Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Jimmy Loves Michelle—Prologue

    Today Jimmy Freeman and his dog Sunshine went together for a long walk in the countryside around his house. Jimmy could never tell whether he was taking Sunshine for a walk or Sunshine was taking him for a walk. Jimmy liked to think, and as he walked he often had much to think about. Jimmy's love of place was strong. Before he moved to Maine the place he stood in was always a blur. He had been like an animal pacing in a cage at the zoo. Then his wife, Michelle, became determined to buy land in Maine, and sooner than he thought would ever happen, they were living on it. Although Jimmy had spent much of his childhood growing up in Vermont in a country side similar to Maine's foothills, he and Michelle and kids, during the actual moving in, felt like immigrants. A decade later they would often think of Maine as a foreign country placed by accident on the border of Canada and America. But they never had the faintest longing to depart elsewhere. Why this was true stood up to a long, hard think. On the other hand, thinking was unnecessary to observe the high and bright sky in Maine's western foothills, and on this day the foliage was beginning to turn. The surface was always evident: long days of snow, the fruitful heat of summer, the developing seasons, the country routines of each day, the august colors on a high sky fall day. These things were evident and simple. Pragmatic topics such as providing for oneself and family through steady employment were less evident. Although state government if not chaotic often struggled, Jimmy never doubted the honest, soft hearts of the Maine people. The surface and the other unnameable part that was not the surface together were in a jumble, and that was what Jimmy thought about during his walks.
    There used to be big, beautiful dairy farms in his neighborhood. The farmers had struggled to turn back the thick woods in order to provide grazing for their cows. Not long ago a man who owned a big barn could make good money. They were common men, often new arrivals from countries at a distance, but proud, and they worshiped stability. All around Jimmy were fields that were beautiful to him, traces of an energy and hardihood that was no more. You wonder how hard the men must have worked to clear enough land to farm. Every field has in it an archaeology, a web of mens' work. He expected ancient farmers to rise from their clayey substratum as he walked through. They wear bib overalls, soft round caps. They smile at Jimmy and Sunshine, nod briefly, hello. In one field a family of white tails grazes along the edge. Their tails are pure white, fuzzy white, and when they run, as they do today, disappearing instantly, their tails stand up like little sails over a throbbing sea. In autumn at the time of foliage is the time for long walks. Jimmy will eventually visit every field and every stone wall and farm pond, if not on this day, on another day.
    He had heard stories about how the men were often in a bad mood when they were clearing land. The women folk knew from experience to stay away. Haying without machinery, logging without skidders, swinging a scythe for two hours on a hot day was as much as Jimmy could do, and these men did it all day. Day after day. No chain saws, no brush cutters. In the case of the scythe, Jimmy would admit, there is a mildly pleasurable delirium that transpires, as the blood surges through the shoulders to the brain. The work must have gone slowly—who knows how they did it. As he walked through these fields, he was always vaguely astonished.
    He remembered clearing his own land. He didn't have a 4wd truck. He had an old wheelbarrow to drive out the logs too heavy to carry on his shoulder. He did have a chain saw. It seemed to him that if he persisted with an ax, he'd never get anywhere, at least in his time on earth. The thought of passing the torch to future generations didn't seem relevant. His son, Dwight, was a beast at this kind of work. No job in front of Dwight would fail to get done before sundown. Jimmy was lucky to have such a son, but never would he consider passing on the torch without the chainsaw. Jimmy admired the ever increasing strength that the work packed into the arms and shoulders. Took him ten years or so, and the help of a family and a herd of goats but eventually four acres were cleared. But once the brush was gone, unlike cows, goats nibbled desultorily, preferring to lie in the barn, heads buried in the hay feeder. An early century dairy farmer would have laughed. His cows were always in the field. Goats spent the heat of the day in the barn slowly masticating, dreaming, and what hay they did not eat, they pulled out to bed on. They are lovers of the leisurely daily siesta. There was much you could learn from goats. On the other hand, in their long rest they filled their udders. Michelle's girls each produced a gallon a day, close to ten percent of body weight in delicious milk. No wonder they were lazy, needed constant attention!  It was a lucky day when a cow produced even a fraction of ten percent of body weight, one percent, maybe two.
