A PECULIAR GRACE (excerpt)
He finished the gates the week after the solstice, including latch and mounting hardware and the brute gateposts, fifteen-foot sections of railroad track to sink into the ground and hold the gates, each of which weighed several hundred pounds. Once up they would swing open as if floating and allow themselves to be pulled closed as if the motion were embedded in the gates. During this same time Walter and Jessica worked together to paint her car. This involved not just the two coats of primer and the four of paint, but also vigorous buffing of chrome, even the strips along the vent windows, scrubbing the upholstery and roof fabric, then numerous coats of hard wax on the exterior and saddlesoaping and polishing the interior.
Hewitt and Jessica had been eating breakfast the morning after his visit with Amber when Walter pulled in, not in the Bird but with his red jeep, backing around to the front bumper of the Volkswagen. Hewitt asked Jessica to wait in the house. As he was going out the door she said, “He clobbers you again you want I should call the police or just come out and shoot him?”
Hewitt walked barefoot across the yard. Walter was unwinding the winch mounted on the rear of the jeep.
Hewitt said, “Seems it’d be easier to do it in the shed rather than have her walk back and forth to your place, or you running her each way.”
“I can’t imagine you’ve got much interest in having me in your line of vision all day long.”
“A kicked dog’ll shy off, unless he’s been caught in the garbage.”
Walter sat back on his haunches and tipped his sunglasses up on to his head. “What do you know about dogs?”
“Well, hell, I’m not ten.”
Walter eased up on to his feet in a sinuous smooth motion and leaned against the jeep, his hands folded in front of him. “I’m godawful pissed at myself. I made a promise a long time ago to never again hurt a living being.”
Hewitt waited a moment and said, “Sometimes maybe a person has to break one of those promises to make sure they still count.”
Walter studied him. Then he said, “That’s a generous way of looking at it.”
“Hey, bro. I was talking about myself.”
“Is that so?”
Walter nodded a couple of times and then said, “I still want to apologize.”
“I druther you not.”
Walter looked off up the hill and said, “We’re square, then?”
“I already forgot what we were talking about.”
Walter nodded again and looked back at Hewitt. He stuck out his hand and they power-shook, locked thumbs with fingers over the backs of each other’s hand.
Hewitt said, “Ask you something?”
“Jessica said you’re writing a book of some sort. That right?”
Hewitt nodded. Then he said, “Is it about all those things you told me you can’t talk about?”
Walter reared back his head. His sunglasses slipped and landed halfway down his nose. He reached up and adjusted them and said, “No. Those are things can’t be told. That was most of why Pam left. She wanted me to talk things out. She thought that’s what I needed. But those are stories that are so strangely fucking true they become lies the moment you open your mouth.” He paused and grinned and said, “She always thought that was bullshit. But it’s not just me. You ride over to the VA with me someday, or down to the Legion. It’s all the same. Not just the boys from the Nam either. The Korean and WW Two vets—they’d say the same thing. Oh they can tell you, so can I, where I was and when and all that shit that doesn’t mean a thing. But the stories? What happened? Nobody can tell you that.”
Hewitt said, “Because you can’t understand it unless you’ve been through it.”
“No,” Walter said. “Because you can’t understand it afterward. All it is, is what it was while it was going on, and no man can explain that. There idn’t but one or two that’ve come close. Now, we going to stand around jabbering all day or is there work to be got done?”
Hewitt nodded. He said, “You going to tell me what your book’s about?”
Walter said, “No.”
The last day Walter showed up late with a bucket of chicken and box of fried whole clams picked up at the Onion Flats take-out window and two bottles of wine. All three climbed into the orchard to sit and feast. For a person who did not eat meat, Jessica was wolfish. She preferred drumsticks and thighs, which would’ve been a problem since they were Hewitt’s favorite also but he convinced her to try a clam. After that it was a giddy free-for-all, hands and faces grease painted, shining in the slanting sunlight. The wine was good. Much better than what Walter usually would spend money on. But it was a celebration and Hewitt understood for far more than the two big jobs completed on the same day.
