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See what a life the gods have given us, set round with pain and pleasure. It is too strange for sorrow; it is too strange for joy.
Thoreau's Journal March 27, 1842
In the forest of oak and white pine beyond the Pond View Trailer Park, a wood thrush began to sing. Nobody heard it. All the residents of Pond View were inside their Belvederes and Skylines and Caravelles except for Stu LaDue, who sat on his lawn chair beside Route 126 just as usual. If Stu heard the song of the wood thrush above the noise of the passing traffic, he paid it no heed.
Inside the mobile homes several impulsive things were happening that June morning.
Norman Peck suddenly decided to put his collection of snapshots into an album. Pulling open a drawer, he rummaged in it for pictures of his deceased wife.
Mavis and Bernie Buonfesto began yelling at each other over their breakfast coffee.
Shirley Mills pitched out the leggy geranium she had been keeping alive for five years.
Charlotte Harris threw herself down at her desk and wrote a letter.
Of all these impetuous events, the only one that made any real difference afterward was Charlotte's letter:
Dear Julian, I want to say three things.
1. I've been unhappy as Pete's wife my whole married life.
2. Getting a divorce is awful. You know, such a mess.
3. I wouldn't ever do it unless I thought you'd marry me someday.
If you think this is silly, forget it. I'd rather keep on with Pete. This isn't a big deal. It's just that I've always loved you.
She soon regretted the letter with all her heart.CHAPTER 2
... I have been anxious to improve the nick of time ... to stand on the meeting of two eternities ... to toe that line.
Charlotte's letter was a critical point like a change of state, like the instant when a kettle of water starts to boil, or a swelling balloon bursts with a loud report, or an accumulating pile of gravel steepens until the stones rattle thunderously downhill.
In human affairs there are similar critical points, hours when small things mount to a crisis, moments when anger erupts or tears flow, days when marriages fail. Even the instant when understanding floods the mind can be a crucial turning point.
Long before the morning when Charlotte wrote her letter the simmering had begun in the kettle, the balloon had begun to expand, the steepening slope of the pile of gravel was becoming more acute.
If there was a single moment of beginning, it was the day Jack Markey rode up in the elevator to the seventieth floor of the Grandison Building on Huntington Avenue in Boston to receive a new assignment from Jefferson Grandison.
Jack was already immersed in one commercial project for his chief. He was working hard, throwing into it all his enthusiasm, all his skill in matching buildings to a particular site. Flying up in the elevator, he didn't know how he'd find time for a second undertaking.
The elevator was attached to the outside of the building, and it was made of glass. It occurred to Jack as he rushed up from the dark canyon of Huntington Avenue into the light-filled upper air that Grandison's office was not on the seventieth floor at all—it was somewhere in the upper reaches of the sky. Understanding Mr. Grandison's exalted loftiness was like grasping the concept of infinity. No matter how far away you envisioned the end of space, there was infinite expanse beyond, and no matter how high you imagined Grandison's dwelling place, he was higher still. Empires rose when Jefferson Grandison nodded his head. He shook it and they fell.
This morning Mr. Grandison had completed the details of an important contract by telephone. The other party was unctuously grateful. "That is thoroughly satisfactory, Mr. Grandison, sir. I'll send a messenger directly with the papers and the check, transferring to you the possession of Lot Seventeen. I trust you'll take it off our hands in the very near future?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Grandison, sir, I don't want to trouble you, but I wonder if you might be just a little more specific, as far as the timetable?"
"Not at this time."
"I see. Well, now, sir—"
"I bid you good morning."
When Jack walked into the office, still a little dizzy from his upward flight, Grandison beckoned him to the map table. It was a very large table, but it was dwarfed by the space around it, a room that was made even larger by the immense views surrounding it on three sides. Oversize maps could be spread out on the table, then swept off to be replaced by others. There were small-scale maps of the entire North Shore, the Berkshires, the Cape, there were mid-scale maps of towns and cities and large-scale maps of single streets and individual parcels of real estate. Jefferson Grandison could focus the zoom lens of his interest swiftly, rushing down from far away to stare at single souls laid bare. In the company of Jack Markey, he often looked down on the creation in this way, gazing at the land of Judah, the river Jordan, the waters of Nimron, the wilderness of Moab.
Today their attention was directed at Concord, Massachusetts, and the intersection of Route 2 with the Walden Pond road, Route 126. Jack's current project was nearby, Walden Green, a mixed-use complex on a parcel belonging to the local high school on the northwest side of the intersection.
Grandison touched with his pencil the forty-acre site of the Concord landfill on the other side of the highway. "It's being phased out, you say, the landfill?"
"Right. They don't have much room left for that old-fashioned kind of refuse-disposal. Oh, they're doing what they can. They're recycling. But pretty soon their only choice will be a transfer station in the same place. Well, you know what that's like. Big expense. Everything sorted and trucked away."
