By J. Robert Lennon
Graywolf Press Copyright © 2009 J. Robert Lennon
All rights reserved.
In the late winter of 2006, I returned to my home town and bought 612 acres of land on the far western edge of the county. The land was forested, undeveloped, and surrounded by hills and farms; no one had lived on it for years. According to my information, it had been bought by the state from a variety of owners during the 1970s, with the intention of turning it into a recreational wilderness. But the state ran out of money and the project never got off the ground. The land, and the farmhouse that stood on it, were forgotten.
My interest in the land was greeted with suspicion by the real estate agent who had been contracted to sell it. A stocky, moon-faced, startlingly short woman in her thirties, she pursed her lips and gazed at me through tired pretty eyes across a cheap aluminum desk. Her name was Jennifer.
"Will you take me to see it?" I asked her.
"I can take you around it, anyway," she told me. "No roads go through. At least not any I know about. I can show you the house, though."
"That would be fine."
"It's a fixer-upper," she warned.
"I'm very handy."
She regarded me with a wary look, as though she doubted my seriousness. We couldn't go out until after lunch, she said, when "the other girl" came in. It was ten in the morning.
"I'll take a stroll around town and see the sights," I said.
"That'll kill maybe five minutes," was her snorted reply. I responded with a smile and stepped out the door.
Gerrysburg, New York, population 2,310 and falling. That's what the internet had told me. When I lived here, as a child, the town had been growing — 4,000 people at least, many of whom worked at one of the two busy factories that stood between here and the nearby city of Milan. One of the plants was owned by General Electric, which moved production to Asia in the eighties. The other was run by a manufacturer of silverware and other cooking implements that went out of business before I even left. There was, at that time, a great deal of talk about keeping families and businesses in Gerrysburg and attracting tourists. But now it was clear that all efforts had failed. The town was in a state of decay.
I stood on the front stoop of the real estate office, facing the town park, a grassy square roofed with skeletal sycamore trees and crisscrossed by footpaths. A central plaza served as a commemoration of our county's warriors: a bronze statue of a Second World War soldier, aiming his rifle, lay prone in front of a granite slab bearing the chiseled names of the dead. Three benches faced the memorial, empty now save for an abandoned fast food bag which a large black crow listlessly pecked.
The park was the only thing in the downtown area that was as I remembered. The rest had changed for the worse. Gerrysburg was laid out on a grid of perfect right angles, with the park in the center. I strolled along the cracked and weedy sidewalks, and surveyed the damage. It wasn't just the businesses I remembered that were gone now — in some cases it was the buildings that had housed them, as well. The movie theater and diner that used to reside on opposite corners of the park had been razed and replaced by parking lots, which now stood empty of cars, save for a single rusted pickup truck, its tailgate bearing a faded "Support Our Troops" magnetic ribbon. The dental clinic was still here, but appeared closed down, and had fallen into disrepair. Two of the three banks were gone, one intact but abandoned, one supplanted by a vacant lot. The former sandwich shop had been transformed into a pet store that was now boarded up, and the laundromat was closed.
A few businesses were open, though none appeared to be thriving: a convenience store that advertised a large selection of pornographic magazines, a doctor's office, and an ice cream parlor. As I passed the ice cream parlor, a man walked out sipping a cup of coffee. He ignored me as he passed, but he was the only other pedestrian I'd seen so far. I decided to go in.
The moment I crossed the threshold, I knew that I had been in this ice cream parlor before. The walls were white now, replacing the wood paneling I remembered, and the dark booths had given way to tables and chairs. But the freezer, with its curved glass surface, was in the right place, and beside it stood a heavyset girl of around twenty wearing a white apron. She smiled as I approached the counter.
"Here for coffee?" she said.
"I was thinking ice cream," I replied. "If that's all right."
It was late March, and still cold outside. But the girl said, "It's always all right with me." I ordered a double scoop of rum raisin in a sugar cone and surveyed the place as the girl prepared it.
Jeremy's. That was the name printed in reverse on the front window. It didn't sound familiar. From the pressed-tin ceiling hung four fans, none of them turning. It seemed to me that I could remember them, spinning lazily on a summer's day. I felt a disturbing vertigo and touched the counter for support.
"Those don't work," the clerk said, handing me my cone. "We could sure use them in the summer, though!"
I paid her and sat down with my ice cream. It was delicious, but I soon grew cold and had to buy a cup of coffee to warm myself back up. While I sat sipping it, a man emerged from a back room and began to talk to the clerk. I thought I recognized him, but couldn't place him. He was younger than I — perhaps forty — and had a long face that terminated in a sharp chin. His hair was brown and gray, receding in the front, but in need of a cut at the back. He seemed agitated.
He walked out the front door, tossing his dirty apron on a chair. I heard the clerk sigh. After a moment, she picked it up and hung it on a coat rack.
"Is that man your boss?" I asked.