Jessica, a mouth full of clams and grimy wineglass in hand, said, “You two are corrupting me.”
“You betcher ass,” Walter said. “I never seen a person more in need of a little honest corruption than you. And you’re doing fine. Like a duck to water.”
“You know how these chickens are raised?” She waved a stripped drumstick like a baton, indicating the world beyond their view.
“A course I do. But you start ticking off all that’s wrong with this day and age and so on and so forth and you’ll die before your list is half done.” He paused and then said, “Sometimes, a chicken leg is just a chicken leg. How many of those are left anyhow?”
“I don’t know. I’m gonna concentrate on these clams.”
“All filled up with pollution of all sorts. Bad shit. Clams are dug from the mudflats at low tide. Where all the chemicals and God knows what else have been piling up and settling for centuries.”
“Will you shut up? I was having a good time.”
“You still are, little sister. You still are.”
“Pass me a fill-up of that wine,” she said.
Hewitt already full, lying on his back listening. It was a fine evening. The sun was swelling into soft diffusion above them, those last long rays running down over them. The ground emitting the heat of the day. The apple trees over him.
More than once Hewitt woke in the night to pee and from the top of the stairs saw the light on below and knew she was in with his father’s paintings. He was curious which of those works she might like more than others but had not yet found the moment to talk with her about them. Part of this was his schedule and part was wanting to leave her privacy. It had taken Hewitt himself years and years to comprehend those paintings and while this was partly because of his particular link to them, he knew they exerted some version of that force upon others. So he waited. And in the waiting he found some new level of fondness for her—that his father’s work would infect and compel her as it so clearly did.
The day after the picnic in the orchard they moved the gates to Pomfret. It was a procession—the Volkswagen like a vision on the back roads over the hills, Walter with his jeep, the back filled with the rail-track posts and tools for digging the postholes, and leading them all the small U-Haul holding the wrapped gates and because it was a Sunday, Roger Bolton at the wheel and Hewitt in the passenger seat, his head out the window, straining to hear any disturbance in the back and flicking his head around to urge Roger to slow down. It could take most of the day to auger the postholes and set the posts and then mount the gates. At this point it came down less to mastery than luck. Measure and measure and measure again but still until the whole thing was in and up and working smooth as sleet on snow there was no way to control the process. A boulder two feet down could change the entire procedure. The owner, who lived most of the year in Katonah, a surgeon of obscure and expensive procedures, was not yet there. Hewitt loved the idea of the man arriving in ten days and finding the gates up and waiting. And it would happen. With either a morning or a long day of work ahead of them all.
First Hewitt measured the exact distance for the gatepost holes, using a chalkline to snap a triangle on the ground, the bottom straight between the two holes and the two peak lines of the diagram going off at angles to meet precisely in the center of the driveway a dozen feet up the drive.
They got lucky. Roger had a four-foot gas powered fence post auger and with Hewitt hovering dropped the point exactly on the blue chalk cross and the auger sank into the ground, spewing soil dark and loamy. Then a hard hour with manual posthole diggers, one man on his belly to guide and another upright to work the handles. The steel track needed to be eight feet in the ground to support the gates, to hold steady through the deepest winter frost. It was hard work and nailbiting—the deeper they went the more likely to strike the buried boulder or glacial bedrock. But luck held and soon they were inserting the posts, Hewitt again dancing with a chalkline and a pair of five-foot construction levels as ever so slowly they filled and tamped the poles. It didn’t matter to Hewitt that the sections of post above ground would be blocked in with columns of brick and mortar: he wasn’t doing that part of the job so had only his own work to count on to keep those ties forever straight and upright. Then it was simply a matter of bolting the gate hinge hardware on to the ties and finally lifting each gate and aligning the three female ends of the hinge assembly above the male uprights and sliding them down into place.
