Chapter Eleven

Julia was coming to my farm for a visit. I glanced at my phone. Her train would be pulling into the Wassaic station any minute now. When she disembarked at this, the last stop on the train from the city, she would pause, I supposed, on the platform—while the jaded commuters scattered to their cars—to notice what they had long since learned to take for granted: the misty watercolor hills in the distance, the wrought iron lamp posts, the Twilight Zone quaintness of a rural train stop in the middle of nowhere.

In anticipation of her arrival, I was having fences repaired, poison ivy removed, the grass in the gravel driveway vinegared and raked up, and thistles in yonder pastures dug out by the roots. I was weeding my garden.

As I worked, across the lowland my neighbors Nellie and Betty worked on their flower garden and lawn. They were both academics from Brown.  Liberal arts academics from Brown were objects of ridicule in American culture and Nellie and Betty were no exception.

They spent a lot of time on their single-species three-acre lawn, giving it a precision Scottish plaid pattern. Gertrude had offered to let our sheep graze their lawn for them, but they declined. Perhaps they didn’t like the Turing pattern that sheep graze out or the many varieties of grass, clover, trefoil, creeping Charlie, and dandelion—which the old bats probably considered weeds—that thrive and bloom in my pasture and feed the bees. In the fall, Nellie’s lawn guy used a gas-powered leaf blower to collect the leaves and then burned them. My mother and I always let the sheep stand under the sugar maples and eat the sweet leaves as they fell. We let the wind blow the rest up against the fence and into the low areas, then I raked them up and pile them in the potato and cabbage beds. You rarely have to weed potato patches when you use a lot of mulch. Out of my raking, I used to get twice my volume in potato-filled sacks every year and Gertrude would get ten gallons of sautéed cabbage or sauerkraut. The soil in the potato patch was so rich and loose—made up granule castings from earthworms that get as big as young garter snakes—that I could just slip my bare hand six inches under and pull out a big golden Yukon or a handful of purple Peruvians. My neighbors didn’t get any food out of their backyard efforts.

I was daydreaming.

I could feed myself, Julia and her child if I had to, if it came to that.

Julia was coming to visit, in defiant violation of her family “pod” rules that her husband’s lawyer made her sign. She was not bringing her daughter Honoré “this” time, she had said, which implied she planned to bring her at some point.

For the time being, however, she was still so paranoid of being caught cohabiting with a potential virus vector, that she insisted that I not pick her up at the train station; she was to do the twenty-minute walk to the farm on her own. When last we parted at the library on Friday, she made me write the directions on paper rather than text them, which I did.

From Grand Central take the Harlem Valley line to Wassaic. Walk north on the rail trail then exit left when you see the graveyard and climb the hill toward the ramshackle Tudor house.  I will be in the garden waiting for you.

I was gardening under my cinematic imagination, again seeing myself in her eyes. After harvesting the carrots, I was walking to the house carrying a bundle of orange and purple roots, a farmer’s bouquet, when Julia came skipping (yes, literally skipping like a child) down the driveway toward me.  She didn’t slow her pace until she was up against my chest, arms around me. Then she took the carrots in her arms like they were a precious offering. “This is heaven,” she said, “heaven.”

“On Earth,” I added.

Julia turned left and right and surveyed the land. I took her canvas overnight bag from her. It was unexpectedly heavy.

Booz waved from the fence line. Julia waved back.

“What did you tell him?” I asked.

“I made something up,” she said.

Pretending not to care about her reticence about her husband, I offered, “Let me show you around.” We followed the sheep trail across the pasture and I pointed out the barns and the gardens and took her down to a little stream in the boggy low section. “I’m having a lot of work done. These guys need the money,” I nodded toward Booz who was trying to pull up a rotten fence post. “A lot of people still haven’t gotten back to work since the lockdown.”

“How are you paying them on your Octopus salary?”

“I’m not, exactly. It’s a long story. Three years ago, my mother sold all her stocks and bought ten abandoned Victorians in town.  She couldn’t stand to watch architectural treasures sagging to the ground and disappearing in a pile of rot.”

“I noticed some lovely old houses on the way up here.”

“She had new metal roofs installed and the electrical systems updated, and then owner-financed them to new buyers.  Her income went down, but she improved her standing in the community, which was priceless.”