    John Brett, who lived on Tuell Road all his life, told Jimmy that at one time his father grazed cows on the hillside behind Jimmy's house. How astonishing that the jumble of full grown trees on the hillside had once been clear ground for grazing! Jimmy thought today he might walk up on that hillside first. He and Sunshine began their walk by turning down Ridge Brook Road toward the Rocky Hill. At the Rocky Hill the road becomes steep and narrow. Autumn comes early in the hollow at the bottom of the Rocky Hill beside the stream; Spring comes late. When you walk down there the air is decidedly different, especially cooler. Today he and Sunshine will end up down in the hollow at the end of their walk. Now before descending into the hollow they turn off here at the logging road. The town one day put up a sign Dike Hill Road but it is only a skidder trail, hardly worthy of a name. Before the snow and after the mud Jimmy can drive on it in his 4wd pickup. When the loggers are working hereabouts they clean up the trail to get trucks in and out. Jimmy never did find out where they got the name. Every so often the town has extra money for signs and they proceed to put a name on everything. Jimmy calls it the logging road, and it leads past where he and Sunshine spotted the two bears this summer and if you go straight, it ascends Pinnacle Mountain. (Why not Pinnacle Mountain road?) A little farther up, what had been an old 4-wheeler trail goes off to the right and they turn onto it.
    When there were kids in the neighborhood, they used to drive their 4-wheelers and trail bikes up through here day and night. Eventually one of the kids got killed. Jimmy used to listen to his trail bike scream through the trees. It was obvious that young boy was not long for this world. If Dwight, for instance, had hotshot that way, Jimmy would have buried the toy. Jimmy never could figure out what the parents were thinking. This foolhardiness is so much a part of the rural Maine culture that they probably thought nothing till he failed to come downstairs for breakfast any more. There have been other kids riding through here. Another young boy slid off the trail going too fast on his snowmobile and crashed into a tree. He was much more careful after that. They have grown up, the ones who survived, and are now busy with work and paycheck, and nobody uses this trail any more, so by passing through and occasionally stopping to break off branches, Sunshine and Jimmy have kept the trail open.
    The owner of the land on this hillside, a land developer, built a long driveway and surveyed house lots. Jimmy loved these lots for their isolation and solitude. The developer sent in a logger to clear the trees so that each lot had a view of the beautiful northern foothills. But the driveway was too steep to get to year round, even with the fanciest 4wd truck. In winter you'd have to snowshoe in. The 4-wheeler trail meets this driveway and Jimmy and Sunshine walk on it awhile.
    The evidence that the hillside was once a big field, as Mr Brett had said, is obvious. Look at this stone wall! That free men would collect stones that way without the encouraging lashes of a despot was a sign that the future could not be all dark. The grade on the hill leading up to this stone wall is steep. They must have transported the stones up hill. The men had well-trained teams of horses and oxen to help out. But still you have to wonder. There must have been a remarkable spirit of co-operation between the men and their families. They must have cared about their animals and their neighbors. Jimmy imagined teams of horses and oxen tricked out proudly. Brett said everyone was "neighborly": senseless to act otherwise. The people feared the wrath of their neighbors, a casting out.
    Then they turned to the right and descended on the steep dirt driveway toward Tuell Road. Tuell used to run diagonally on this hillside. You can see the old road bed still in the trees like the carcass of an extinct animal. Jimmy has always meant to walk on it, and he might soon, if Sunshine is agreeable. She is thirteen and she prefers a good path. Along the driveway there are Blackberry bushes. It was a bad summer, the summer of 1990, for Blackberries, which prefer hot, dry days, and the summer had been wet and cool. But he stopped for a minute to gather and nibble. They are smallish and more bitter than sweet. The driveway comes out at the intersection of Ridge Brook and Tuell near the mailboxes.
    Now for a quarter mile or so they have to walk on the road. Jimmy must be spoiled, he dislikes walking on the road. But hardly any cars pass by. Finally they turn off Tuell and walk up a private driveway. The people who own the house are summer people, and they are usually absent now. He used to see them more often. They love Maine, but they prefer to make money, and the adjustment is hard, so they moved back to Rhode Island. She was a nurse who found Maine hospitals to be turn of the century and he was a skilled machinist who got sick of running generations old machines. Getting up to this house from Rhode Island is longer than an easy drive. But so far they have not put the house up for sale. It is open and big and foreign looking, a definite down country looking house. They have a caretaker who is more likely to be around than they are. Jimmy and Sunshine cut in front of the house and cross into the field beside it.
    There are here beginning a string of fields with between them short, rough, tree-lined trails for the tractors to pass through. On this day the fields are bright with somber slanting light and, though there has not been a frost yet, the leaves are a startling multitude of colors. In fact lately the temperatures have been in the seventies. But the frost must come soon—Jimmy would insist that the sky has changed even in the ten short years he has lived here, but it cannot have changed that much that frosty nights are no more—, then autumn preceding winter will encourage Jimmy to quit his walking excursions and get ready for the coming cold.
