How Many Years Did I Want To Tell This Story To You.
My grandmother said that sentence to me all her life. Over and over.
Her life was one long story. I miss her story stil.
I am always starting over. Every day. Trying to tell this very same story. Last night I
confessed to a stranger at the library, a woman I’d never seen before, one of those
friendly broad faced strangers who probably has eleven grandchildren, she didn’t even
tell me her name, last night I confessed to her that it’s beginnings I care about. Not all
those inevitable endings. Not the endings I know too well.
There’s no rule, not a good one anyway, that says a story can’t begin in the middle.
Some people like endings first. Who did The Thing, however big or small, and
what led up to the Major Act: Betrayal, Desperation, Injustice or War.
I don’t even know where the middle might be. Probably one of those impressive Greeks
Told us something about order that we’ve all been following forever, but 1,2,3 can
Just as easily be 2,3,1, depending.
We’ve been in the country for twenty years, twenty years that have been long,
and too short. I have always measured my life in summers. Some of us, there must
be a famous study, had these fragrant summers when we were children. By fragrant I
don’t mean that we went somewhere else. My friend David said most of us summer
where we winter and he’s right. It’s not so much about where we are. It’s more what
happens there. How we feel about peaches and heat, and water and not having to cover
our bodies with anything much, what happens to us when the structure of
school the structure of work the structure of life is replaced by long open days, days that
begin so slowly that its hard not to wonder if mornings could last forever. Days that
end with skies. Of course there are skies the rest of the year, but in summer, there’s
another better bluer sky, a sky you want to lie beneath forever.
We’ve been in the country for twenty summers, twenty summers long and short.
Our days vary wildly. Some have those long afternoons that happened when we
Were children, where light and possibilities have no limits, where we believed so
Certainly that life would last forever. How long and fragrant and happy were
So many afternoons. When I think of them now, they are bright green, the green of good
How did that green change to brown?
Middlefield is a place like so many others, where discordant realities co-exist just
because of these soft external and unpredictable hills. Sometimes I wish they were
mountains. It’s a place where what you see depends on who you are. Where people
are too fat and too thin in equal numbers, where there aren’t enough labor unions or
Democrats, where even now there are Sarah Palin signs and those signs will
be up forever, where corn tastes better than it does anywhere else, maybe in the world,
where tomatoes are right up there too, where people have children that don’t know
what to do in life because they have no role models, no paths, not very many
alternatives, where food pantries are enormous and quickly emptied, where what
we all believe is wildly different, where sometimes that difference matters and
sometimes it just doesn’t.
Some of us came here because it’s our birthright, because our ancestors arrived
from somewhere else, or because our families went to the mountains in the
summer for a week, to escape from poverty, from long days and hard work,
To escape from how hard our lives are. To swim in a creek and forget.
We are a family of place, a family who became one not by blood, not because of ancestry
Or immigration patterns, not because of any particular religion or intellectual proclivity,
we are not all in book groups, we do not all fish or farm or read the same newspaper,
we do not vote the same or dream the same either.
I never found a place I wanted to be until Middlefield. I never consciously thought
about wanting to belong anywhere, about staying put. I am a
theoretical wanderer, child of the seventies. I have never been to India or Bhutan or
Tanzania or Nepal. But I want to go. I’ve wanted to go for years.
I am one of those vague women with vague ideas about politics,
about art, about daily life, marriage the supreme court, even religion.
I thought I understood about right and wrong, about why people did what they did,
Until we had to leave here. Until we had no choice.
What life is here is stories.
I’m not interested in how people move, but in what moves them.
Life overlaps here. One day on top of another. Maybe what’s appealing about this town what’s one of the reasons we are all so caught up being here is the mix, the real mix. Our neighbor calls us the Comers. People who come here from somewhere else: New York, New Jersey, someplace else. And she calls the people who are born on these hills, right here, who stay put all their lives the Heres.
Like Martha in the post office, handing us our mail, telling us what they can every single day. Familiar enough faces. We see one another often enough to know some of the necessary details: sick relatives, the names of children. Mike worked for Ken.He was born two towns away and lived there all his life. He was fixing the porch when we met. Ken is a reliable source for hard, competent workers. He knows, more than we do, what has to be done. What his options are. I walk by his house, most days, on my way up the hill.
