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BACK HOME AGAIN



It will rain all day today here in Halloween-colored Vermont. The maples will lose many of their remaining leaves and look off with stoic expressions at being naked again. The fields are already black and sodden from earlier rains. The road is jeweled with tiny puddles and elaborate silvery veins. We are easing ourselves into the cold weather, and it makes the house tick like a clock. Overhead, the sky is a chaos of quilt folds and rumpled sheets. My worn out cardigan has sprung buttonholes and unraveling elbows, and hangs on me with a certain indifference to my comfort. But it still gives me a friendly hug as I loaf around the house, debating whether to go out into the smoke-breath cold and pull down a few logs from my fuel hoard, or just stay near enough to a heat vent to be consoled. I should be working today, getting an essay written that was commissioned by an old artist friend for his book on objects and their meanings. I will have an English muffin first, to fortify my wayward soul, and figure out how to get around my reluctance to make another cup of espresso. I feel the jitters already, so that may not be a good idea. But it makes staring out the window at the empty road a test of forbearance. I'm looking for something, but I don't know what it is until it comes.

The trip back on the plane from Marseille up to Paris, and then to Boston, was an endurance test of a seat too small to turn around in, with my knees pressed painfully against the tray in front of me, and the little movie screen left unopened while I figured out how to cross my legs. The light grew thin almost from the moment we left Paris, and was night soon after, and then began to brighten again, with lazy shafts of sunlight streaming down out of the chinks of window shades. It was a crowded flight, and I felt awkward weaving my way down through the narrow aisle to the toilets, and then pulling myself back up the slightly inclined angle of the aisle to my seat again.

People were napping, some were bent forward working little video games, or watching old movies. The engines were humming like monks in a cathedral, and the stewardess was eyeing me carefully as I appeared to have lost my orientation. But I was just sizing up the miniature chair I was required to squeeze into. Only four more hours of monotony before we landed at Logan Airport. Just four, but more like forty, if you considered my aching back and frustrated calf muscles. My shoes were tight, but I would have to stand up in the aisle to remove them, just as the drink cart was squeaking by. So I got down into my little bucket seat and cinched myself back into the seat belt. I looked out over the heads of my fellow passengers as they nodded and tilted and scratched, and went on pondering the emptiness we sailed through.

Once on land again, my daughter picked us up in her hybrid car and off we purred into the afternoon traffic. We were soon planted in an aspic of glittering tail lights. These were the workers going home from their office jobs; faces staring ahead with sleepy expressions, and passengers gazing dully into their cell phones. Boston's glass towers faded behind us as we roared along toward Rhode Island. The Atlantic lay to our left, though it was hidden by the urban sprawl and the old row houses sitting glumly in the northern sunshine. We had the news on, and the more I listened the more I felt as if time had stopped moving at all. We were caught in a huge warp where events ceased to mean much, and the momentum of human life had slowed almost to a kind of sludge. But my daughter picked up my spirits when we stopped at a neighborhood wine store. She and I prowled the crowded aisles until I found the French wines, and I picked out a pricey St. Emilion, which she grabbed from my hands and paid for. She called in an order of Mexican food as well. The house was warm, and her partner had made a fire; their son, an active, bright youngster of five, was chattering away like a Mynah bird, sorting his legion of tiny homunculi and placing them deftly into the seats of enormous yellow graders and excavators, which were parked all over the floor. The afternoon was sinking into the tarnished glow of the yard, and the last few cars were easing into their driveways for the night.

Our house was snug when we pushed back the front door and came in; it was always good to be home again, to smell old familiar smells even after three months of being away. The counters were bare, the refrigerator was propped open with dish towels, the cupboards had a scant collection of canned sardines, baked beans, some spice jars and a bag of coffee beans. We flopped down and caught our breath after four long hours driving home. But we knew our next task would be to load up on suppers and breakfast stuff, and little packets of loose oregano, some smoked paprika, curry powder, a bag of apples chosen from an overflowing bin. I love buying food, and piling up the goods in our cart made me feel joyous, as if I were a hunter-gatherer bringing home a hare, some wild mushrooms. I couldn't wait to sit down in the living room in front of our first fire of the season. I had bought a sweet wine, an aperitif, which we both sipped on. The TV was not working; we had to be reconnected in the morning. The Wi-Fi was dead. So was the house phone. We were back in the pre-digital era of the Forties, sitting there with only our own conversation to entertain us. Thank god we were both pretty good talkers and could pick apart the subtleties of our long voyage.

The next day was the usual aftermath of travel -- sore arms, leg aches, a feeling of not having slept at all. But the coffee woke us up, and the eggs were fluffy and gentle on our tongues. We were ready for the day's expectations, which were mercifully few. But I did enjoy driving into town and finding everything as we had left it back in July. The crisp air made me attentive to all the shimmers of the woods and hills as I drove along. The little ponds where cows sometimes stood ankle deep slurping up water on a hot day were now idle and mirror-smooth. The bright sky was reflected in their glassy skin. Gas prices had soared in our absence, which made me wonder what else was engorged in the new inflation. Heating oil was up, so was the price of bread, and the orange juice was no longer on sale. It was full price. France was actually a bit cheaper to live in these days; but we were still emerging from the dreary fifteen months of lock-down from the pandemic. I hope I never have to live through another one. I'll pay the extra twenty cents for my necessities and be grateful for the open stores, the cheerful clerks behind the counter, the sparkling floors someone had mopped and waxed the night before. I need to believe that we can survive such calamities as Covid-19. I clutched my sack of potatoes and my pack of bacon as if they were treasures.

The moire shimmers of the rainy sky made the house dark, but not gloomy. The day's routine came back with poignant familiarity as I pulled on my walking shoes and found another winter shirt in the closet. I was happy to have two worlds to live in. I smelled autumn on my hands, and admired the red globes of the apples piled up in a bowl. I couldn't wait to bite into one, and taste the sweet juices running down my throat. Books I had tossed onto the little table in front of my reading chair suddenly had new meaning for me. It was as if I had found a self I had not known for awhile, who was still me but not quite so ordinary as I had assumed. "Sister Carrie" lay there half-read; a book about the Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, a gift from my other daughter, was still bright and crisp, and with photographs of Joyce and Hemingway, Pound and George Antheil standing in the doorway or reading a book, most likely one of their own.

These were mine, these books, the pipes on the mantle, the magazines with dog-eared pages. The glass of Hennessy I had drained was left on the other end table, and smelled faintly of a night far away, lost in the cascades of idle hours. I was home, and the door opened easily to my fingers and let me into the mudroom, and led me to the garage with its one light burning feebly in the rafters. The garage door tore itself free of the spider webs and the dead leaves, and complained in all its rusty joints as it rose and folded above me. The cool air rushed in, and I took my leather sling out to the woodpile. I chose a few lengths of oak and some lesser logs of birch. I found a few branch ends to pile in as well -- for kindling. The cedar trees seemed to lean over me as I picked through my stacks of fuel. A huge speckled owl once stared down at me from a branch, a beautiful, wild creature from the mountains who came back two days later and then vanished for good. I missed him. I stood in the crisp air until my arms were chilled and went back inside to light a fire. Some things are welded to the soul; home is one of them.


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