"The landfill belongs to the town of Concord?"
"That's right. To the town."
"Which is, I believe, in a state of fiscal crisis?" Grandison's pencil drifted slowly down Route 126 and stopped. "And this, what's this next door?"
"Pond View. It's a trailer park."
"Surprising, a landfill and a trailer park so near to Walden Pond."
"Yes, but the trailer park is being phased out, too. Those people only have a life tenancy. When they die, nobody else can come in."
"According to this map, the trailer park belongs to the commonwealth of Massachusetts, which is also in a perilous financial condition. How old are the tenants, roughly speaking?"
"I don't know." Jack made a joke. "Somebody might set a few of those mobile homes on fire."
Grandison twiddled his pencil and said nothing. The pencil made meaningless scrawls across the parcel known as Pond View.
When the interview was over, Jack entered the glass elevator, pushed the button, and fell out of the sky, plunging earthward, emerging on Huntington Avenue breathless after his headlong descent.
On the sidewalk he had to step around the scattered possessions of a bag lady who was sitting just outside the glassy entrance of the office tower. Jack tossed a quarter in her direction and walked quickly away.
Sarah Peel reached for the quarter and zipped it into her coin purse, but she was not grateful. Sarah knew that no kindly Lord kept watch over this sparrow's fall. Only the cold March wind, blustering down the narrow shaft of one Boston street or another, affected the course of her days. Sometimes it blew dust into her face, sometimes sleet and snow, and sometimes money. It was a random process, entirely without intention to help or to harm.CHAPTER 3
I have travelled a good deal in Concord ... Walden, "Economy"
There were two visitors to the Pond View Trailer Park on the day Charlotte Harris rushed out of her mobile home to toss her letter into the cab of the small truck belonging to Julian Snow.
The first was Homer Kelly. When Homer set out on that June morning he had no intention of visiting the trailer park. His destination was Goose Pond, a miniature body of water lying in a deep kettle hole just east of Pond View.
Actually he wasn't approaching the real Goose Pond. Homer was seeking a vision in his mind, a wild place described in the journals of Henry Thoreau. Like Jack Markey and Jefferson Grandison, Homer was studying a map of Concord. His was an old one. The forking rivers ran across it from lower left to upper right, lined with little symbols meaning marshy places—the Sudbury Meadows, the Great Meadows, Gowing's Swamp. Converging lines were hills—Annursnac, Curly Pate, and Thoreau's favorite lookout over the Sudbury River, the rocky ledge he called the Cliffs. The ponds were marked on the map, too—Walden, Bateman's, Flint's, and the wide bend of the river called Fair Haven Bay where Homer lived with his wife, Mary, in a small house on the shore.
There was no Route 2 on Homer's old map, there were no housing developments, no hospital complex, no regional high school, no correctional facility, no fashionable shops. In those days Walden Pond had not been afflicted with a highway, a landfill, a trailer park, and a thousand visitors a day on hot summer Sundays. The railroad, it was true, ran past the pond, and there had been mills and a leadworks in the southwest part of town. But mostly Concord had been a network of woodlots and farms, with a few stores on the main street called the Milldam.
Looking at the map, consulting Thoreau's journal, Homer could imagine the mid-nineteenth-century town. Daily he studied the record of Thoreau's explorations of his native village. Daily he set off to see the places for himself, looking for the wellsprings of Thoreau's prose. The words had been written down on paper, but to Homer they were attached to the landscape, stuck to the clapboards of houses, written on the leaves of trees, growing like lichen on the stone walls, ground into the soil by Thoreau's stout boots. Homer didn't know what he would learn by his explorations, but he was convinced that he couldn't understand the words without seeing the landscape from which they had come.
It was good to be back. During the last academic year, Homer and Mary Kelly had abandoned New England for Italy. They had taken a sabbatical from their teaching jobs in Cambridge and their transcendental heroes in Concord, to go whoring after foreign gods. Now they were burrowing back into the nest.
For Homer this morning the goal was Goose Pond. Henry Thoreau had once scared up a pair of black ducks at Goose Pond. He had seen waterbugs dimpling the surface. Perhaps on this warm June morning a century and a half later there would still be ducks on the water and a new race of waterbugs, the remote descendants of Henry Thoreau's.
"And who knows?" said Homer, putting a banana in his pocket as he walked out of the house. "I might hear my first wood thrush."
"Not there," said Mary. "Not at Goose Pond. You'll never hear a wood thrush so close to Route Two."
Mary was wrong, but by the time Homer found his way to the shore of the pond, coming in from the housing development on the eastern side, the local wood thrush had stopped singing. Homer could hear only the roar of traffic on Route 2 and the drone of mosquitoes diving in for the kill as he splashed around the pond in his rubber boots.
