Wednesday, July 11, 2007

GRANITE STATE VII - Empty Landscape

I had had ideas that there was something solid here with Gillian. We kept on laughing, all through this time. We hugged on Vermont village greens. And when we finally moved into the same room she asked what took you so long, and for some reason that seemed to confirm that there was something really solid here. And it was as intensely erotic I had hoped – thinking at the time how all this would appear in memory – Gillian in the bath, Gillian with a book to identify trees, Gillian blowing on me gently. And strangely she talked in these British tones that were as prissy as they were sexy, as British as my apparently non-sexy family that had once been up here, sometimes still could be found up here, that family where everything was so cold, as opposed to this present when everything seemed so warm. The same tones the family would use, but not the same subject matter – as in Gillian’s “I always tell young people to learn anal sex. It’s the only safe way.”

I was here in one life, and all the places and people around me were from another nearly dead life. The Village of Sugar Hill, where when I was a child I used to go every day with my brother and grandfather, walking past the turn-off to the summer hotel, the Sunset Hill House, with its sweeping veranda, and then along a wooden sidewalk, past village houses with flowers and picket fences, to the tiny post office general sore – it all looked exactly the same. No K-marts. No fast food. No strip malls. Nothing to indicate it was l986, not l946 or ‘36 or ‘26. It was almost as if my grandfather was still here, misdirecting – to my horror when I was 9 – a driver who asked about the Sunset Hill House, misdirecting him because, he said, the couple looked Jewish and would not be given a room if they found the place. And when he saw I was upset he scheduled another walk alone with me to tell me how barring Jews was right because it was not fair that one fellow would work harder than another and get that other fellow’s job. Already I was finding I needed to tune certain things out.

And now over in Vermont we were in a borrowed house that had belonged to an old Foreign Service officer. It was rustic, though on the walls there was England – reproductions from very old issues of Punch. And each of the little mildewed bedrooms upstairs had been designed to remind the owner of a place he had been assigned – one filled with cheap figurines of happy Bavarian men in Lederhosen playing accordions, and on the wall a cheap cuckoo clock. And another that was supposed to be French and thus filled with cheap gilded frames of tourist pictures, the Eiffel Tower, Chartres, and another was supposed to be England again, on the walls prints of hunting scenes. All this cheap fakery in the present which forewarned me the present could be as flimsy as this past I now detested.

We lingered. It turned out to be a wonderful house. We got in the car again and explored. We crossed into Canada. The gas tank started to leak. We got back to Vermont and found we’d have to linger until a garage received a new tank. This seemed just fine. We turned it into a celebration. Filled the little house with balloons. Found a single tape cassette, which was of forgettable New Age Wyndom Hill music that was new to both of us, for we had both spent so much time abroad. I thought when we danced among the balloons that it would be music I would remember.

But when the car was working we had been going over to Franconia and Sugar Hill, which I now saw through her eyes as well as my own. The Pines, the main former family house, now had a tin roof and was split up into apartments, but from the outside it still seemed much the same. “Your magic kingdom” was what Gillian called it. We circled the house, and she saw that down in the back there was a big, thick walled ice house. This indicated to her, she said,that when my grandparents built the The Pines 60 years ago it might have been looked upon as a survivalists’ place. And I recalled the great bins in the sprawling kitchen containing what looked like enough flower and rice and sugar to last for years. And I saw with her eyes now the sweeping landscape that seemed sometimes an extension of this house – this landscape that covered maybe 50 miles – and I realized there no a sign of human life in it except for, in the distance, a cable car on Cannon Mountain that you could see for an instant as it emerged from the pines, no much more than a dot, was backed for an instant by the pale sky, then to disappear again.

And I saw the harshness of the mountains. Lafayette bare above the timber line and scarred with avalanche marks.

And I thought of the trivia my family would have talked – who belonged up here and who didn’t being a constant refrain, balanced by talk of happier times long ago, the best times being before World War I. I thought of how I would tune out bigoted things they would say. Just like, I knew, in the car now I had been tuning out her tales of convoluted sex.

