Friday, November 8, 2013

The Red Trailer

                     Laid off again. It was a hard time. Obviously we had to make a change or we would be out on the street. Kathleen, my wife, thought we might rent the house for extra cash. It was a terrible sacrifice for her to leave her house. But the land that we had bought in ’92 was available. (We called it “the land”. It was almost as if we were going camping. If nothing else we were survivors. I have observed acquaintances clinging to fancy sucked down, and only a bottle of wine and the shirts on their backs were left over; and their future and their childrens' future ruined. A real estate agent advised them to walk out of the mortgage.) I had a little cash left from the better days, just enough to put the septic in and a gravel pad and a well. I started to look around for a used trailer. In Maine they are called “starter homes”. (I love that phrase. In Maine it has special meanings. I guess you have to be a Mainer.) You wonder how you get into these situations but it is unwise to get too down about it because bad can go to worse in a few days. It’s amazing, for instance, how fast you can get hungry. I thought about Knut Hamson's novel, Hunger. At each mysterious twist and turn of free market capitalism in my life the book has come to mind. We weren’t in that situation yet, but we needed to make better use of what we had or we might be.
     Rather than spend her days weeping and beating her breast, Kathleen studied the newspaper ads. In the Lewiston paper there was a used trailer near Sabattus, not too far away. It was mud season and once you drove off the main road, the dirt road into it was almost impassible. The billowing murk pressed on my nervousness and the grey rain beat against the car’s windshield. I zigzagged from one side of the road to the other in order to avoid the muddy ditches. I was still driving the Mustang, a left over from my better days—Kathleen owned the mandatory in Maine 4-wheel drive "Jimmy". As we pulled up to the trailer I already knew I was going to buy it. It had been re-sided with T111 which had been painted barn red. The roof line was vaguely convex. Actually this was probably the best house we ever had for heat. Roofers who know what they are doing often build flat roofs because they are so heat efficient. But the big weight of the snow on the roof eventually plays havoc, and the house won’t survive long, I don’t care who the builder is. If you know how to shovel a roof, that, so it turns out, becomes less a problem. But shoveling an icy roof is a quaint occupation. It is surprisingly easy to fall off a roof, even one that is just slightly pitched. The trailer had plenty of windows, another advantage. The young couple living in it was anxious to move out and away from “the road” which was a “disaster” and into an “apartment” where they could “just live”. Besides, the owner of the land was planning a trailer park with new trailers, and they’d have to move out soon anyway because their trailer was too “crappy” for this new neighborhood in development. The bedroom was filled up with a giant water bed, which surprised me because I didn’t think a waterbed was the greatest thing for fornication. They were in a family way, that period in life when people are often very soft and gentle and sweet and enjoyable to be around. Didn’t I feel them in the years afterward improving my mood when it was dark? I figured that the building was worth two-thousand. They weren’t inclined to argue.