With both gates on and wide open Hewitt stepped back a moment to take them in. The others were leaning against the U-Haul. After a long pause he gave the right-hand gate a light shove and it swung graceful and slow and paused just off the chalkline. Then the other and it responded the same way. The gates were within an inch of meeting freely on their own. Considering their weight and size this was more than acceptable—it was perfect. He stepped to where they met and aligned them, for the first time actually feeling the exquisite floating balance of them, paused again a moment with one hand on each gate before reaching and dropping the latch from the right side into the left.
He turned and said, “Thanks, guys. Let’s get out of here.”
Hewitt walked around the Volkswagen and got in the passenger side. The interior of the car was as staggering as the paint job. It could’ve been forty years ago. Even the sunlight cracks on the dashboard had been filled and smoothed and so were lost, gone now. For Hewitt it was a fine moment, the apex of two large jobs met and done.
Jessica got in and said, “They’re fucking gorgeous Hewitt.”
“Hush,” he said, a voice too mild to take offense from. Then he said, “I’d like to show you something? You up for it?”
She paused and looked over at him. The pause went on, long enough so he knew she’d had some plan of her own.
At last she said, “Yeah, show me something, Hewitt.”
It was fine to be driving the dirt roads out of Pomfret in the little car that seemed made for this prime summer day, traveling under the dappled canopies of roadside trees, both taking in while pretending not to notice the swiveling necks within other cars they passed. The first thing he did was direct her high into the hills and had her stop the car before the roadside marker, an ancient stone post driven deep and with faint letters still clear enough to be read that designated this almost lost road through the woods as the King’s Highway, the date obliterated. Mounted lower on the flat face of the stone was a small brass disc clearly dated 1882 which simply read THE FIRST THOROUGHFARE IN CENTRAL VERMONT EST. 1764. The center of the disc had a profile of a man in a wig with smaller letters GEORGE III and at the bottom of the disc in larger letters the initials D.A.R.
Hewitt said, “Idn’t that something?
Jessica was quiet and then said, “Damn. This road. It’s older than the country itself.”
She was quiet a long moment and then said, “You got to wonder. Did those Vikings built that chamber at your place, and the others you spoke of—maybe they hiked through here too.”
Again she was quiet and then said, “In Mississippi, there’s speculation those old Spaniards wandered through. They found pieces of metal, swords and bits of armor and stuff like that. And there’s the big Indian Mounds. Some really big ones in the Delta. People say it wasn’t just little tribes stuck off in the woods here and there but a whole deal going on. Cities and all that. It makes you wonder how much what we think we know is true and how much just convenience. Know what I mean?”
Hewitt looked at her, her serious absorbed face. He said, “Well, for the moment at least we’re the ones in charge. So we get to pick and choose. And we choose that history begins with us.”
She punched the toe of her sneaker into the soft roadside dirt, where the grader had come through since the spring thaw. She said, “Is that what you wanted to show me? That nobody knows shit about how things ever really were?”
He said, “No. I just thought you should see it. We’ve got a ways to go to complete the Hewitt tour. Why don’t we get back in the car.”
They went slowly on down Cloudland Road, just driving and taking it in. They came out along the Ottoquechee River, turned on to hardtop and drove the two miles into Woodstock. Where they circled the Green three times before finding a place to park and then let themselves out into the waves of people on the sidewalks. It was summer and Woodstock was in high gear. Hewitt wasn’t able to make the trip over often nor did he want to but when he did he always enjoyed himself. There was something about the place that reminded him of Fellini. Not the lovely village but the tumbling side by side improbable antique shops, art galleries, specialty stores, boutiques, but particularly the clutter of humanity. Men his own age with video cameras walking slowly backward, oblivious, trying to catch that elusive panoramic view. They walked two blocks from where they’d been forced to park and went down into a basement restaurant which was always filled for dinner but too expensive for the hordes wanting lunch. Or perhaps it wasn’t the cost of the lunch but the reluctance of visitors to cut an hour and a half out of an already expensive day to sit over lunch the way lunch was served. Hewitt, who had never been to Europe but bet many of the people he passed on the street had, wondered how they dealt with the legendary French midday meal. Poorly, he guessed. The restaurant was half-full and Jessica and he took a table in the modest bar. And ate well and slowly. Jessica had wine with her food but Hewitt held off. He was all pumped up, coursing with vitality. Not just from the morning, although that was enough. But also for what he was doing now and what he planned.
