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We’re all back in solitary confinement now that autumn is played out and winter is beginning to construct the iron canopy over our houses. Even the dogs are moody and indifferent, and pass up other dogs without even a cursory sniff. The shop windows seem tired, as if they had all just emigrated from a town in New Zealand and were featuring drab fashions from the 1940s. Restaurants serve what tastes like week-old food and nearly flat beer from a tap that rarely gets pulled. Old men come into the bar I sometimes visit and stare at the TV bolted to a nearby wall, and sip at a tall glass of IPA. The waitress forgets to come by for the requisite refill; she’s flirting with the chef, who hangs around the counter with nothing better to do than fold paper napkins and wrap forks and knives in them.

But it’s silly of me to complain. Why come this far north if you can’t handle the leading edge of cold weather? I should just go south and play shuffle board with my Republican neighbors. They would be mildly surprised that I said hi and brandished my wooden shuffler. I might even get a drink from them, a diluted gin and tonic and some crackers smeared with putty-colored onion dip. But I don’t care for the south anymore. It keeps voting for hard-right fanatics who can’t seem to get radical enough to satisfy the “base.”

Thank goodness Trump had Kanye West and his buddy Fuentes over for a cozy dinner of burgers and fries and talk of exporting the Jews of America back to whatever country they may have come from. And of course the Blacks as well. Though many of these Blacks can trace their American roots back to the 18thcentury, whereas the white folks may have no such lineage to boast of. But that doesn’t matter. The important thing is to purify the country of anyone who is not litmus-test white. Though I am told that no one is really white in this country; we are all mixed breeds. Trump keeps finding ways to inspire his coteries that there is still lots of room left for the malcontents to ponder and rage about.

I spend my idle hours lolling in front of my TV watching old videos of George Carlin doing stand-up. He’s still funny, a caustic, searing Ambrose Bierce of ‘70s satire, who paces the stage and spews out his cranky commentaries about progressives, soccer moms, Walmart shopaholics, dads with fanny packs and cell phones plugged into their ears. He got thinner over the years, and balder, and his sneakers were dirty and worn down as he gazed into the floodlights at his audience, which howled and clapped and stomped its feet each time he blew up another sacred cow. I don’t know why, but it satisfied me to hear all this bile coming out of his raspy throat. I no longer feel anything about these habits and delusions that made him writhe with presumed disgust. But even Carlin couldn’t quite part the heavy clouds and let in a bit of sunshine. After a few excerpts from his live shows, you kind of know his schtick, his rote expressions, his twitchy eyebrows. But for a while, he blows some salty sea breeze into your face and makes you giggle to yourself.

What else is there to do when the house gets quiet and the sun lowers down behind the trees and loses its heat?

My garden is a museum of old flower stalks and rogue weeds, The wild mullein is especially noteworthy, as it leans precariously against his neighbor reeds. Sometimes called “the cowboy’s toilet paper,” for obvious reasons, this hairy, indestructible wild flower lives to the ragged end of summer, and sometimes even longer. Nothing eats it, it just rises up out of the rocky soil of my back yard and becomes the flag of dark nature, the part that refuses to be killed off with herbicides, weed whackers, spades, hedge trimmers. It just comes up somewhere else in the name of the devil, and beams forth some erotic form of wilderness patriotism that the cutworms and beetles bow to and leave alone. My poor holly bushes, supposedly meant to withstand the worst of winter, wither up if it doesn’t rain for a few days. Then they go limp and start to die, until I come out with the hose. I barely keep them alive with all my ministrations and occasional word of affection They must gaze over their shoulder at the five-foot tall giant of mullein and hunch their shoulders with feigned admiration.

A pumpkin lies tilted on our dining room table, about to spring a leak in its softening hide and bleach the furniture pads it sits on. I keep promising myself to drag it out to the yard and perhaps chop it up for the crows. My neighbor wants to haul it off for his chickens, but I demur to my wife’s desire to provide some sort of fodder for the crows that have adopted her as their wingless mother. They get all of our supper scraps already, but the juicy pumpkin seeds and the soft, fermenting pulp may be just the feast they long for as the winter world grows leaner and stingier than a Dickensian orphanage.

The hills that surround us have lost their virginal coat of green and are now wearing some sort of hardy carapace of brown needles and rachitic limbs. They’ve made their preparations for the coming of snow and ice. I’d walk there on a week-end if I didn’t think my passing warmth would not signal the ticks to let go their grip on the leaves overhead and float down to my neck skin for a free lunch. Everyone has ticks who walks around in the starving grass or the humble ruins of our forests. The ticks especially enjoy feasting on deer blood, and if you should hunt down a good-sized stag and drag it home to hang up on a hook, you will find that the hide is literally as populous as Beijing with ticks snuggled in for the winter. Thousands of them are hidden under the brown fur, and may even kill the animal if too many of them take nourishment at one time. The poor deer gets anemia and then organ failure feeding a horde of these ruthless parasites.

But winter is no Sally Hilton for the homeless. Either you are clever and amoral as pirates and can find some source of warm blood to feed on, or know where to forage for grubs along a creek bank, or you become part of the loam that will arouse the wild energy of Spring. Birds are the champion survivors of the cold season, and nibble on plant stems, old corn kernels, even bark to keep their frantic hearts beating, Come Spring, they will peck at the tiny pebbles at the bottom of the ditches to fill their gizzards with the sandpaper to break down the tougher skin of seeds no one else wanted. There is nothing so cheerful and open-hearted than a Vermont bird, the kind that stays here even in the cruelest blizzards. They are my heroes.

But to return to my dimly-lit rooms and the stale air of the furnace, I have my amenities – a bowl of pistachios, a cold cup of coffee from the morning, a wine glass I forgot to take out to the kitchen from the night before. And sections of the NY Times that lie around dog-eared, thumbed over, refolded after my hasty search for an article I hadn’t finished. The puzzle is done, and a stack of printed puzzles lies in a tangled mound on the sofa destined to be gathered up and twisted into faggots for the fire. One or two novels from the library peep out between the pillows. This is the detritus of sedentary life; there might even be a mouse turd among the crumbs left from a late-night snack. Oh well, I’m not embarrassed to have my slovenly habits on display, since no one knocks at the door in this steel-gray shank of the year. Dim lamps conceal the dust, the linty fluff balls that cling to the quilt I use to warm my knees. We’re no different from those creatures I saw frozen in coats of ash in the ruins of Pompeii. Their bodies were twisted into agonizing shapes even as supper was laid out on a nearby table.

If you lie in bed, as I like to do, in early morning listening to the news, you sometimes hear the child-like cry of a crow calling from a maple tree, signaling his desire to hunt for food with his pals. It’s that sign of life in the very pocket of gray ground that will soon become rigid and lifeless come December. That precious syllable uttered in the silence is like the scent of a flower down the cascades of time, when winter will have spent its malice and discontent and the air will thicken with heat and perfumed hints of renewal. In the stark months ahead, the word love will seldom be mentioned, but if the crow sings, or a school bus goes by full of laughter, love will be feeding the wild mullein with hope. And a boy will be waking out of a dream of innocence to observe the magic of a girl’s hair in the sunlight.


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