Losing the Red House

THE HEAT has always been cruel to me, and so in a way, if it were hot, I would have been expecting it. But it wasn't hot. It wasn't even sunny. It was cold and gray and there were ice crystals decorating the bare tree limbs and those trees glistened with such glory that the thought of them, even now, makes my heart thump thump so I can feel it in my chest. If someone had told me I could lose it during a time like that in a place like Vermont, I'd have told him he didn't know me; he didn't know me and he didn't know my true, deep love of that place.

My brother built the cabin over twenty-five years ago during a manic period when all was right in his world as long as he was there, in Lake Elmore, Vermont; he sold it to me ten years later when he finally came down and headed south to become a Baptist. He had collected three junker cars in the driveway and I got rid of all but one that would give the place the look of someone living there even when we weren't. My wife Caroline and I drove up from our home in Philadelphia any chance we could and over the years that added up to quite some time that we spent in the Red House. Our neighbor, Johnny Gillion, took good care of the place and I always enjoyed seeing him look up from his wood chopping to give us a wave every time we pulled on up that snow covered drive. At the bottom of the drive lived Warren Judson and his wife, Alverta, and we'd often pass them on the dirt road walking their dog, Chainsaw. Like true Vermonters, they'd simply nod their heads and say hello as if they had just seen us that morning, even when we hadn't made the eight-hour trip for over six weeks.

Warren was the owner of the Elmore General Store and he was also the Fire Marshall, so he was a good neighbor to know. They were all good neighbors to know. Gillion was a science teacher and a piano player and a bit of a legend in the town for playing sad songs in a local pub. His wife died of cancer about five years before we bought the house and so it was just him and his son and their crazy dog, Sundance, living next door. Caroline's mother and aunt had both died of breast cancer and the very mention of the disease brought back the vacancy she felt inside without them, and so she often invited the Gillions over for supper, thinking that they too must have suffered with that gaping black hole.

Not too long ago, Caroline had had a breast lumpectomy herself, and now lived in a perpetual state of detecting; always cupping what remained, loveless, as if she was training herself to live without them altogether. She could be cold when cold was called for, yet she was kind and warm as springtime to Johnny and his son. I enjoyed seeing his son, Franklin, as he was nearly the same age as my son Jesse who lived in New Jersey with his mother.

Sometimes, after the meal, we'd share some duty-free Scotch from the Canadian border and sit and listen to the wood snap in the stove. "Come on over and take some of my orange wood," is what Gillion would always say at the end of the night, and so we'd tromp across the drive to his shed—Franklin practically sleep walking—and he'd fill my wood sack with some sweet smelling logs that he said would crackle through the night. I never turned down his offers of wood because I know well when someone has something that they feel good about doing—not out of debt or obligation, but simply out of kindness.

Gillion was also the head of the reservoir committee. The reservoir provided all of us who lived on Softwood Road with water. There was some joking early on, when we first started coming up to the cabin, that the Judsons always knew when Caroline and I had come up, because their water pressure would drop considerably. That's how things were around there, just like that. Just like life and everything in it was no big deal. I believe it had to do with the snow and the ice and the bone chilling cold—things no man, no Fire Marshall, no reservoir committee head or general store manager could do anything about. That land was at will of the woods, the beasts on the mountains, and the wind that whipped-on through.

Things began to go badly for me at work in the city. I couldn't stand the click clack of all the computer keys around me. I hated the hum of the central heating system. I felt a rage boiling up from within every time I saw the heading, Memorandum. Each week it seemed I brought home a migraine and went to bed without a word to Caroline. Our marriage suffered; it was my second marriage and it began to feel very much like my first. I felt myself slipping backwards, as if on ice, into what my life was before I met Caroline, and the only part of that life I wanted to remember was my son. I had decided some time before that Jesse deserved a father who stood tall on solid ground. I had to do something, and so I made arrangements with my office to work from home, Caroline quit her secretarial position, and we moved our world up to Vermont to spend the winter of that year. Although Caroline had expressed some unease about being far from her doctor, she agreed that it was the right decision when we woke on that first morning and heard the noiseless sound of snow falling onto itself upon the dirt road, our red roof, and the bottom corner of our bedroom window. Caroline moved into my arms and there she remained. I felt at home and at peace for the first time in quite awhile. Jesse often called to get a snow report and we made plans for him to spend some time with us. Jesse asked if we could ice fish when he got there and I told him I couldn't think of anything more exciting, which was about the greatest truth I have uttered to this day. Weeks went by and Caroline and I grew more and more calm and in love and at home in Lake Elmore.