GRANITE STATE VI - And on the Phone

It took me a while to get up there this time – close to two months since the last time and since I heard the news. Up there once last year, 1985, and twice this past August, 1986, and once in late September – and now it was late November. My fourth trip – two times from Vermont and two times up from the city – after going most of my adulthood with no trips to the White Mountains, the family place, the place of the awninged formal houses and the lawns with white benches and marble bird baths, the panorama of the Franconia range always in view – the place against which they judged all other places – as in how they used to say that the Franconia area, which was mostly deteriorating and rustic, was just like Switzerland, where everything was spruced up, saying it in tones that made clear Switzerland was no competition – and I had continued all these years to hold it as the world’s most beautiful place, though like most of them in the family I hardly ever went there – finding it easier to get to Laos or Angola or Brunei or Egypt than to get to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

The last trip came on the spur of the moment. I was locking my bicycle to a post just down from the Museum of Modern Art, which these days I visited more days than not. And I heard a very cultivated, Anglofied but stilll quite pleasant woman’s voice saying “That’s a neat bike, Fred” – and I realized it was this blonde woman, Gillian, whom I knew from meetings – where she listened intently, like a little girl listening, while she played with her long hair, lifted it up, let it flow down. This to me very appealing looking thirtyish woman I had seen but did not know. And now here she was on the sidewalk in front of the Folk Art museum, just down from the Modern, and she had a big hand-lettered sign that said "OUT OF AFRICA" (which was also the title of a current movie) – and she was surrounded on the sidewalk by wooden West African fetish figures she was selling. And when I came out of the museum – I had needed a fresh look at Mattisse’s child being forced into a piano lesson by a gray matriarch while he looks at a warm, bronze nude woman – when I came out we connected again and it seemed we had more or less decided on the spot to drive up to Vermont in a week, which would be the time of my birthday, and also the peak, up there, of the folliage season.

Despite my resolve to stay in Vermont, we hit New Hampshire and it was a trip into the past in more ways than I had expected. She was out of the WASP world too – a sexually convoluted version on the fringe of celebrity and incest – and this was just when everything in my life had been turned upside down – these family people had become devious, vicious and dangerous figures in a landscape that at one moment had seemed in memory soft and nurturing, like the memory I held or created of the family, and in the next moment had seemed deadly – full of traps – sharp spears and spikes rigged up everywhere – no shelter in sight

And all of this change that was taking place seemed to coicide with what she too was undergoing. We had met in a place where people dealt with such changes. And now this change, and the fury and the new hope, were concentrated in sexual energy.

While we traversed all my old scenes in the White Mountains, I would from time to time call in to my answering machine in Chelsea. And on it now were calls from my Aunt Alice from right up here over in Littleton, saying she had something to tell me but not saying what. I did not return the calls – not until after our return and the failure of the tryst to extend into Chelsea – a sudden rift – sudden bitterness, and, yes, abandonment coming from all directions – this chaos that was familiar, that was deep in those old landscapes that I knew again now –

And when I did call from Chelsea it was Aunt Alice saying "It’s really Lauryn’s fault – she’s too good looking, too appealing, she brings it on herself."

Saturday, July 7, 2007


On this trip in the snow storm – which included a night dressed in the wrong clothes I’d brought from the city, moving by moonlight, 30 degrees below freezing, a foot of loose snow everywhere – through all those old scenes – the staid, formal summer houses where I and some kids I knew back then seemed the only inhabitants who could develop other lives – houses which seemed not quite right even back there in childhood when I did not even have words for what I feared, what seemed so possible, could happen in them.

On this trip now in what would be called middle age, a mission – save Lauryn! – this trip I was careful that no one in the family – not her mother, my aunt, to whom I did not speak and not anyone up here tied to family – making sure none of them know I am back here – back in this place –

Lauryn could be forty now. She was just as lithe and pretty as ever – still to all appearances an early twenty-something heart-breaker – and I knew how this had infuriated the family – my grandmother saying as if she cared when Lauryn was in her teens that she couldn’t see how anyone could be attracted to someone with that long straight hair that Lauryn seems to think is so wonderful – her mother saying years later, as if reporting something horrible, “She just looks the way she’s always looked. It makes me so mad. Her mother, my Aunt Alice, to whom it was becoming clear I had been too close in that dark past – her mother whom I recently learned had been in stiff, sexual competition with my grandmother Nana, this grand dame who ran a house where no one mentioned love much less sex – Nana and my Aunt Alice there in the past competing for men who would be friends of my grandfather.

Here in the upstairs sports bar in this mill town a few miles and also light years away from the old summer houses – pool tables here and guys at the bar doing shots with chasers – Lauryn drank a lot, the drinks kept coming to our table now as she told me how it had been – beaten and molested form the age of 8 till 16 when her brother Lenny was killed – beaten and fucked from the moment she was large enough for the probing to become penetration –

Early this year, she said, she had been back visiting in Littleton at her mother's house along with her older brother Lawrence and his wife.They had all been watching a made-for-TV movie that turned out to be about a girl horribly molested by family, and Lauryn,as she told me now, "Just completely lost it. I started screaming. They were amazed." The story had gone around in the family - even I had heard it, though I had so little conscious contact with family - but the tellers implied that it was something that had happened only once, her brother Lenny molesting her just once, which to other members of the family made the story hard to hear but, it seemed, easy to dismiss. Lenny, after all, had been dead for more than twenty years.Lenny, after all, had, like, Lauryn, been adopted.

