Saturday, October 9, 2010

Saturday Musings, 09 October 2010

Good morning,

Gingerly stepping through the accumulated grime, I navigate the driveway of my garage this morning, thinking about the dark stain of water on the baseboard of the wall adjoining the downstairs room. I feel the smooth, cold concrete under my bare feet as I drink dark, thick coffee. I'm using a heavy mug purloined from a bagel shop, which has slanted slopes and a wide, curved handle that perfectly fits my grip.

I pass through the connecting door from the garage area to the finished part of the basement, and think about uses for the former playroom room: it is large, cool, and the water problem is not as bad as it used to be. I suspect that it would disappear altogether if I added a trough drain at the base of the driveway, where rainwater enters under the old garage door.

I lean against the knotty pine wall for just a moment, and think about water. It's a powerful element. Like its opposite, water poses a difficult challenge for homeowners, and I am no exception. Since the basement of my home sits downhill from the rest of my neighborhood, it gathers more than its share of run-off, and I constantly struggle to beat back water's rotting, smelly effects.

Fire and water; water and fire. Both threaten; both hover at the perimeter of our security; both strike without warning.

In another house, another state, another age, water and fire impacted my daily life with elemental fury.

The house nestled at the base of the Boston Mountains in Arkansas, on the west side of old 71 after its long sweep out of Fayetteville and before its gradual climb above Winslow. I bought it from another lawyer in my office, who shook his head at my folly but helped me get my first mortgage. I moved before Christmas 1989, with the land still barren from cold, and the river bed on the western edge of the property still flat, its smooth flagstone gleaming in the crystal light of morning, awaiting the spring thaw.

When that thaw came, in March, it pounded down the mountain with a terrible vengeance while I slept in ignorance.

That house had mushroomed under the typical Arkansas building philosophy of blooming where one is planted. The original structure comprised1500 square feet, and boasted a 2200 square foot unfinished addition that clearly had been intended for commercial uses. At the apex of the two, in the back of the house, an ambitious but unrealistic carpenter had jammed a modern deck, and I had taken to sitting on this with my morning coffee resting on a small glass table.

The day after the sudden spring melt, I exited from the kitchen through the poorly installed French doors, as I had been doing for several weeks since the weather had begun to warm and the mountains took on the cheerful, hopeful pale green of early Ozark spring. Raising my cup to take my first sip, I turned to glance across my two-acre property with that fluttery smugness of the newly-vested landed gentry.

My gaze fell not on land but on water -- a long, dank expanse of it, reaching the half-acre from the banks that could not contain it, to the edge of my hapless decking.

In later weeks, the waters receded, and I waded in the clear water that coursed across the smooth stone surface of the riverbed. The fragile, first bloom of spring yielded to an intense verdancy, the heady scent of which wafted through my open windows. I moved into the farthest bedroom and left the door open into the new portion of the house, and slept with the caress of spring breezes surrounding me.

The flood had done its damage to the base of the back deck, and I found a carpenter to repair it. I negotiated for him to also build a front porch, a transaction that included lodging for the week it took him to build it and several six-packs along with a pitifully small amount of money. In exchange, I got a beautiful, Ozark-style wood porch which spanned the front of the old part of my house, its floorboards set at angles which I was told had their apex in the center of the highway.

By that time the water had completely receded, and summer gripped my haven. As relentlessly as the water had flowed through my property for its weeks of glory, so too did the heat descend upon me. I raised the double-hung windows and opened every door, installing box windows at strategic points in the desperate hope that I could inspire the heavy air to circulate.

Despite the heat, the grass grew, perhaps nurtured by the soggy soil beneath the outer crusts of hard, dry summer dirt. In my small front yard, the grass rose in June, and by July stood a foot high before the lack of rain overcame it. And then it turned a dull, pale brown, and I began to wonder what would happen if it caught fire.

I bought a lawnmower at the Winslow hardware store, and stood in front of my house, summoning the strength to pull the cord and start its engine. Resting my hand on the choke, I lifted my eyes to gaze the length of my property, stretching its two-acre span to the north, foot-high, brittle grass barely moving in the stagnant air. No way, I told myself. You cannot clear this entire property with a fifty-dollar mower.