"Yes," she said, but seemed reluctant to say any more.
A few minutes later he returned, holding a paper envelope from the last remaining bank. I couldn't resist. "Excuse me," I said.
He stopped, surprised. When he spoke, his voice was deep, dry, and impatient. "Yes?"
"I'm wondering — is this the same ice cream parlor that was here in the sixties?"
"Yes," he said simply. His manner remained curt, but now he had grown curious.
"Did it have a different name then?"
"It was called Pernice's. After my father, Donald Pernice. Are you from around here?"
I remembered now — as a boy, this man had used to come in with his mother for a free treat. I recalled my high school days, passing the time here, saying hello to the pretty lady and her young son. "Yes," I said. "My name is Eric Loesch."
Perhaps it was simply that the man was distracted, or that I had interrupted a thought in progress. But when I spoke, his face seemed to tighten, and his eyes glazed over just a little, as if he'd been transported to another place. After a moment, he blinked, and said, "Jeremy Pernice."
"I remember you in here with your mother, when you were a boy."
He gaped at me for a moment. "Is that so?"
"She was a beautiful lady. Is she living?"
"My mother? No."
He seemed to have nothing more to say, so I thanked him for the ice cream and coffee. He nodded in acknowledgment, but lingered a moment, his body half-turned to go, staring at me quizzically. I recognized in his manner the faint anxiety and uncertainty of a man thrown off his bearings, and I wondered if he would voice his puzzlement. Instead, he remained silent and still.
"You remember me, perhaps?" I asked him.
"No," he said quickly. "No. Just thinking of my mother."
"Again," I said, "I'm sorry."
His only response was a nod, and he disappeared through the kitchen door.
I fell asleep in the park and woke up cold. The wind had picked up, blowing from the west-northwest at more than twenty knots, and clouds were moving across the face of the sun. I smelled, faintly, the odor of woodsmoke, and the rot from some nearby dumpster. The ice cream seemed to have curdled in my stomach, and I felt somewhat nauseated. I wished I hadn't eaten it.
I heard a rustling to my left, and turned to find the crow I'd seen earlier, perched on the opposite armrest. It stared at me with its dumb black eyes, holding a crust of hamburger roll in its beak. Its feathers were worn and patchy, and it had been banded, a stamped metal ring fastened around one of its spindly legs. "Shoo," I said, but instead of flying off, it cocked its head and seemed to regard me with curiosity and imperiousness. It made a quick motion with its beak, releasing the bread and grabbing it again before it fell, a trick to strengthen its grip. It really was a huge bird — a raven, you might call it, in fact.
As I stared at it, a figure approached, and the bird took off, as if in slow motion, with a deep, startling flutter, like the sound of a bedsheet in the wind. It was the real estate agent, Jennifer, filling the space in my field of vision that the raven had occupied. She stopped a few feet from the bench, her hands on her hips, her feet spread apart, and said sternly, "I'm ready."
The land was located in the Town of Henford, at the northwestern corner of the county. On the drive there, the real estate agent turned to me and asked me a question. She was sitting in the passenger seat, dwarfed by my enormous SUV, her thick pale knees pressed together below the hem of a coarse green skirt. Her hands were stubby and rested on her lap, the left laid flat over the right.
She said, "So, what brings you back to Gerrysburg?"
I had, in fact, been anticipating this question, and had spent the bulk of the drive so far attempting to formulate a reasonable answer. After a moment, I told her that I was trying to get back to my roots.
"Your parents. They still around here?"
"In a sense. They're buried here," I said. "They died when I was still a young man."
"Their names were Cybele and Brian Loesch," I said. "They lived on Jefferson Street, where I grew up."
She frowned. "Where's that again?"
"The west end of town," I said. "I understand it's where they put the new sports field for the high school."
She paused before replying, "Oh, right. They never finished that. The high school got consolidated with Milan High." She looked up at me. "I remember it when I was a kid. Them knocking the houses down."
I nodded. "It was after my time."
"I guess so."
The village quickly gave way to farmland, much of it abandoned and overgrown with scrub. If the area's misfortune were to continue for another fifty years, it would all be forest again, as it had doubtless been before it was settled by Europeans. The road weaved and lurched, following the hills, and I grimaced as my ill-considered morning snack shifted in my stomach.
Luckily it was not far to the plot of land. Jennifer held a survey map, which she turned this way and that, studying it, then peering out the window. "Okay," she said, as we passed a road marked MINERVA. "I think this is it, maybe? Starting on the left?"
Even from my vantage point on the driver's side, it was obvious that the plot of land began, in fact, on the right. Jennifer was holding the map upside down. I told her so, and she corrected her grip with a small grunt of acknowledgment. Clearly she was not the type to accept others' authority with ease.