Soon the mosquitoes were floating vials of Homer Kelly's blood.CHAPTER 4
How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. Walden, "Reading"
The second visitor to Pond View that morning was Ananda Singh.
Ananda was a young pilgrim from India. Supercharged with emotion, he got off the Boston-to-Fitchburg train at the Concord depot and looked at his watch. He had been in the United States only two and a half hours, and here he was already, setting foot in the village of his dreams.
He knew he should have been sensible and given in to his weariness after the twenty-four-hour flight from New Delhi. He should have settled in at the airport motel and gone to bed. But it had been so enticing, the knowledge that he was only fifteen miles from the destination of his pilgrimage, Walden Pond. At Logan Airport Ananda reclaimed his suitcase, cashed in his traveler's checks, inquired how to get to Concord, hopped into a cab, and caught a train at North Station just as it was pulling out. And here he was in Concord, Massachusetts, wide awake at eleven o'clock in the morning instead of fast asleep at midnight in his father's house in the foothills of the Himalayas.
For a moment Ananda stood motionless on the Concord platform, watching the train pull away with a long, slow jerk. The other passengers who had traveled with him from Boston were moving off purposefully, as if Concord were just an ordinary place on the surface of the earth. Eagerly Ananda carried his suitcase around the depot and looked curiously at the street. It was an American street, not very different from the village streets of England where Ananda had spent two years of his life at university. There was a pizza parlor, a liquor store, a cleaning establishment. Where would he find Walden, the pond that to Thoreau had been "sacred as the Ganges, a gem of the first water which Concord wears in her coronet"?
A girl was standing on the sidewalk. "Excuse me," said Ananda, "can you tell me how to get to Walden Pond?"
The girl laughed. Her laugh was musical, and Ananda laughed, too. She pointed to the right. "That way. You just walk straight for a mile or so, and you'll come to it on the other side of Route Two."
She was as tall as he was, but built on a grand scale, whereas Ananda was lank and thin. His mother often teased him by saying he was a pair of brown eyes on the end of a plank.
The girl reminded him of the Statue of Liberty. It seemed appropriate that the first young female person he spoke to in the United States should be like the symbol of the country. She had the same round jaw and long straight nose and huge rectangular eyes. Her teeth were dazzling, like those of the girls at home.
Ananda looked excitedly down the street in the direction of the pond. "Thank you," he said. And then he couldn't help himself, he had to tell her. "I've come ten thousand miles to see Henry Thoreau's Walden Pond."
"Have you really?" The girl seemed impressed.
Some people, Ananda thought admiringly, were more transparent than others. The girl's light voice and open face were a revealing whole, and he caught her up in his mind as if she were an object on a table. For a moment he held her in his hand. Were all Americans like this?
Now the girl pursed her lips and looked doubtful. "A lot of people think Walden isn't true to Thoreau's memory anymore." Her brow darkened, as if the Statue of Liberty were beholding thunderclouds over Kansas. "But they overdo it, those people. My father, for instance." Then she groaned. "Oh, there he is, and there's the car. I should have seen it. Oh, isn't that typical."
She drifted away in the direction of a tall sandy-haired man who was shouting at a woman in uniform.
"Two minutes," bellowed the man, "that's all. I'm only two minutes late."
"Well, okay, Mr. Fry," said the woman in uniform. "I'll take your word for it." And she took his parking ticket out from under the windshield wiper.
The girl looked back at Ananda and waved good-bye. "I hope you like the pond," she said.
Ananda set off, marching with his long loose stride in the direction of his dream. For a moment he thought about the splendid girl and her angry father, Mr. Fry, and then he forgot them, enchanted by the clapboard buildings on either side of the street. They reminded him of the big houses in Simla, shaded by trees and wrapped in verandas.
The wooden houses petered out. So did the sidewalk. The street broadened. Cars rushed past him, and Ananda had to walk carefully to avoid being run down.
At the base of a long hill he stopped to rest, a little disturbed by the busy street. It was not the idyllic country road he had imagined.
A car pulled over, wobbling to a stop. The left front tire was flat. The driver looked at Ananda and said, "Shit."
"Can I help you?" Ananda said politely.
Jack Markey said, "Sure," and grinned at him. He got out and opened the trunk and lifted out the spare. "You're from somewhere else, right?"
"Oh, yes, I'm from India. This is my first day in this country." Ananda put down his suitcase, accepted the socket wrench, and looked at it doubtfully. He had never changed a tire in all his life.
Jack looked at him and laughed. "Here, you twist off the lug nuts." He took back the socket wrench and showed Ananda how. Ananda knelt and unscrewed them successfully while his new friend jacked up the front bumper.
Excerpted from God in Concord by Jane Langton. Copyright © 1992 Jane Langton. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted September 30, 2003
I just finished God In Concord and felt like I was walking down memory lane. I lived in Concord all my life and as I read this book I could picture everything the author was telling about. Going to pass this on to members of my family.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.