Outside on the street she said, “I need to learn how to cook.”
He laughed and said, “So do I.”
Her face shadowed a bit and she said, “I’m serious. I can barely fry a egg.”
He slowed. “The best food’s not fancy just prepared with some thought. Anybody can learn that. And the rest, the fancy stuff, that’s for special times.”
She studied him. There was a small streak of dirt on her forehead she’d missed both times she’d gone to the bathroom. Hewitt liked it, wanted to touch it but did not. Jessica said, “What’s that mean? Is this a treat because you got those gates done? Or what?”
He said, “It’s a pile of things. Including getting the gates up. But there’s one more thing I want to show you and then we’ll go back to the house and I’ll show you where the cookbooks are.”
Her mouth pouched. Hewitt thought Is that serious or a pout? Then she said, “I’ll cook some. But don’t push or I’ll bring home frozen pizza.” They were stalled on the sidewalk and people flowed around them like water around a rock. And Jessica took a moment and looked around, not at the pretty village but the invaders. She said, “Shoot, Hewitt. Are these the beautiful people?”
“Like the Beatles song.”
He squinted, then laughed and took her hand, back toward where they were parked. She jostled against him as they went. After a bit he said, “I guess it’s their Magical Mystery Tour.”
At the car she sat behind the wheel, turned to Hewitt and said, “Now what.”
He pointed around the Green and said, “That way.”
She heard the change in his tone.
They went out the valley and began to climb toward Barnard, gaining ground until Hewitt pointed at a barn a quarter mile ahead.
“We’re stopping there?”
“Nope. There’s a road, just can’t see it till you’re pretty much past it.”
She made the turn and they traveled along a lane between a pasture filled with Holsteins on one side and a sprouting cornfield on the other. Then began to rise and soon were in the woods, the lane smooth, well graded. They came out in a large clearing atop a broad ridge. The clearing was groomed like a lawn. Tucked against the edge of the trees was a two-story cedar shingled lodge with dark green trim and green shutters flanking the windows and across the front a screened porch. A big stone chimney stood at one end. The lane opened up into a neat circle for parking well away from the lodge. This afternoon there was only a single car parked there.
The other end of the clearing was a large pond, about eight acres. There was a modest dock with three green wooden rowboats moored—a fourth floated far out on the water. Except for where the grass was mown down to the dock the woods encroached upon the pond so huge shifting pools of shadow and shade moved along the shore and well out into the water. The whole thing cried trout.
They got out and walked down to the dock. The man in the distant boat peered at them and Hewitt waved and the man waved back. Hewitt was pretty sure at that distance Chip Howard didn’t recognize him but most likely would close up. Which was fine. Hewitt just hoped for a little time before Chip decided to quit fishing and come investigate. The club was private but not well known and even the local rascals who sneaked on to posted property when the owners were downcountry to empty stocked trout from ponds, respected this place and left it alone.
There was a plain plank bench on the dock and Hewitt and Jessica sat side by side. He was quiet for a few minutes.
She said, “It’s a pretty fishing hole. But we’re not supposed to be here, are we?”