Mike doesn’t look like Ken’s usual workers. They tend to seem worried, busy, a little distraught. Not too sure what they’re doing. Mike looked as though he was fixing
The porch floor. Ken’s house looks more neat than anything else, as though neat and clean was behind all decisions. Nothing ever seems out of hand: not weeds. Not grass. Not fallen leaves or snow. He’s taken away all shedding possibilities, removed any potential for chaos and replaced it with the kind of green grass that you don’t usually find in the country, the grass that looks more like a suburban maybe Westchester maybe long island lawn. Contained, where the chairs look as if they’re perched right on top of the blades. Ken’s house is not the best part of him. Mike is a bear like man. Not young anymore and not old either. He looked like he was in his forties, the sort of man who was strong more than in good shape, who could pick up what he had to. He stopped his sawing to say hello, and I stopped too. There’s a funny etiquette in upstate New York. Ignore Your Neighbor more than love her. But Mike stopped, and he asked the way a child might, “Where are you going?” As though he saw me every day, and
that’s what he wondered. He seemed like an innocent child. “I’m going to the post office. My daily trip.” “Why?” he asked. “Do you get mail? I never go to the post office.”
“I like it there. The stamps. The people inside. The walk up the hill to get there. Picking up mail. Even if it’s just a CVS flyer.”
“I don’t get mail,” he said. “I never get letters. Only bills come in the mail. They put them in my box. I don’t much like bills. Who does?” he said. He spoke in a way that made me wonder a little: was he just odd? Did he have neurological problems? Had I become one of those suspicious types?
“Who are you?” he asked the question just like that. “Who are you?” I replied. “Maybe if you tell me, it will be easier to tell you.” “I have worked at the bakery in Albany since my eighteenth birthday,” he said. “I’m 42 now. I usually work the night shift. Free cookies. All I want. That’s why I look like I’ve eaten so many. You name a cookie. I’ve eaten it.”
“I’m 41,” I told him. Married to Nick. He does sound effects for movies. He throws a melon up in the air and records the noise that it makes when it falls. Splatters really. He uses that sound later, says it’s good for car accidents and small country crashes.
Nick recorded dogs barking every time we travel. He has a whole barking dogs library. Dogs across the street. Wild dogs. Golden retrievers barking. Yelping puppies. Nick loves barking dogs. We have two boys. They’re both adopted. Eli and Adam. Nine and eleven. The boys and I are here in the summers. Nick comes Friday nights. Sometimes Thursday. I write children’s books, and I try to illustrate them too. My favorite of the books I’ve written is called Thyme’s My Name, about a girl who makes up the facts of her life, She tells the reader exactly the story she wants to tell.
I invented a typeface once. Wrote an alphabet by hand. I love typefaces. “
“What’s a typeface?” We stood talking for a while. It was one of those times where you know you’ve made a friend, a real friend. A friend different from all the others. Who will be a real friend.
“I’ll visit tomorrow,” said Mike. “Between the bakery and here. I’ll bring cookies for your boys.”
“There isn’t a boy alive who doesn’t like cookies. If there is, I don’t know him. You and your husband probably like cookies too.”
I wish we didn’t. I often wish we were more like the careful families that had discussions about TV and sugar. We’re not.
Tell me your address and I’ll come by around eight, he said.
At eight I am outside, sitting under a tree. Drinking my fake latte. I love lattes,
the real Italian kind with espresso and steamed milk. But I am impatient to drink a cup of coffee, although I admire anyone who goes through a careful coffee process. I don’t, making my cup quickly because I want it as soon as I wake up. Although the timer method, which many people have suggested, is not appealing. I don’t know why. Then I put the milk into a cup, microwave yes microwave it knowing that real latte people would probably be horrified and take my more or less perfect fake latte into the yard, to the same every single day dark summer 50s green metal chair, the kind that looks like it’s in a cartoon. The chair is right under a big Maple tree, facing out into the mountains. We’re down below them, not on top. Even though it is beautiful absolutely and completely to sit on top of a mountain, to look all around you and see and see and see, I prefer to be inside the hills. Looking up. Someone wrote an essay I read so many years ago, famous man in Germany who’d studied, actually studied, although I don’t remember how, the
differences between people who choose to live on top of a mountain, and those who want to be inside. I like looking up,looking out into the fields and up into the soft small greenish mountains, and then into the sky. Sitting there, every summer, in the same chair, knowing I can drink my fake latte anytime, feels more or less perfect. I always hold a notebook, or put it on the table. Grey. Just in case.