The road took on a more steady, if slight, grade now; the car began to climb. The land was heavily wooded, and unremarkable in every way. Yet the sight of it filled me with excitement and foreboding. I felt powerfully the rightness of the decision I had made to return here, and I gripped the steering wheel harder.
We rose gradually on the undulating pavement, and eventually came to a crossroads, the corner of LYSSAand PHOEBUS. There was a clearing here, and a white house, large and clapboarded, with drooping eaves. Saplings grew all around it, right up against the foundation. Beyond it the road sloped away, and in the far distance, outside the influence of the thick gray cloudbank that covered us, I could make out the glimmer of a lake. I drew to a stop on the shoulder.
"That's the house," Jennifer said. "Like I said, it needs work. On the other side of the street is Fordham County, and that's Wanona Lake way down there."
"It's a beautiful view," I said.
"Yeah, I guess it is," she replied, without enthusiasm.
We turned right and continued our journey around the property. From fallow spots along Phoebus Road it was possible, in places, to see over the trees and into the interior of the plot: gentle green swells of forest draining toward the village. Though the odometer indicated that we had covered very little distance, the journey seemed to be taking quite some time; I gave the car a bit more gas. Eventually we reached a road called Nemesis and turned right onto it.
"The roads have unusual names," I said.
She spoke with rote weariness. "The men who divided up the county named the roads after Greek gods," she said. "They had this idea it was supposed to be some enlightened, you know, what do you call it."
"I didn't know that."
She shrugged. "Well, it didn't pan out, anyway."
A little while later the road ran over a culvert; a corrugated pipe jutted out on either side, admitting a small creek. "Okay," Jennifer said, "this corner isn't part of the property. The creek cuts it off." A few moments later we came to Minerva Road and turned right yet again. We crossed over the creek a second time, and soon we were back to Phoebus. We retraced our route, returned to the upper corner of the land, and parked on the shoulder to take a closer look at the house.
The windows were cracked and dirty, and on the door hung a NO TRESPASSING sign. The yard bore evidence of once having been entirely covered with coarse gravel, through which rangy weeds now grew. We stepped onto a rickety wooden stoop, and Jennifer fumbled through a ring of keys. In a moment, the door opened with a creak, and we stepped inside.
I was pleasantly surprised at how nicely the interior had been preserved. The walls were filthy, but the lath was intact, and the wide floorboards were tight and true, if scratched. Bare wires trailed out of ragged holes in the ceiling. Jennifer led me in silence from room to room. We walked slowly, gently, as if in an effort not to disturb someone or something that lived here — but of course there was nothing. The house was empty and forgotten.
The stairs creaked as we climbed to the second floor. There were not many rooms, but they were large and high-ceilinged, and the master bedroom was fully twenty feet square, with a bank of tall windows that, if cleaned and reglazed, would doubtless appear quite beautiful. The view north and east was spectacular.
"That would be the whole property, there," Jennifer said, pointing. The land sloped gently away from us, and the village of Gerrysburg was visible in the distance through the dusty windows. But what drew the eye was a feature in the very center of the woods: a large gray outcropping of bare rock that jutted out from the carpet of trees. I made a quick judgment of the distance and determined that it had to be at least a hundred and twenty feet tall, if not more.
The sight of the rock moved and disturbed me. Its incongruousness here, the way it interrupted the gentle curve of the land, seemed like some kind of challenge or rebuke. It appeared much the way I imagined a great whale might, breaking the surface of a calm sea to draw a mighty breath; and like a whale, its imposing nature enticed the viewer to conquer and claim it. I stroked my chin, to indicate to Jennifer that I was deep in thought. "Tell me about that rock," I said.
"I suppose a glacier left it," she replied, her voice echoing flatly in the empty room. Her arms were crossed and she hugged herself in the damp cold.
"It's possible to reach it through the woods, I'd imagine."
She let out a snort of laughter. "If you buy the place, you can do whatever you want," she said. "I'm sure you could get there, it can't be more than half a mile."
I nodded, as though considering. But I had seen enough. I turned to Jennifer. Her eyes widened, and the corner of her mouth twitched. I said, "I'll take it."
She scowled, blinking. "What, this place?"
"Yes," I laughed. "I'll take it. The price seems reasonable to me."
"No, I'm not. It's exactly what I've been looking for."
She stared at me, silently, seriously, judging. "Believe you me," she said. "I would be totally happy to sell you it. But I just have to know if you have any idea what you're doing."
"There's no need to worry about me," I said with a smile.
She seemed to soften, her features relaxing, her arms falling to her sides. She sighed. "Well, okay, whatever then. You can still change your mind. Come on back to the office and let's get started."
"Wonderful," I said, and for a moment, I felt as though I should shake the agent's hand, or engage her in a friendly embrace, something to commemorate the occasion. And perhaps sensing this, she quickly moved into the hallway ahead of me, and down the stairs to the door. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Castle by J. Robert Lennon. Copyright © 2009 J. Robert Lennon. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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