As I stood, thinking, game to try, I heard the drone of a pick-up slowing to my right, out on the highway. I watched it pull onto my property, down the gravel driveway that ran alongside the house, just to the north of where I stood. A man whom I did not know, sun-wizened, dark and lanky, slid with ease from the driver's side. He nodded his head in the small, casual motion that I had come to learn meant many things. Mornin', he ventured. Yup, I replied. You fixin' to mow, ma'am? he asked. Thinking about it, I admitted.

He glanced across my yard, sparing just a brief, polite portion of his look for my small frame and spindly legs. Mighty big job, he noted. Yup, I conceded.

You reckon you'd let me help? he ventured. Just help,he clarified, which was meant to assure me that he wanted nothing more in return than a cold cup of water, or something stronger, but only if I had it.

I let him help. I fixed a pitcher of ice water, and fetched a tall metal cup from which he occasionally drank. He made surprisingly short work of the job, and then sat, for a few moments, on my new porch, and drank a bottle of beer.

When he had finished, he wheeled the mower into my mudroom, and secured it carefully alongside what remained of my last rick of winter wood. Giving me the briefest of nods, he hitched himself into the driver's seat of the battered truck, and backed out of the driveway as easily as he had pulled into it. Then, with a small flick of one finger above his steering wheel, he continued on his way, into town.

Six months later, summer forgotten as though it never happened, I huddled alongside my Earth stove and wished for the July heat. Pregnant, alone, freezing, I listened to the mountain wind howl around me. I had moved into the inner bedroom again, but usually slept, only three months gone but already big, in an old green recliner next to the wood-burning stove in the living room -- my only heat source.

I got up to add another log, wishing for the hundredth time that I had thought to have them double-split. I struggle to get the latch of the stove's glass-fronted door open, with clumsy hands made even less deft because of the chill that had settled in their joints.

I tugged on the door just as a sudden burst of flame shot out from the belly of the beast. The flame caught my face and for a terrible second, I burned, the long sweep of my waist-length hair instantly igniting, the hard plastic of my old glasses melting. I flailed, and grabbed the door, still clutching with one hand the piece of wood; and in my wild and sightless scramble, I slammed the log against the door and cracked the glass.

I staggered back, dropping the wood, jabbing at the flames on my face with one hand, cradling the unborn child inside me with the other. Still the fire soared into the room, majestic, free, victorious. I realized the danger just before the flame reached the little pile of kindling and tinder, and grabbed the box, blindly pulling it toward me. I groped for the handle of the door and when I found it, I pulled hard, and slammed the door back against the stove, securing its latch. Dumbly, stunned, I stood in front of the stove of which I had once been so proud, and wondered what on earth I would do about this latest mess.

The fire licked at the cracks in the glass, taunting me. I knew that I had to find a way to seal the door of the stove, and I knew that I had to keep the fire lit or I would freeze and with me, the child I carried. In vain, I made the only call that I would ever make for help to the father of the baby within me; and listened to the resonance of his beautiful singer's voice, as he gently reminded me that I had made this particular bed, and had chosen to lie in it, alone. I returned the receiver to the cradle.

Eventually, I went to the hardware store in the small town of which I had never really become a part. Just ten minutes before closing time, that Sunday night, in January, 1991, I bought a large roll of camper's aluminum foil, a long swatch of which I wound around the broken door. I crunched the silver mess against the frame of the firebox, and it held. I could keep a small fire through the night, though I am sure the room filled with smoke and soot.

Two decades later, far north of there, I close my eyes, and briefly sag against the hardness of the wall behind me. I draw in the musty air, listening for the hum of the dehumidifier. I cannot hear it; I assume that its well is full, and the automatic shut-off valve has been activated. Sighing, I raise my mug, and take the last, cold gulp of coffee, and then, without much thought, I go upstairs, and leave whatever there is to leave, behind me, in the darkness of my basement.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.