     It was a crazy time of my life. I finally got another job. I was driving down country to go to work, 120 miles, and staying over with my father in Hampton for the three day work week in a type shop in Salem, Massachusetts. The owner of the type shop was looking for a computer guy. They were hard to find back then, and I wasn’t one, so I was lucky to hang on to the job for a year. On top of that acknowledged instability I was stunned with organizing the survival. Took awhile before we managed to get the trailer moved to “the land”. It blew a tire on the way. Moving trailers is big business in Maine. I was lucky only one tire blew. Upon arrival at the land the movers reminded me that the blown tire had meant a lot of extra work, and they had not ripped me off. The estimate for the move was $400, but since the tire had blown, it would be more. I thought: “Okay. Thanks.” I waited, studying the ground, not breathing, wondering. They tried to sound conciliatory: “Fifty bucks more.” I sighed, relaxed, said, “Okay.”
     Now, the land was hard scrabble forest land in West Paris, Maine, damp around the edges, not ideal; and having been recently logged, it was grown over to thick swatches of saplings and brush. The dirt road, Kittridge Brook Road, leading up to it, was even less ideal, but I knew from my experience in road construction that the driveway into the land would stay put. I bought the land from Corneilieson, who laid the driveway. He said: “I happened to run into some good gravel.” Good gravel packs and sticks together like cement. It is the same one-hundred years later, in good times and bad. Frank Wright should have used more of it under his houses. Then they would have lasted longer. Good gravel is hard to run across nowadays. What you end up with is grainy ballast in too much sand. It floats away with the rain or blows away on the wind. I have invented another name for it: bullshit. It is everywhere I look.
     But the lot was well insulated from the neighbors. It had firewood and solitude, and it was flat, the better to raise animals, my wife’s first love.
     We moved into the old junker 70 foot trailer even before the water was hooked up. Although the son of a friend of my wife’s helped us, for me the learning curve was steep. The roof had to be sealed; skirting installed; gas and heating oil systems attached; plumbing put in. Water systems, for instance, are tricky for the luckless beginner with no money. Eventually, after a summer of struggling, I bought a new pump from Sears on credit and a plumber helped me install it. He did the plumbing with real copper and solder, not PVC. He explained to me enough about the ins and outs to survive. I can’t remember whether I ever paid him. He was a neighbor, and neighbors are like that in Maine. Later, adjusting the plumbing on my own, I used a fitting with a tiny scratch in it which, having allowed air into the system, caused it to run lousy. I am a stubborn person; I never ask for directions; it took me an entire maddening month to finally give up, but the plumber came over and found the problem in a couple of minutes.
     The last of the kids left and my mother-in-law, Ruth, came to live with us, and she kept my wife occupied. After all the anguish my wife expressed to me about her mother, having hardly a single good word to say about her, they got along peacefully; they pacified each other. They’d sit together for hours in the evening, employing themselves one way or another. My wife would say, “Aw, Ma”, and no matter how she tried she could not veil the affection in her voice. But Ruth must have wondered about me, a great reader, hiding forever somewhere behind a book. She said to me a few admonitory comments— “A man should occupy himself with his hands.” That sort of thing. But for the most part she was cordial. She noticed that I also went to work outside the house, an important ritual in life for the old people; and not nearly so important nowadays since everyone wants to work at home in front of their computer. When I was laid off there was land to clear and firewood to work up. Otherwise when I eventually found steady work, I went out every day in a decrepit Chevy pickup. So in the end she didn’t seem to mind whatever I did with my own time. Kathleen follows her mother, whether she likes it or not. They both have enormous inner resources for amusing themselves.
     In fact, I might add as an aside to folks stumbling toward marriage, for the bridegroom, think well of thy mother-in-law for the wife will soon be like her, and for the bride, think well of thy father-in-law for one day the husband will be like him, and probably sooner than later. And hope for the good times while expecting the bad times in order to avoid disappointment.


     Even as a child in third grade I had loved to write. Now I had no money and no job, I had no excuse not to write in lieu of some more expensive hobby. In this junky old place I think that I progressed more than anywhere else in learning how to write.
     I set up shop in a corner of the bedroom. My desk was crammed beside the closet. The clothes hung in the closet nearby me, and there was also the water heater. I had taken off the sliding door to the closet to be nearer the water heater. It was such a grungy corner: books crushed into every open space, a mouse’s litter of notes and draft pages everywhere. An old man, the husband of a close friend of my wife’s, who had developed great intellectual strength through years of solitary study, when I showed him my writing hole, laughed at me. “No,” he said. “That won’t do at all.” But an omnivorous reader in the detachment of his books is actually a simple person, not complicated like a writer, who is anything but detached. I know because I have been both. Writers tend to dig holes; then they pop out every so often like cicadas, climb a tree, take a gander at the real world, spread their oats, flame out and fall back. I used pen and ink but also there was the flea market typewriter. It was so simple! Although I sat transfixed upon my study far away from the woodstove, the water heater always warmed this spot even in mid-winter with the west wind howling. I believe that the clothes hanging in the closet like Hades’ scriveners formed a sort of insulation. And this spot was always so quiet! The Red Trailer deadened sound to the maximum. I don’t know why.
     And in the bad weather, or just too worn out to do anything else, I whittled at my sentences for hour after hour. I settled into a habit of how to look at sentences, whether long ones or short ones are best, and how to think in sentences consecutively; it’s a sort of meter. There’s a meter to prose as much as poetry, though in poetry the diction tends to be “higher”—meaning I think more old fashioned. Maybe poetry is historically more reluctant to accept the vernacular than prose. It tends to eschew those numerous sturdy indefensibles and word inventions that invade the Democratic vernacular like the hordes of Attila.