Telling me about the years of being beaten - "The marks were there on my back" - beaten and raped - telling it in the unlikely Clam Box’s unlikely upstairs sports bar – drinking faster and faster – getting younger and younger – and I knew there must be some very clear psychological explanation – that was also my explanation – for why now my favorite cousin would be getting more and more seductive. The looks. The conspiratorial giggles. The smiles and the laughs and the unconscious touch. Which I had to admit was still appealing, the way she was now, though not the least bit tempting. The fact that she was adopted – which some of them seemed to think meant she was not really family – still did not make the possibility seem any less like incest. Like in the deep past after a night we kissed – that was all but it was enough so that we, Lauryn my ally and I – the only ones, it seemed, who had lives beyond family – we both pretended we could not remember it.

Friday, July 6, 2007


In Littleton that night, after Cousin Carolyn and her husband Thor had left – Thor living proof since I was very young of how wrong they could be. Carolyn always so level-headed, they said, so unusually effective – for a woman in – business. They said it silently clicking their tongues and tutt-tuting through pursed lips. So solid, they said, until that vacation in Norway (which was 45 years ago now). Can you imagine it? Someone from our family marrying her young ski instructor?

Which is why they had made fun just now of Carolyn after she left , and by implication of me because what had been so outrageous was her admiration for a very small and light piece of my writing. And the we went off to dinner at Littleton’s newest restaurant – here in the far north, just below the Canadian border -- surrounded by the highest mountains in the East – this new restaurant was called the Clam Box. Right at our cramped table - one of those family scenes I had been so good at avoiding for so many years – a cousin and an aunt of whom I was suspicious – here about as far as you could get from any sea – right in our face at the table an aquarium tank filled with slimy monsters – a banded water snake, a sort of squid thing, small cat fish sucking up something nasty at the bottom of the tank – a very slippery eel – all right her at the table where we were supposed to eat their close relatives.

This had been in August – this part of the hunt for what had happened in the deep past up here. And now it was late November and in-between was a trip that turned into a trysting trip – which combined intense sex with longing and what felt like instant betrayal, a trip during which this present seemed strangely familiar and the information about the past was pouring in and reaching flood proportions - and now it was nearly Thanksgiving and I was back. My first night – caught in a death-like whiteout in the notch = I’d gotten up to my old friend Ellen's house very late, but the next night I met up with Lauryn – who it turned out was recovering from her recent time in and out of Minneapolis battered women’s shelter with a new boyfriend in New Hampshire – a Littleton man who worked construction in summer and ski patrol in winter, and whose father was a locally famous Canadian mob figure from prohibition days. Not exactly what our family fancied itself, and it was seeming to me likely that this new place of Lauryn’s was far safer than any place for her in our dark, careful, faux Victorian family.

She said on the phone that the best place to meet, the best food, was the new sports bar above this new restaurant called the Clam Box.

Clams in the mountains. A Sports bar.

In the summer I had noticed how on nearly every village green in Vermont there were folksingers – the sixties seemed alive in Vermont’s eighties – and every Vermont town had all these new eating places – sometimes fancy nouvelle this or that, and sometimes health food that was thankfully as far removed as the fancy food from the traditional tasteless New England boiled dinner.

Most New Hampshire villages did not have village greens. I did not know of the Clam Box in August but would not have gone there if I had. I went to the Littleton Diner – which had a big blackboard advertising new specials – just like in all the new eating places in Vermont.

There was only one special on the Littleton Diner board. Oh God – am I becoming as snotty as the tight-ass people I came from? But so help me, the special was Cheeseburger quiche.

This strange part of the world that was supposed to be the happy summer place of my childhood – this past which was changing from sunshine to dangerous darkness so fast I had to be alert to keep up.


There has been another very short trip over from Vermont in the summer as I continued to look for the past – and yet another in late September that entailed romance, nearly, in the present, and sex and betrayal and connection and disruption – so like, it seemed, what I was uncovering. But that was in early autumn. This other summer trip had been to see my Cousin Lawrence, whom I still considered my friend, he being in the theater and thus closer to my life than any of the others – and I went over from Vermont straight to his mother’s house, sort of like a company house, in the non-summer New Hampshire town of Littleton, an old mill town which was far more local than summer. Hardly summer at all.

