Friday, February 18, 2011
SARA OF WENONA
Sara of Wenona
There’s a lost poem. Its heroine follows the sound of a sitar to sea where some spirit interchange occurs. My memory of the denouement is shrouded although on occasions past I could recite it. A woman without child becomes a ghost in a house she created; the fruit of the vine and the perennials, her offspring. Such sentiment expresses how it felt to hear that poem; what follows is what happened to inspire it.
I once owned a house in Wenona, my interest in which I gave to Carol when I left there. Often, not unlike in dreams, the past and the mixing of verb tense is required. Where else can there be story-book romance and ghost?
She and I are children when we meet and love as we know how. Literally, kids we are, out on a date at eight years of age. My first solo bus ride is to rendezvous with Carol near her house; from there we walk to her branch library. Her mother loves my curls and my politeness. There is a Valentine saved I sent her at ten. But sooner than later the Catholics separate the boys and girls, and almost a decade passes without contact.
Hitchhiking has much to do with love: that is how we become reacquainted at twenty. Reality and practicality dictates the preciousness of bus fare; hence, I often hitchhike home cross-town after work or after college classes. Today Dauginis, a card shark pinochle partner of mine from the university, drops me off near where he works, way north of the city, well beyond the route of the Y Bus, on a country lane so out of the way of my regular travels that I have never been on this stretch of road before. My breath, along with the other rising vapors of pond and culvert, give the approaching twilight world a movie lot look.
I stand with textbooks and novels soliciting a ride beside a mostly frozen irrigation reservoir. I can hear the narrow movement of the water as it gravitates east, southeast, to join the Delaware. An unlikely place for stars to cross, yet after a chilly fifteen minutes, this Pontiac slows and, after crawling twenty yards beyond me, stops. As I jog abreast of the car, a woman, all bundled in scarf, gloves and high fur collared coat, asks through the glass of the unopened door my destination. Attentive as always to detail, she peers up and out at me, curiously focusing upon my eyes from deep within the womb of her coiffure and collar. Once I am sitting on the front seat beside her, she removes the scarf and loosens the upper portion of her coat. With the deft use of the fingers of both hands and the shaking of her head, she reaffirms the style of her hair. Sculpted thick and shaggy, a fancy of her girlhood friend and hair-dresser, Di, it will be her preferred style for years. Her blouse now revealed is colorful and silk; her wrists are bracelet-ed in garnet and silver. Her complexion is faultless and of the slightest olive hue, like my mother’s. This woman is confident, almost cocky, assertive. In the side view she glances and then, after a quick furtive double check of me, engages first gear. Once in third, she turns towards me her cameo face and announces, “I know you. You’re Edwin Forrest.” Then, with a touch of her native acerbic wit she adds her executive opinion of my first full beard: “a definite liability!” Immediately I am aware of my desires concerning this woman who would for the next seven years be my muse of flesh and blood.
Within two years we are married, and not long after that, we buy “Sara’s Place.”
Now to a couple of kids from the row homes of Philly, the house is a minor estate what with its three floors and airy, high ceiling-ed rooms. There is a pillared cellar of brick and rough concrete that houses an inferno of an oil furnace. The cross beams in the basement are so well cured and of such hard wood, I’ll burn up drill bits with hardly a bore to show for my efforts. The rooms are so numerous we can play Clue, what with the library, conservatory, etcetera. There is copious fenestration, large, and in unexpected places, stained. And what woodwork throughout! Luxurious, hand carved, of chestnut, cut in a time when an inch was an inch and a one-by-one a one-by-one, it has been dovetailed lest nailing mar its fine grain, something I discover when I disassemble some during rehab. A showcase of late Nineteenth Century craftsmanship, the house is of a peculiarly square-ish brick and wood frame design, most modern for the era of its design and construction. Over the years sundry modernizations have occurred. Space Age fluorescent lit late Fifty’s cabinetry - baked white enamel with sliding plexi-glass translucent doors - juxtaposed with the darkly stained hutch-ery of the kitchen surreally defines the passage of a century of years. A section of the front and all of the west side of the wrap-around porch have been enclosed in window and wood, making a den or studio accessible from the main parlor. An in-ground Spartan pool with dive lies just west of the grape arbor that serves in summer as a cabana. On the northwest corner of the property, concrete footings and stubborn rubble mark where once a carriage house stood. Much to my chagrin, a generation or two of residents have over-indulged in the use of paint, and much of the woodwork on the first floor has been covered in leaded enamel, including the ornate banister that runs the length of the stairs from the first floor foyer to the second floor hall. It is at the top of those stairs where I will find evidence of Sara (but I leap).