I spent some time every morning with a cup of coffee, standing on our front porch taking all of that beauty in. Caroline would be in the bath and that would be our time alone for the day. Through the bare-bone trees, I began to see Warren Judson walk up Gillion's drive at that same time every morning. I give him a silent wave and he'd smile and wave back and that would be that. I assumed he was talking to Gillion about some town issues, and secretly, I felt a bit envious to not be included in the committees. Caroline convinced me that they all considered us true neighbors and that I had every right to attend the meetings and maybe even join a committee. I thought I would discuss it with Gillion and so one day soon after that, Caroline walked over to his house and invited him to supper.

Johnny and Franklin came over shortly after that and we shared a meal and talked about the wonderful cold we were experiencing that winter. We sat by the wood stove and drank some duty-free, as we came to simply call it, and I was preparing to bring up the subject of committees when Gillion told me that there had been some complaints about our using the reservoir. "Complaints?" I asked him. "By whom?" He wouldn't tell me names but I figured out that it had to be Warren Judson complaining about his water pressure. I felt my neck turn red when I realized that he had been walking up Gillion's drive in the mornings during Caroline's bath. Gillion told me that it was only right that I should provide our own tank in the basement or else dig our own well for our own private water source. I told him that we just couldn't keep a tank in the basement because we would be gone for weeks at a time and would not be able to keep it clean. "I have a son down there, you know," I told him. "You might have a problem with rodents dying in there," he said, and that was why he suggested digging our own well, which would cost a lot of money. Then he added that he thought it was about time that we got rid of the old junker car in the driveway, too.

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I didn't bring up the town meetings. I didn't tell him that I loved Elmore and everything about it and that I felt like it was truly my home, even though I still had a life to contend with some states south. I wanted to tell him how the cold helped my blood to flow and kept my head from pounding and throbbing. I felt a dug-out hole inside that I hadn't felt before. Gillion looked at his son and said that he had fallen asleep by the fire and so that was his cue to head back home. He left without offering me any orange wood.

Caroline remained silent as I poured myself a few shots of the duty-free. She was good about knowing when the talking should wait until the next day. We made our way silently up to bed and I fell asleep easily, due only to the scotch in my blood, keeping it thin.

I woke to Caroline shaking me. "That noise," she said, "what is it? Do you hear it?" I opened my eyes and held my breath and listened. I heard a low, echoed groan that came from a deep and dark place—a well or a damp cave. I heard a sound like a horse—a giant of a horse—shaking its head and snorting out through its long snout. "It's a bull moose," I said, and I listened to the heavy steps crunching through the frozen ground. Caroline said that it sounded as if it could knock the wall in and I told her I wouldn't be surprised if it could. I said that a home may appear to be a fortress until it is confronted by something of that magnitude, and then you see that it is nothing but some old wood and nails that could split apart like something that was only meant to be temporary. All of this was almost not spoken, but breathed into each other in a way that no one else would be able to understand. Caroline curled up into my arms and for a few moments we were silent while the moose considered our home. Then, softly, she told me that she had found something earlier that day and I shut my eyes tight when she said the words breast and lump and back home to the city. I didn't tell her that we were home. I only held her and strained my ears to hear the bull moose as he considered heading back into the frigid woods, his hoofs puncturing packed snow as he rounded a corner of the Red House.