“Good for her,” Julia said.

“I’ll tell you about my mother’s awkward relationship with the locals later.  Here comes Booz. He and his wife bought one of the houses.” I lowered my voice as Booz approached, “Now there’s the little problem that four of these new home owners, who still owe my mother (now me) quite a lot, were under house arrest for quite a while and couldn’t go fixing people’s plumbing”—Booz had arrived, grinning at Julia. He removed his hat and held it against his chest as if he were listening to the national anthem—“or cleaning their carpets or serving them food or massaging their backs or whatever.”

“He’s trying to get us involved in an alternative scheme,” said Booz perceiving what I was saying to Julia.

“Is he?” said Julia.  “Hi, I’m Julia. I work with Winston.”

“Oh, I know all about you,” said Booz. “Call me Booz. That’s my last name, not my habit.”

“Dutch?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I continued, “They are working off the mortgage payment by helping me around here. And if they do want to pay partly in cash, I will be spending it only at the local thrift shop, the local general store, tag sales. I’m trying to convince all my neighbors to keep their dollars circulating locally. During the Great Lockdown no one had any choice but to send their money like burnt offerings up to the Great Owners at the top.”

From the valley we could see Nellie and Betty’s house further below. The ladies were in their perennial flower garden, wearing those blue masks, looking at us. “That’s nosey Nellie and Betty,” I said, as Nellie started cutting across her lawn toward us. “When you passed them on your way up they must have noticed you.”    

Booz added, “Citiots.  As soon as they move into town and have a look around, they start telling us all the things were doing wrong and try to save us.” Booz paused and looked meaningfully at me. “Gertrude, that’s Winston’s mother, was one.”

“I haven’t filled Julia in yet,” I said. “Anyway Betty ran for town supervisor and won.”

“Only two-hundred or so people showed up to vote and she won by like thirteen votes,” said Booz.

“The old coot she was opposing had run unchallenged for four terms and had recently been caught raising taxes.  Her name is Betty Conklin,” I explained to Julia, “coincidentally the same name as a main road here in town and a number of old grave monuments that can been seen from Route 343.”

“Many of us were surprised to hear the next day we had elected a lesbian from the city to run our town,” said Booz. 

“Of course, everyone has to point out that she is a lesbian. They say, the town supervisor, she’s a lesbian you know, she is proposing to rebuilding the highway department garage.  The lesbian town supervisor is requesting bids for snow removal, etc., etc.”

“Then she hired a drag queen for story hour at the library,” said Booz. “A lot of us took exception to that.” 

“Gertrude didn’t mention the drag queen,” I said. 

“Well you went through your own trans phase.”

“What’s this?” asked Julia. 

I explained, “When I was a kid, crossdressing was still funny. I dressed up in my mother’s clothes to spy on a town meeting that was being held about me. They were trying to decide whether or not I was a 9/11 truth terrorist.” 

Julia said nothing.

“So, Winston, anyway, have you been in touch with your lesbian neighbors since you got back?”

“I saw Nellie briefly on the rail trail the day after I came back.”

“She and her wife or husband whatever they call that, have been holed up like its Ebola. They order food from me now. Never would deign to eat at my place before Covid.  I guess theren’t too many options these days, what with the city place closed down for good.”

“Because of Covid?” asked Julia.

“It’s all Covid, even if it’s not Covid. You get what I mean. Anyways, our lesbian town supervisor and her girlfriend, or husband or what ever they call it—“

“Probably just ‘wife,’” suggested Julia.

“Don’t be so sure. You might get chewed out,” said Booz. “Anyway, they would drive up in their Vulva all masked up and gloved up.”

“Volvo?” I asked.

“Did I say Volvo? I meant Vulva.”  Booz waited. “What? You think I’m not capable of making puns. It’s the lowest form of humor, after all. Anyway, I would have to throw their food order through their car window.” 

Nellie was getting closer.  We waved guiltily.

“From how far off?” I asked.

“Like about fifteen feet.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah,” Booz demonstrates how he threw the food at Nellie’s car. He backed up about three feet and pretended to toss something at Nellie. Nellie, who was by then about a hundred feet off, pretended to catch his imaginary food ball. “We used to call them maiden aunts when I was a kid,” reflected Booz, giving Nellie a thumbs up.