Mike appeared at 8, just like he said he would. With a few boxes of cookies. Chocolate chip, and oatmeal. “These are the best,” he said. “My favorites.” He didn’t drink coffee. Didn’t want tea either. What he wanted was to ask me a question.
“You looked sympathetic when you walked by,” he said. “A sympathetic walker. You might not believe me. But I want you to. I need advice. I have a story that needs a solution. And I’m hoping you’ll give me that.”
I looked at him carefully. A stranger, total and complete, He looked unbelievably kind, as open as a child, big gentle innocent man, like my very young sons. He had that Help Me Mama quality that some men never lose.
“I’m lonely,” he said. “I met a woman I love. That’s the whole story. You’d think it was easy. It isn’t,” he added. “That’s where I need help.” I didn’t have to say a word for him to want to continue. “I usually work the late shift. There all night. Dinner break at 1. I’m used to it by now. That’s what I’ve been doing for years. You get paid a little more.” He didn’t feel much need to explain. He talked as though he hadn’t told his story very often. He wasn’t tired of how it sounded. It’s funny how you can tell, when you are listening to someone how many times they’ve told the same story. Ancient Mariner types, with one story to tell anyone they can corner. The themes are usually familiar: lovers leaving, people different from how they first appeared. Life not doing what the speaker wanted. I’ve heard neighbor Martha’s story a thousand times. Her husband she thought she knew him turned out to be a no good bum. Other people like Mike seemed to be new to the Tell Your Story phenomenon. In forty years, Mike probably hadn’t said all that much.
He was wearing his work uniform: pants as white as flour, loose white pants, more hospital worker than yogi. Though how that difference was so apparent is hard to say. His short sleeved white T shirt, the kind that comes in a package of 3 or even 4 or 5
With no distinguishing characteristics. Just white. Cotton. Shapeless. No letters or pictures. Chain store t-shirts. Mike’s face,
open as a child’s, gentle innocent middle aged face, the kind of face that doesn’t change all that much over the course of a lifetime. “Tell me, Mike.” I felt, although I’d only seen him once before, knew nothing about him really nothing, as much as he knew about me, I felt oddly close to Mike. I liked him, knew that what he was going to tell me would be true.
“Every night I get hungry,” he said. “One night I thought what I wanted most was thin crust piazza. Very thin. I wasn’t sure where I could go that would be open. I asked the guys who work with me. Nobody knew. I have a 45 minute break, but my foreman is a good guy and I could take more time if I needed it.”
Listening to Mike I wondered when the last time a stranger told me a story. It usually happens on planes. The person in the accompanying seat goes one of two major ways: purposefully separate, with the polite don’t bother me no manner what demeanor, and telling all they know.
“I really wanted a thin crust pizza,” he said, like a child repeating the thought he was sure you’d forgotten. “I looked in the Yellow Pages. There were only two pizza places and they were both named Franks. Can you believe that? One of them could have been Frank Junior, at least. Or even Peter. Someone’s got a middle name. Mine’s Tom. My mother’s from Poland. She thought Tom more American sounding than Mike, but it was a little too American, she said, for her to use every day. She wanted me to be Tom, but not too much.
I don’t know how I even got this idea. Maybe a movie I once saw? I don’t see too many. Anyway I called the operator. In Albany we have operators still. They’re not in another country. Right there in a big glass building downtown. VERIZON or AT&T. I don’t really know the difference.”
I listened to Mike and his soft voice, his all the time in the world manner didn’t seem even a little like he’d been up all night, doing something I wasn’t sure what
With cookies outside Albany.