     Grammar is hard for me; I am reluctant to bend a knee to authority. It is as if the very word rips something out of me. Eventually I established two hopeful objectives for each sentence: the sentence will be grammatical, and the sentence will be clear. Probably grammar and clarity go together. Another word for grammar is correctness. They are not exactly analogous words. Everyone’s ambition is to be creative. I have always loved the imagination, but I have been in a painful confusion about what it is. Maybe someday I will learn, and when I understand it, I might be more inclined to utilize it. But for the time being there is grammar. Grammar is about rules, but correctness is more about the fusion of rules with energy. Why am I spending so much time thinking about this old and crusty word, grammar? Because it works! My object has always been to create a meter of my own. While the water heater softly sizzled and bubbled like a brook in the glens of Xanadu, I thought a lot about an American language. So I needed a meter. And since obscurity is a sin I needed some grammar. But it takes a long time to learn to look at sentences that way. It should be simple but it isn’t. I don’t know what I mean by correctness, though I sure do use the word enough. It’s the energy, it gets in there and it makes everything complicated! If you can't quite believe everything you say, which happens all the time, at least bring it with energy, enthusiasm. But everybody should know that.
     What I mean by style is a manner or approach to language; when one brings to bear on language energy, it creates style. The assumption is that the language has certain rules and these rules make choices less difficult, and you have to know what these rules are in order not to get lost in a diaspora of choices. Most rational people are aware of the idea of basic rules, and I think form may amount to a series of educated personal choices. It is a structure. I don’t know exactly what would happen if the energy were not attached to a structure. By that I mean whether the language would be intelligible. When I note that I have been loosely attached to the structure of the language—its rules of grammar and usage and composition—then intelligibility (clarity) seems in general to decline. But a certain type of energy may prefer more uncontrolled word positions.
     I’m stretching for excuses for that kind of thing. Art should involve a rational mind. If it does not what else is going to?
     What is at the center of it, all other considerations being equal, in my opinion, is the epithet. That’s an idea that came to me from Jorge Borges. Borges said one day in a TV interview that he studied epithets in Middle English. When the interviewer doubted this was useful or even true, Borges became irate. You tighten up the verbs, form correct clauses, sometimes a matter requiring much staring, simplifying or not to taste, and then guard the epithets like a mother hen her chicks. I learned a little about that in my nest in the Red Trailer. The epithets taught me a meter; the meter taught me a mood. But that is only a start in the real world. And in fact it means nothing unless you get to actually doing it. And in the heat of actually doing it you can end up forgetting everything.


     For five years, while I was carrying on my wonderments about writing, I went from one job related disaster to the next. I don’t hold grudges. My ex-employers are all dead or dying, or they went to Florida and became drunks. Thereupon they met young women who knocked them off, usurped their children’s inheritance and squandered it in Las Vegas. I doubt that they got any fun out of life, while I enjoyed my little home in the Red Trailer.
     Took me awhile to write a sentence, and then I learned to write more than one and make a story or poem or whatever. I never gave up on that day job though, and eventually I got a pretty good one, as has been recorded elsewhere in these Annals of Pablo. My new career, occasioned by my numerous lay offs, has both frustrated me and caused me much satisfaction. Was it luck or just a simple willingness to endure and try something new? Alas, I am still alive and roof over my head. I congratulate myself that with the help of my family it was not all luck.

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