I went to my Cousins Lawrence and Lauryn’s mother’s place on a steep hill just above the old movie theater – not an our-kind-of-people place at all – the place to which she had fled, my Aunt Alice – the one whom I had been close, and not only because she was the black sheep of her generation.

She had fled the city in the ‘sixties, taking Lauryn out of the Lycée and ballet school, running from the city with Lauryn and Lenny, because if she didn’t Lenny would be going to prison – which was not an our-kind-of-people thing either.

This was before I knew about the battered women’s shelter or knew about what had happened to Lauryn’s childhood. It was after Cousin Elizabeth said she wanted to die and then did die, but just before Cousin Anna’s suicide, right at the time Cousin Richard returned to serve what I knew would be a life sentence in his mother’s house in Tuxedo Park – and before Lawrence would send Lauryn to Florida to look after Lawrence’s strange twisted father-in-law, who was blind and usually drunk and always a rake and had just been left by his latest much younger wife, an alcoholic Playboy bunny. Lawrence knew already that this guy was after his pretty sister Lauryn. The last time this guy put the moves on Lauryn, I was told, it had made Lawrence furious. But now he sent her down there.

All I knew was that hanging over Lauryn was some sort of sexual thing in the past – Lenny doing something to Lauryn not long before he went into the army – ordered there by a New Hampshire judge in lieu of prison – and came back from the army to die fast on a motorcycle. When Mrs. Marsh was talking about the deep past I knew it had not stopped with those incidents she described. I did not have much information yet, but I could smell it.

A couple of years later I would think of what I had been feeling on these family house grounds, especially the grounds of the big summer houses, that August. I went to Easton, Pennsylvania, a dilapidated coal town where artists were getting big studios cheap in abandoned factories and warehouses – and I knew instantly I could not stay in Easton – did not know why, but found out later about the horrors hanging over the place, including the mass hangings of union people, the mass killings of the Wobblies. What I felt there in Easton before I had the information was much like what I felt in New Hampshire just as the information in New Hampshire started to come in.

On that brief trip to see Lawrence, before we left Aunt Alice’s house for dinner, I went out for a walk alone in late afternoon mountain light, turned around on the sidewalk, saw Aunt Alice was following me and looking at me as you would look at a lover. And I was remembering early childhood. I was in early childhood.

When I got back to the house some older, well-traveled distant cousins I liked had dropped by on their way to somewhere. Everyone but me was always dealing with near or distant family in this family I believed I had long ago escaped. Cousin Carolyn, with whom I think my father had been in love many years back, said just about the most thrilling thing that had happened to her was getting on an airplane in Tokyo ten years ago and reading a really funny in-flight magazine article about finding the perfect place write – and then realizing this great article was by her Cousin Fred. And Lawrence and his wife and his mother changed the subject fast, and later made fun of this older cousin for saying that I was at the center of something great. Then they asked me to spend time picking up Lawrence’s stepson from far-off Burlington and ferrying him to Littleton – which sounded like the first of the many tasks for which they could use me.

That was trip number two. Trip number three, in foliage season, was a kind of trysting venture with a deceptively girlie blonde woman I had met in one of the meetings I had been going to as part of this search. A 12-step program called ACOA, Adult Children of Alcoholics, which I quickly learned from people who did other programs (and yes, observing another program back when I stopped drinking) , was free from orthodox AA, Big Book and Alanon ideas to hold back blame and anger. Anger was encouraged, forgiveness came up only in the words, which I used to close a meeting once , “fuck forgiveness.” Everyone was out to find out what had happened. A let the chips fall where they may situation. And at this time I though I had stopped writing, and I was not quite in art school yet but spending my city days in galleries and museums – but always carrying a notebook, and always going to a Sunday morning meeting at a lecture hall at St. Vincent’s Hospital where people did not rant and scream – much as I liked that part in the regular meetings. Instead they moved into the past in writing that they would read to each other – writing on the spot. The person leading the meeting would put some questions on a blackboard, and everyone would write scenes in response, and it was here the important last veils, the lingering fog on my landscape – had so nearly completely lifted.

It was here that I realized the verbal family accounts could not hold up on paper. It was here that I learned how a story cannot be told verbally without the teller knowing exactly where it will go, whereas it is almost impossible to write a story – to really write it by plunging into the actual scenes and using written words to recreate these scenes – just about impossible to do this and keep the story, the way it is told in the family, intact.