“A woman with the sweetest voice I ever heard answered the phone,” Mike said. “She was the operator. I just asked her where to go. I told her how hungry I was. She laughed, even though it was the middle of the night and I didn’t know her. Then she told me about her favorite Sicilian pizza, thin slices with tomatoes and just a little cheese, in a shopping mall over in Latham. She said it was a miracle. The place was open twenty four hours. I didn’t want to hang up. It was her voice. I asked for her name and she told me she wasn’t allowed to say. Phone company regulations.
I’m not the kind of guy who breaks the rules but I asked her just this once to tell me. “Please,” I said. “I really want to know.” “It’s just Marie Evans,” she said, I swear she sounded like she was singing.
“I like your voice too.” I practically fainted, “Where do you live, Marie?” Don’t ask me where I got the courage. I wanted to
see her, just to see her, in person. “I live in Scotia, New York, she said. “Near Schenectady. In a condo. It’s really like a house. It’s beautiful,” she said. “And then, the way a miracle can sometimes continue, she actually gave me her address. I wrote it in ink on my wrist. So I wouldn’t lose it. I wanted never to lose it. To have her address right there all the time.”
“Can I get you something?” I thought I should ask. To do something. I’m not sure why I often feel I have to do something. I knew he didn’t care. Even a little. He wanted to tell me his story. I was the stranger he’d chosen.
“No,” he said. “Last night I was the sampler for the new test cookie. Pistachio chips. I ate so many I won’t be able to eat another thing. Until tonight,” he laughed.
“The pizza was perfect. I never had such good pizza. The next day I was at the florists near my house as soon as Joan walked through the door.
Joan and I were in high school together. In all these years I’ve never bought flowers.
Who would I buy them for?
Joan was a brainy girl when we were high school.She knew the5 right answers.”
No one bothered us on the porch, but at nine he had to leave, to go to his job down the street. He promised to return the next day at 8, to tell me what happened. I walked by Mike again on the post office path, but Jeremiah was with him, so he didn’t have the chance.
But the next morning there he was. Ready to continue. Some people, and Mike is one of those, start a story and have no problem just picking it up. The next day the next year it doesn’t much matter. Mike walked
Onto the porch and after his very quick hello, his passing over the mandatory box of cookies of the day, key lime with mocha chips (I can’t imagine eating these, he said) he continued exactly where he’d left off.
I said to Judy, “Make me the biggest bouquet of flowers you’ve ever made.” “What kind would you like, Mike?” she asked me. “I don’t know too much about flowers. Roses is pretty much it. I said ‘How about red roses, Judy?
and she said, “Roses are awfully expensive. Why don’t I mix it up? I can add some beautiful greens. You don’t have to think of them as filler. Just something green to set off your roses.”
She told me to come back in half an hour. I went over to McDonalds for coffee. You can have the biggest cup in the place for a dollar and it’s pretty good.Somebody told me it’s Paul Newman’s coffee. Whatever that means. I’ve always got plenty of cookies in my truck.” The truck was right outside.
Mike’s truck looked like one of his appendages: big strong white truck. He said it was from 1991, had over 200,000 miles. Back of his truck always full: bottles and newspapers to recycle, furniture to fix, shelves and jars and tools for projects he imagined he’d get to one day. Mike was full of projects.
“I took the roses into the truck and drove right over to Marie’s. Schenectady’s about 40 miles from my house. My neighbor always says As the Crow Flies. I know my house is nothing much. Maybe it will be one day. I’ve got a bunch of working refrigerators lined up in the back yard so I can have a party when I’m ready. They’re empty though.” He laughed easily at himself.
The way it’s possible to root for strangers, I found myself rooting for Mike and Marie. Knowing none of the facts. Not even one.
“I drove right up to her door. I don’t even have GPS,” he said. “It’s like my truck knew where it was going. Not the first time. The truck is smarter than she looks.” He laughed again.
While he talked I wondered, really wondered, if I ever would have had had the chance to meet Mike somewhere else.
“I knocked on the door and she opened it. Marie wasn’t surprised when she saw me at her door. ‘Hello Mike’ she said, as though she’d said Hello Mike a thousand times before. “Red roses are my favorite flower.”She’s a nice big girl with bright blue eyes and the best voice I’ll ever hear, as clear and sweet as music. ‘Marie,’ I said. ‘Mike,” she smiled, and she looked at me as though we knew one another well.I knew right away that we were meant to be.”