He looked out and said, “This place is called the Mic-Mac Club. It’s been around since the late 1800s. Started by a handful of wealthy men from Woodstock, maybe Barnard and Pomfret too—I’m not too certain of the history because I never did care much. But it’s a private club. You can’t even apply to join. Some member nominates you and the rest vote and only then do they come and invite you to join. It’s basically a fancy drinking and fishing club, although I guess they have some big family picnics and dinners and such—we never went to any. My great-grandfather was a member. So when my father moved back here, they liked the look of him and asked him to join. And be damned but he made them wait. Probably the first time ever that happened. Because on the one hand he was much happier killing a six-pack with the boys in Lympus. The fathers of the men you’ve met and a few more. These Mic-Mac men, they were another story. But my father loved to fish, loved to fly-fish. To come up here, where the lake was stocked and the fishing good and quiet and, hell, easy, he liked that. He’d fished up here as a boy with his grandfather, his mother’s father—he never knew his own father. Or whatever he did know he never told. There’s whole chunks of Dad’s life I never heard much about.
“For instance, when he was a young man he went to study painting in New York and stayed on to live there. See, he was married. Not to my mother. This was before. They had a little girl and lived together in a big apartment he’d made a studio out of. I think he was still pretty poor but starting to get noticed. And there was a tragedy, a truly horrendous thing. He lost that wife and daughter, both of them. To a fire. In that apartment painting studio—he wasn’t home when the fire broke out. He never once spoke to me about it. I didn’t even know until after he died, when my mother told me.
“See, Jessica, the thing is, he actually was pretty well known. I kind of downplayed that on purpose because you wouldn’t imagine the people that come out of the woodwork trying to find some piece of him. And those paintings in the red room are all that hadn’t been sold, all he’d kept. And I’ve got no plan to sell them. Or even have people pestering me to see them or loan them for exhibitions or whatnot.
“Growing up, there was a sugarhouse he turned into a studio so he could be out of the house to paint. As a kid I thought because he needed the peace and quiet. It’s only later looking back that I realize he wouldn’t risk a studio in or even near the house. Shoot, he could’ve built one in the barn but he wanted it far enough away. I really believe he’d have been happy to stand out in the yard and watch it burn up on the hill, knowing his wife and children were safe in the house behind him.”
He stopped and looked at her. All this time he’d been gazing out at the water. Old Chip Howard was working the far deep end of the pond. Where the shade was best. It was a warm afternoon to go after trout. But Jessica was wrapped tight, her arms around her chest and her feet jiggling up and down, knees together, her face screwed tight as if welded. He reached over and ran a hand over her hair and she nearly shied from his touch.
He said, “Are you all right?”
“Unh-unh,” she said. “But finish your story.” She didn’t look at him.
He nudged her shoulder with his and said, “I’m coming up to the last part anyway.”
She was silent.
Forty or fifty feet out a trout jumped, a twisting slippery vision that seemed more etch against eye than fish. The rings spread the water surface. Hewitt said, “What happened was one October afternoon of my senior year of high school I was out riding around with some guys, you know, farting around. Dad had come up here after lunch for what would be the last fishing of the year. Another week and the rowboats would be taken from the water and locked away in the boathouse for the winter. The afternoon went on and suddenly it was late, about five o’clock. My mother drove up here. But she didn’t even get out of the car. Out there in the middle of the lake was a boat upside down. The sheriff took her home and sat with her until I got in. The first thing she told me was he died quick, doing something he loved. Then said, which I didn’t understand then but did a few hours later, how fitting it was he died in water. Because his fear, his great fear was that he was destined to die by fire.”
Hewitt raised an arm and said, “Right out there somewhere. A heart attack and fell out of the boat.”
Jessica stood. She walked out to the end of the dock, looking into or across the water. She rocked back and forth, toes and heels rising and falling. Then swiveled on one heel and came to stand before Hewitt, her face grim, a hidden tremble. She said, “We need to go back to the house. I got something to show you.”
Hewitt nodded, trying to sort this curt response when she stepped away, walking off the dock. She didn’t look back and he quit watching her but heard the Volkswagen door shut.