And here I was in that old setting, the White Mountains, where all family stories, and my own stories that I had held together, stressed not only that this was the most beautiful place in the world but that also it was absolutely safe, even to the point of being a little silly in its sedate picture of itself – a place that was so safe and secure that it would always keep us apart from the lives and stories and places of people not in the family, of those regular people who were so out of reach.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

GRANITE STATE II - The Buzzing Factor

I would stay away from that place, the White Mountains, for years, but I knew when I was staying away and when I was pulled back – unlike my father and his siblings, who had rarely gone back there but talked as if, and seemed to believe, they were there all the time – like these cousins of mine who talked that way too – these cousins, Anna who was about to hang herself, Mark who would later kill himself with a gun, Elizabeth just now dead in Sloane Kettering after wishing herself dead and hinting about what had happened to her in Rhinebeck – and others still trapped in childhoods they could not leave. And now Lauryn – my favorite – back in New Hampshire after being sprung from a battered women’s shelter, which was the immediate reason for this late November trip —that and this stimulating hunt I was on – which had ended my depression – this hunt to find out what had happened to them and to me – all of us, maybe, but certainly me this time.

November now and zero cold already. The next to last trip had been in August when I came over from Vermont in the aqua car I had just picked up. I had stayed at Elllen’s house – White Wings – then, as I did now in November. Ellen, this friend from very young days for whom I had still has great affection. White Wings had been one of my childhood summer homes. It had been bought by her parents when she and I were 14, and she was so pretty and nice I did not mourn the change of ownership Now she was an eccentric woman who lived in a wing of White Wings that had for a few years been bright and cheery but was now a place of peeling paint and splintery wood but with good paintings on the walls, a place where she lived with 20 dogs – also, a rescued cow and a pet pig on the premises – and a very young handyman who lived here too. Lived this way, while the other wing was kept shuttered and locked in musuem-like style just as if my grandfather the honored novelist was stil around. The local police, a very local force of basically one officer, had been told by her aged mother, who was bedridden a thousand miles away, to make sure she did not break in. All of which added to the affection I felt for her. Maybe she had no control over the family she had come from, but she had taken the handyman out of a farm – and away from a father who beat him – a farm so bare bones they could not manage silos and silage, rented their few near-worthless, rocky acres, produced milk which sold very low because it came from mongrel cows –

I was about to leave one morning when marijuana clouds were too thick for understandable conversation. But as I packed up I heard Ellen on the phone saying “Guess who’s here?” and it turned out she was talking to Mrs. Marsh, who had been the cook and head housekeeper at White Pines, where she made me special maple sugar cup cakes – and who I had assumed was long dead. Now Mrs. Marsh drove over, looking just like I remembered her from maybe a century back – maybe in her 90s now and as she got out of her car it was as if she were the one looking for the past – looking for me – I always felt so awful about what happened at that place, she said – what happened to you, she said – and she told me some of it – that perfect place, which she had always hated, it was so cold, she said – they should never have built it, should have stayed in White Wings, she said– these conservative people whose talk had been mostly about the past, World War I and earlier times – these people with their acquired British accents and proper schools – she told me some of it – mostly sexual matters in White Pines where sex was never mentioned – even words like stomach were banned as disgusting. And she also let me know why I remembered her so well. It was because I had spent so much time being punished for things , some real, some not – exiled, Thank God, I thought now – to the servants' part of the house – punished after being turned in –sometimes, she said, by my twin brother – who was the one they all liked, who remained in the other part of the house – my brother, who, she said now, she still could not warm to - he being the only one in the generation who had taken one of the family houses – “The Homestead,” which was a name rather than a description. It was in sight of Ellen’s White Wings, separated by a big cultivated white pine forest from White Pines. He was not here now at the start of winter, but he came often in summer.

Mrs. Marsh was joined here at Ellen’s by her daughter Dora, now very middle-aged, who had just pulled out of cancer – and Mrs. Marsh spurred my memory of the very young Dora in the big house, White Pines, where Dora was placed at the long formal dinner table more than once at Nana’s command when without her the number at the table would have been 13.

I still have a video Ellen made this day of this reunion. Mrs. Marsh and Dora are on it giving a run-down of who was buzzing who at White Pines and elsewhere in the very proper summer community --- “buzzing” being a local person’s word that the summer people would have enjoyed— a word used by quaint New Englanders – unless they had known, as now I knew, that the use of the word “buzzing” meant something much more forbidden than “ stomach.”