“What?” asked Julia.

“Lesbos.”

“Oh, right. We’re still talking about the sex life of my seventy-something neighbors,” I said softly, although Nellie was still a long way off.

“Yeah, well I don’t try to picture it or anything,” whispered Booz.

“Booz, please,” I said.

“Hey, it ain’t me. They call attention to it and all.”

Nellie had reached the welded wire fence between our properties and struggled with an old gate that hadn’t been used ever since she fell out of friendship with Gertrude.

I said to Julia, “My mom told me that Nellie asked her to put campaign signs in her yard for the last election. She told them she didn’t vote in national elections and wasn’t a member of any party.  They came to despise her, even more vehemently than they did the orange man, if you can believe that.”

Nellie had made it through the gate and was approaching us. “So sorry about your mom, Winston,” she shouted.  “Gertrude was a gem.”

I starred at Nellie without changing my expression. 

Nellie came to stand ten feet from us on the other side of the creek. She pointed to her mask, explaining, “We have to be careful due to our age.” 

Booz gestured at Nellie. “Julia, this is the First Lady of the Lesbian Town Supervisor” boasted Booz. “First in the county, right Nell?”

“Stop making a big deal out of it, Booz,” said Nellie. “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I notice you have a guest, Winston.”

Julia said hello.

Nellie ignored her, “With everyone traveling around all the time, we will never contain this virus.”

“I apologize, Nellie,” I said. “She escaped from her pod. I will keep her locked in a closet. Don’t worry.”

“Nothing personal,” said Nellie. “We all need to follow the CDC orders.” 

“What if I gave CDC recommendations careful consideration and decided against them?” asked my dear brave Julia.

“This isn’t about you,” snapped Nellie. She looked at Julia’s muscle tone and short skirt and responded accordingly, “And while yes everyone should be encouraged to think critically, it’s become pretty obvious that most people are not properly equipped to understand and judge the merits of complex scientific studies on their own. Especially considering a majority of people in this country,” she shot a look at Booz, “don’t even seem to understand that basic words like ‘theory’ and ‘research’ mean entirely different things to scientists as they do to laypeople…”

Julia shifted her bundle of carrots, put her hand on her hip. “Laypeople, that’s the right word. It’s a religion.” 

Nellie continued, lightening her tone a bit, “Heck, most Americans can barely understand fractions, so I highly doubt they can interpret the statistical significance of different study results.”

Because she obviously won no new converts, Nellie began to re-prosecuted her case, “I taught public health at Brown for thirty years. Experts are trustworthy for a reason. We actually have the toolset that everyday people just can’t acquire from a few afternoons on the internet.”

“Everyday people?” inquired Booz.  “What do you mean by that? Are there some people who don’t exist everyday?”

“We can’t eradicate this virus,” put in Julia. “We’re going to have to live with it.” 

Nellie hung her head and shook it three times slowly, indicating to Booz and Julia that she was nigh hopeless that she would ever get through to them. “As soon as the vaccine is available for the immune compromised—”

Julia cut her off, “Then they will include children.”

“First, young children are absolutely not being vaccinated.” Nellie went into caps lock to drive her point home, “THE FDA HAS BEEN VERY CONSERVATIVE ON THAT POINT.” Then, out of decades’ old habit of lecturing, she paused, to give her students time to write down the answer the ten-point question. “Even with the very deadly Delta variant, which is filling up ICUs in mask-free states, there’ve been relatively few cases of child hospitalizations and deaths…. That may change once school reconvenes.” ( Indeed, months later Nellie would “evolve” her opinion about vaccinating kids.  When the CDC proclaimed it was necessary, so would she.)

Nellie had finished her lecture, but wasn’t going to take any questions. “Not to change the subject, but,” she said, changing the subject, “I didn’t come over to lecture you. Betty wanted me to let you know about some town business. Felix O’Brien, the FinTech billionaire, bought a hundred acres behind your house, Booz. Betty and I—”

“Wait!” said I, “Felix O’Brien bought property here?”

Booz interjected, “There’s a whole bunch of billionaires in the valley now. It’s like mayfly swarm. They just showed up out of nowhere. I don’t care, if it lowers my taxes.”