Still he sat and waited and watched the old man pull at the oars, the dripping water slashes of light when the oars lifted. Hewitt had no interest in explaining himself, his presence there. So he rose and slowly walked to the car. A man not furtive but deliberate.
Driving the twenty miles home she spoke only once. “Are you a member of that place?” He slid his eyes and face in exaggerated slow motion toward her. “I haven’t been asked.”
At the house she went out of the car fast and he followed, her head-up, eyes-front march something not seen before-the opposite of her brooding absorbed pacing but also unlike her movements easy and natural on other days. Once inside the house she turned to him and took his hand and without a word led him into the red room, bright with sunlight that left some of the paintings vivid and others almost as if receding back into themselves. The tricks of light.
She pointed high to one painting, intentionally placed at the top of the descending series on that wall. Hewitt sharpened a bit. It was a piece rendered in ochres and deathly deep unlikely blues and almost stale muddy reds, a scene of dockworkers lounging in exhaustion on a wharf or pier, the suggestion of a building along one side as a depth of unfathomable endless endeavor. The men, three of them, were collapsed, two in shadow of the building with their legs sprawled before them, the third likewise but against a great coil of rope or cable, unclear because the blues of the coils were echoed in the man’s face and naked torso. As if he were sinking into the coil or perhaps the coil was collecting him. It was a painting of the exhaustion of never-ending loading and unloading, of life repeating itself without hope or brightness day after day. It was, as far as Hewitt knew, untitled, but the bottom right corner, under the edge of the wharf plank where the color deepened into blue near black were the unmistakable initials and the date 1946.
She turned and said, “I like this one best. But why’s it here? Why this and nothing else from his early life?”
Hewitt sat on the arm of one of the deep leather chairs and said, “That painting is the only one that survives from before he lost his first family. And all his other work up till then. The only reason it’s here at all is the summer before the fire he came up with his family for a visit. And he brought this painting and left it here. That next spring was the fire. I only found that painting after he died. It was wrapped and boxed in the basement.”
Jessica was standing over him, her head nodding as if taking it all in or maybe waiting for him to finish. She leaned toward him and said, “You wait right here.”
He heard her sprint up the stairs and then there was quiet before a more measured descent. She came back into the room and without speaking handed him a manila envelope, maybe eight by ten and old-fashioned with rubber wafers on the flap and a string wrapped around them to keep it closed. He held it and said, “What’s this?”
She stood watching as he unwrapped the string from the disk, pulled up the flap and reached inside. What he found were a pair of photographs. He took them out and shuffled back and forth between them and then let each settle, faceup in his hands. One was a photograph of a painting—a different view of the same dockworkers high on this wall. Even reduced to a photograph there was no mistake.
The other was a black and white formal photograph. Gazing up from the glossy paper were his father’s eyes, his father’s face. A young man in his early twenties. Hewitt had never seen this version of his father. It was a vision from the void. The young man in the picture was awkward with a thatch of blond hair falling over his broad tall forehead. He wore a jacket of tight small dark tweed. His mouth and eyes held a full smile. Pulled close against him, tall herself but straining up toward him, was a young woman with dark hair in bangs and pulled back behind her ears, the side of her face turned her lips open, her eyes glittering in the camera’s flash. She had a lovely long neck, accentuated by the pose.
And tugged in tight between them was a serious wide-eyed dark-haired little girl, her head tilted just so, looking at her father as if the camera wasn’t there.
“Jesus,” Hewitt breathed. There they were. His father so young. The young woman exuding a graceful depth both physical and within her eyes, a long-limbed woman, willowish, self-aware. And the girl. He gazed at her. The never-known lost half sister. Back to his father. And knew he was not reading anything in but the tender wondrous pride and love fully living in his father’s face.
He looked at the young woman living and breathing before him who was neither the woman nor the child in the photograph but some singular version of both.
His voice near languid with control he said, “What is this?”
She stepped back. “Hewitt—”
He stood. “Who are you? Where did you get these?”
fiction poetry "fact" photography