked “For Teething” with a black Sharpie pen and there will be jokes about you not sneaking any.

Now, up in the city, what they call a city (it’s like no city that I ever knew, more like a large town, but it’s all we’ve got city-wise and who I am to say it’s labeled incorrectly?), there are restaurants with bars in them. But they’re not really for drinking. They’re more like, for waiting. I suspect the bartenders aren’t even real bartenders—just waitresses or dishwashers or the hostess who is filling in and they don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t even know what a call drink is or what straight up means and they certainly don’t know how to keep ‘em coming.

In the city, there are clubs where you can go to hear music and potentially get a load on. But every time we go up there, they are closed or the parking lot is wind-blown empty except for a tinkling beer bottle rolling to the other side. It was eleven o’clock on a Friday night when we stopped at one after the movies. I got a bug. I said, “Let’s go dancing.” Then, “It doesn’t look like it’s opened.” Kurt said, “Maybe they didn’t get going yet.” So we went inside. The bartender turned with a case in his arms and the manager looked up from his calculator. “We’re closed,” they said.

There are more places down here that have music and no booze. In Jersey, that would be a place that lost its liquor license for serving underage people or for gambling or selling eight balls out the back room and they’d close down until they got it back, losing many thousands of dollars in business and perhaps never catching back up after such a blow. Depending on how long they’d been shut down, they might even go out of business. No sense to open if they can’t sell booze.

There is a whole music trail down here that is mostly booze-free and you can get maps from the Chamber of Commerce or on the counter in the antique store that also sells apples and jars of honey, and hit one music place after another. Tuesdays there’s music at the 77 Restaurant where they sell delicious BLTs and hamburgers but no food when there’s music. Free coffee though. Thursday mornings they have music in the Dairy Queen. Fridays there’s something in the back of Layman’s Container and Mulch. Saturdays nothing. But Wednesdays you can go down to the Piney Holler Community Center and catch something good. Maybe the What-in-Tarnation Gang if you’re lucky. Or the Glory Gospel Singers if you’re not.

At any rate, there are no real bars. Not that I really care. I just think it’s weird. Where I come from, there are bars on every corner. Here, it’s churches. Brick churches, white churches, churches inside metal pole barns where lime and fertilizer is sold, churches in tents that have revivals, and cowboy churches (these move around from farm to farm and cater to the horse show set like me because we need all the prayers we can get, risking life and limb riding bucking horses and all, and skipping church on Sunday because there’s a ropin’ or a barrel race).

There are churches with steeples and up in the city, churches with tall spires poking the sky, and most churches have their very own cemeteries encircled by wrought-iron fences with ornamental curlicues and scrolls like metal mermaid hair. There are flags, rebel and American, and fresh carnations on the tombstones because the dead are not forgotten around here. Basically, there’s a church for every taste (at least architecturally, if not spiritually—they’re all Christian, mostly Baptist) and I’ve often wondered how such a small amount of people can support so many churches. Do the math. If there’s one on every corner and a half dozen houses on the average road, that’s a lot of religion.

I have to admire it, even though I’m not a church-goer myself. I’m not a drinker either. Which is surprising since I practically grew up in a bar. When I really did grow up, I worked in one. It was a tavern and had a diamond-shaped window in the door and Sinatra on the jukebox. I can play Liars’ poker, darts and pool righty or lefty. That’s a big advantage.

It’s also a big advantage that I don’t drink. I can drink. I’ve just never been big on it. Other than when I was seventeen and really stupid. I’m too much of a control freak. I don’t like the feeling of being out of control in any way. Even if it’s just being a little buzzed. Nah. Plus, I’m high on life. I’ll get you drunk though. I can make Fuzzy Navels, Sloe Gin Fizzes, Kamikazes and B-52s. I’m not sure what’s in style nowadays drink-wise. I heard about something called a Blue Suicide. Whenever I’m writing one of my bar stories, I have to do research because I’m out of it now and so I call someone from New Jersey who still goes out bar bouncing every weekend or attends christening parties, children’s birthday parties, horseshows, business meetings or picnics, whatever, whatever event it is, there will be drinking, and I ask, “What are they drinking nowadays?” and “How would they order it? How would they say it? I need a young person’s drink.” Or “I need an old person’s drink but not a highball.” Depending on the character. I’m a certified mixologist but I’m retired. I push wheelbarrows full of horse manure now, not drinks, and I can tell you how much sand a horse has got in his gut by mixing some manure in a cup of water but I can’t tell you what they’re mixing vodka with nowadays.

So I read about bars. I buy books about them. Not only to refresh my memory but because there are interesting characters in bars. I had a customer one time who lost her teeth in a glass of Michelob and had no idea they were gone. Kept right on drinking. And then there’s Old Man Scottie, who won the lottery but still carried his change to the bar in a Maxwell House coffee can. Not to be confused with Scott the Lobsterman, whose ex-wife had three nipples but who left him anyway because she said he was too nice. He liked to complain that nice guys always finish last so I went out with him one time just to prove him wrong. But now that I’m thinking about it, maybe I proved him right because nothing ever came of that.

What did come from my time being in bars was the realization that they are kind of a microcosm of real life. An entire community, not unlike any ordinary neighborhood or family or even congregation, where you can find an array of colorful characters who will advise, support, annoy, entertain, pick you up and back you up in more ways than one. If you’d like to read about folks like the lady who lost her teeth or Old Man Scottie, without actually going into a bar, or if you live in Virginia and can’t find one, check out the funny and touching novel-in-stories, Later, at the Bar, by Rebecca Barry. Either that or you can try that hole-in-the-wall place by me. Just don’t go on a Saturday.