“We want him to pay his fair share, but he wants his property taxed at exactly the same rate as everyone else—”

Booz interrupted her. “You,” he said. “I understand that Felix’s pronoun is you. So it’s, You want your property taxed at exactly the same rate.”

Nellie ignored Booz. “He,” she continued, as Booz shrugged, “will be asking for a reduction at the meeting tonight on Zoom. I just want to let you know so that you could add your voices to the protest.” And, with that, Nellie turned and walked back through the field toward the gate.

“Felix O’Brien, right here in our humble hamlet,” I said, still not able to believe it. “This is going to sound ever so slightly delusional, but Felix follows me on Telegraf. He only follows 100 people. What are the chances—?”   

“You think you followed you here?” asked Booz.

I replied with a prolonged, doubtful, “No,” which had an implied “but” hanging onto it. “Anyway, if I do happen to run into him at the feed store or whatever, I wonder if I should reveal myself to him.  PM:  Hey, it’s me. I’m right behind you next to the bags of haystretcher.”

“He’s not the only one. All the billionaires are building bunkers. Makes sense.  If the moon turns to blood while they happen to be in Manhattan, they can just commandeer trains get to here.  It’s a lot more rural and secret here than along the river.”

“That bodes some strange eruption to the state, I bet.” 

Booz added helpfully, “They’re wargaming the election outcome. Might try to provoke a civil war.”

Julia, who was watching Nellie’s retreating shade, said uneasily, “That Nellie though.”

“She’s just an expert name caller,” I reassured to Julia. “Nellie doesn’t need logic: the brute bureaucracy of the state health department has got her back. She can threaten you.”

“She wears her mask on Zoom, I bet,” said Booz. 

I would later lose five dollars to Booz. 

After our garden harvest dinner of sautéed cabbage, beets and shredded carrots, Julia and I followed the link Nellie had sent. One by one, the online gallery filled with faces of neighbors who had not thought to tilt the screen so that the camera didn’t look up their noses, had not tidied up the living room, had not closed the closet door in the background. One guy had left a stick of Old Spice deodorant on the book shelf behind him. In the upper left corner, Mike, the town property tax assessor was finishing his bloody steak dinner at his kitchen table. Every time he lunged forward to take a bite, the screen filled with giant fork, sauce-smothered steak and open mouth.  The neighbors waited for Betty’s camera to go live.

“Did you see that pig truck today, Ed?”

“What truck?”

“That farmer from Greene county. He had a truck of pigs he was selling.”

“Slaughter houses still closed ‘cause of Covid, huh,” said Ed, quickly making sense of the situation.

“I said, I don’t know how to slaughter a pig. He said, look at some YouTube videos. So I bought one.”

Ed said, “Tom’s good at dressing deer. He can help you.”

“I already got Tom. He’s coming out in the morning. Want some bacon?”

“I’ll take some,” said Ariel.

Finally, Betty and Nellie appeared. The pig slaughter convo ceased. Betty was in her office at the Town Hall, and Nellie was at home with an unmade bed.  Both Nellie and Betty wore masks.

“They apparently think that wearing a mask is a treatment as well as prevention,” said Julia.

“She’s the expert,” I said.

It was, by then, ten passed. Felix O’Brien did not materialize. Instead, his lawyer appeared, with his camera was positioned at a flattering eye-level and tell-tale light rings in his pupils. In a Park Avenue home office, he sat in front of messy stacks of lose papers and crummy knick knacks of dubious sentimental value. A large dog bellowed somewhere in his apartment.

“Well, let’s get started, shall we?” said the lawyer, taking control of the meeting. The town assessor’s lips moved but no one could hear what he was saying. The lawyer proceeded to present his client’s case with constructions of logic so unassailable—and he was so polite to boot—that by the end of the presentation, Betty found herself thanking Mr. O’Brien’s counsel for the “wise” and “informative” proposal.  Felix got his tax liability reduced. 

Legend has it that Mother Jones was similarly seduced by Rockefeller’s flattery and condescension when he visited coal miners in their pathetic camp.

“You know what I’ve realized,” I said to Julia after shutting down the computer, “these past six or seven months, looking through the digital window into the privates lives of Koenigian elites—newscasters, politicians, even a billionaire’s lawyer—their pathetic tableaus are as sad as the plebs’. Seems hardly worth selling out.”

Julia looked around. “It’s lovely here.”


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