    For the old time farmers, Brett said, this was the time for clearing land. The hay was in, the crops sold or put by. Maybe the families took in a fair or two to show off their farms, for as one farmer told Jimmy, "You must have some fun."  The clearing and logging would go on till December. The fields must be free of stones so the grass will grow abundantly. A field littered with boulders taints the milk, if used for grazing, and of course it is useless to raise crops on. These fields they are walking through today have been in a distant past laboriously and thoroughly cleared. The grass is lush and thick. The fields used to belong to a large dairy farm. But the fields are downward sloping to the north, a much inferior arrangement to downward sloping to the south. In the foothills spring comes earlier to southward facing fields, and autumn comes later. Sometimes every day counts when you want an abundant corn crop, for instance, which can make the difference between a poor farmer and a well to do farmer. On the other hand, think how tasty apples picked early after chill nights tend to be. You forget the taste of fresh squeezed apple juice?  Vern Robert, whose family used to farm these fields, still has his apple press. His father's dairy barn is prominent on Tuell Road, but Vern like everyone must has turned his hand to other trades than farming.
    Then after clearing the land, come winter, in this life under Pinnacle Mountain, the men would head for the logging camps. The long hours in the extreme cold, the snow, the dangerous conditions were a test, but the extra income was useful, as it kept the rather flat income of the farm under control and provided working capital for the spring plantings and any building, because there was always someone building. Brett said the food in the camps, you get a good camp, was always more than any man could eat, but no matter how they fed, you were always hungry, logging in the cold made you hungry, and you slept never waking on long benches side-by-side with the other men so close during the height of the season that when one turned over the whole line turned over. Then you were up before dawn to gobble breakfast, and get the horses and sleds going around sun-up, and you worked straight through till the last light. Brett said at end of day the heat in the bunkhouse hitting your face knocked you out and you slept where you fell. "It wasn't much of a life," Brett admitted. "The women and children were at home during winter on the farm."  But Brett did think that the men liked that life, and they worked with a smile. Living and working that way brings up complicated feelings. The idea of sleeping dead to the world, wandering in a dreamless darkness, without worry, without reflection until awakened by the prescience of daylight appeals to most people, especially who don't usually spend their nights that way. On the other hand, a life without leisure is hard, especially if you do not consider sleep to be leisure.
    After awhile Sunshine and Jimmy came to the pond. Though he has lived in this neighborhood for a decade, he came out to see this pond for the first time only last year. Dawn and Dwight used to come out here with numerous of the other neighborhood kids to do whatever kids do. It was a good place for a dunking. There were rumors, but Jimmy felt he should respect their privacy. Kids get in trouble but he felt inhibited. Somewhere in the northern shadow of Pinnacle Mountain the kids should have a place to carry out their rituals. There is nothing about this situation that anybody needed to worry about. Nobody taller than three feet could drown in it. No doubt the kids found snapping turtles, and tested each other's daring with them. Whitetails found the water attractive. The generations of kids, and maybe an adult or two, had cleared a section of the shore of boulders, and the bottom had settled to make a beach. In the woods on the opposite bank of the pond there was a ramshackle hut. Sometimes, as he stood on the bank overlooking the pond, he could hear from the shadowy winds the echo of children's voices. His son, Dwight, and his two step children had departed to lives elsewhere. True experience did nothing to diminish his hopes for them.
    But time now to move on as Sunshine and Jimmy had dawdled away almost two hours. Time now to head home for supper. They walked through the fields to the trail that comes out at the bottom of the Rocky Hill. Nobody had logged the woods to the left alongside the trail for at least fifty years. Mixed in with the tall spruce are numerous red and sugar maples, broad beech, ash and oak trees which shaded out the smaller alders. Poplar will grow powerfully if it runs into sun, but as the years pass, the larger trees with more prolific limbs edge it out, and it dies and rots standing, eventually toppling over a hulk on the forest floor. On the other side of the path is Pat Hill's big commercial garden. Jimmy stops to admire the fertile rows of plants, still green though now growing is over, and the transparent plastic covered hothouses, where some crops, especially tomatoes, are still producing. Maybe something of the old time strength has passed on to her, for he has seen her hard at work in her gardens on 90 degree days. Even the old farmers went fishing for the day when the morning edged on 90.
    After the downhill walk they return onto Ridge Brook Road at the bottom of the Rocky Hill. This is where his friend Sunshine suffers through a delirium of smelling because a fat, boisterous rat terrier lives down here and gets let out and walked every day alongside the road, where the dog does her thing, which is a great delight to Sunshine, who does her thing in return. Then they walk up the Rocky Hill, a steep climb, and when they reach the top they are always, man and dog, huffing, winded from the climb.
    Now it is only a few steps to his driveway, and he can see the house trailer set back against the woods, and he always feels a minute of peace and gladness walking toward it. The foibles of the present and the greater tragedies of history fall away. He is always worried that he has come to understand nothing in his life, but suddenly he thinks that he may understand something after all. This late afternoon is still. By now the house is in the shadows as the sun has fallen into the trees under Pinnacle Mountain. The voices of children have gone. Michelle sits on the front porch waiting.


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