“Come inside and have some coffee.”
“I told her I had cookies in my truck,
and you should have seen her smile. Her house was beautiful,” he said. She’s had a good job with the phone company 22 years. In the union too. “Come back for dinner on your night off,” she said. “That voice could make me do anything she wanted. So that’s how we got started.”
“We saw each other almost every day.I’d call her just to be able to hear her say hello. Hello Mike. I took her to meet my mother. She’s from Poland, my mother. Cleaned houses all her life. My father’s name was Joe. And he had a gun. That’s all I know about him. Never saw him. Never even saw his picture. My mother and I lived alone with as many cats and she could find. Ten or twelve it didn’t matter to her. Some people like cats. Some like dogs. What about you? He asked. Sometimes people say they like them both but I don’t believe them. It’s like saying you like chocolate best, and vanilla too. What about you?”
“Dogs,” I said. “Cats are too feline. That sounds odd. I don’t like the way you can’t hear them when they’re with you. I like dogs but we don’t have one. Nick thinks we’d argue about who’d do the walking. Maybe when the boys are older.”
That seemed answer enough for Mike. “We saw each other for months,” he said.
We talked to each other all the time.I never talked much to anyone. I’m talking to you and you’re kind of a stranger. You seem like a friend,” he said, and I knew he meant it, meant that my listening to him, that my wanting to hear what he had to say, qualified me as friend. One day she said, “Mike, my uncle is a justice of the peace. He can marry us. I’m forty. I don’t want to wait.” I went home and couldn’t sleep. I can’t tell you why but the idea of getting married, even to Marie, made me feel like I was going crazy.”
Jeremiah was away. Maybe Albany. Mike didn’t know. We were there on his porch. a few plants hanging over us: a big loose fern, impatients. The porch was practically right on the street. Mike was changing the floor. Because we are so deep in the countryside, very few cars went by. There was no reason, really, for cars.
I didn’t want to wait another day to hear what happened. Didn’t want to leave Mike until I knew.
“Eight years went by. Eight years,” he said. “I changed my phone number. I didn’t see her. Not even once for eight years. A day hasn’t gone by where I didn’t think about Marie. I was so afraid, so worried. Now I wonder if she married someone else. She sent me a few letters. I carry them around in my truck. The last one was five years ago. “I’ll wait as long as I can,” she wrote. I didn’t answer her. I kept sitting in the truck starting to write a letter back.. I probably started 35 of them but I never got any farther than Dear Marie. I didn’t know what to say. Dear Marie I want to marry you is what I wanted to say. But I just couldn’t do it. My mother kept asking me about her and after a while, she stopped.
“I wake up thinking about her every day,” he said. And then he looked at me, the same way my younger son does when he has a question, with his Help Me Mama look. My older son wants no help. Ever. Not even a little.
“What should I do?” he asked. “Of course
you have to call her,” I said. “She’s probably still waiting.” “What if she married someone else?” “You should find
Cellphones don’t work where we live. Cell towers have been debated for years. “Call her now,” I said. I was sure she’d answer. But I didn’t know what she’d say. “Call her
Now,” I repeated. Mike seemed dazed. “I should wait,” he said. “For what? You’ve waited eight years. She’s at work I’m sure. You have her work number. No matter what, she’d be enormously happy to hear your voice. I’m sure of that.”
“She’s the one with the beautiful voice,” said Mike. And he smiled.
We walked over to my living room. Nick buys vintage phones. We have a new yellow phone in the living room. The two parts form a telephone O, a bright yellow circle that looks like it belongs on the set of the Jetsons. I imagine Mike’s phones are all black, but I could be wrong.
He picked up the phone and dialed with his finger. He still remembered her number.
He said. It’s in my brain.
From the kitchen I could hear him laughing.
One month later, that’s all it was, Mike
invited us all to a public park two hours
away, where Marie’s Uncle James, justice
of the peace, married them both. Marie,
a big beautiful woman in a real white wedding dress held onto Mike’s hand. She
looked like she’d hold on forever.