A particular pleasure it is to walk barefoot down these stairs my last year here during the morning of my manhood. Midway at the landing where the stairs turn, a window affords a view of the east where lies a railroad bed that leads to Woodbury - like the town and the grandmother-ly lawns of my neighbors who I but rarely see - cut out of a forest of Revolutionary War era trees. My dog, Dylan, in the yard below, the fluff of her sheep dog hair against the green of the Jersey grass, is the stuff of postcards from paradise. Indeed, each day I tally blessings here and wonder why and from whence my luck, so young I am to own it.
Carol and I have made a down payment on the house for a corsage of reasons, one bud of which is to nest, now that Carol has quit the pill; intending as we are to fill with children the bedrooms above.
A party is made of it, this move-in Saturday in February. Our belongings - which have filled our honeymoon Magee Street walk-up apartment - will make nary a dent in the spaciousness of our new first floor alone. And so, with the help of a handful of friends and a rental truck, quick work is made of consummating the leap from renter to owner in the real estate world. By mid-afternoon we are sufficiently installed in our new digs to feast upon the wine and Italian delights prepared and amply provided by Carol’s parents.
We have set up house on the first floor only, as I intend to redo the second. The formal dining room with its bay window will serve as our bedroom; the enclosed porch will be my writing studio.
Because the upstairs shower in the master bath, its plumbing, leaks somewhere within the plaster and lath of the downstairs ceiling, we will use the small lavatory off the pantry as our principal bathroom, in whose antique oversized cast iron tub Carol and I will bathe together most mornings. Ah, what worlds reflect in these ablutions. Carol, steaming and gleaming, between my thighs, the echoing lap of water, the wake up call of thousands of neighboring birds, the proximity of her warm blood, the pleasure of pouring from a crock water to rinse her thick jet black hair or holding a mirror for her that she might apply make-up without forfeiture of the warmth provided by me and the bath water in which we are immersed; all these sights and sounds and tactile stimuli are certainly a call for Eros, but busy as we are these first professional years, we, more often than not, are deaf and blind to and distracted from the spell cast. Not to be late for work, the stresses of a loyalty divided between love and career, overtime and the moneyed world, these are forces outside genetics that have much to do with our eventual inability to fill these rooms above, the bottom-line haunt, the doom of our love.
Now one of the gang of friends this moving day is a college pal, Jimmy, who goes by the nickname, Frog, a moniker having to do with his style of wrestling, a sport he did for reasons of tuition and scholarship. Frog and I had been two of eight guys who shared the rent on an off-campus crash pad my junior and senior year where we partied and prayed to debauch ourselves; I also used the place for late night cram sessions when faced with the technical seriousness of higher mathematics and nuclear physics, subjects about which I had been tested often in pursuit of my degree. Now Frog is someone who uses and abuses his body as no man or woman I’ve ever met. He might put on twenty or thirty pounds for a semester and drop back fifty for the next. When maintaining a particular weight for a season of wrestling, he would actually measure the weight of his food and drink in grams. Off-season, he’d gorge for the whim, the au contraire, the comedy of it. If he liked something, he liked it a lot; for instance, Frog liked yellow mustard. At a hot dog stand or in the cafeteria, he’d amuse and gross friends out as he pumped glop after glop of French’s on his Oscar. Then he’d plunge his face into the mustard and, like a surreal cartoon Chinese toad, chase after us, threatening to wipe his smeared face upon our clothes.
Frog also likes booze. The day he helps with the move, he drinks both a fifth of Drambouie and another half of George Dickel that we’d received as house warming gifts. Because Lu, his newly wed bride, does not know how to drive a stick shift, it is decided that Frog and Lu will spend the night with us, with me and Carol, much to my displeasure, as I am hoping to bless the house with passion our first night in it.
Around midnight I am awakened by a gathering of cats on the roof of my neighbor’s gazebo. I wonder if any of them are black and leave the cave of my blankets to open the drapes to check for the moon which is a crescent lying on its side in the western sky. It’s darker here than in the city, the night sky starrier, and I wonder what else I’ve been missing having grown up in the city.
Due to the presence of Frog and Lu so close to us in the living room with an open archway between us - Frog is still out cold on the living room floor under our bridal quilt and Lu is on the couch amidst a heap of throw pillows and blankets - Carol has chosen to sleep in flannel rather than the silk of negligee and teddy. In her slumber she has tossed and turned and thrown off much of the bedding. She sleeps on her left side, her back to my side of the bed. The lay of her flesh calls out for ritual and love. I smell the perfumed neck and talcum-ed body, the sweat of the day’s labors and excesses. Aside her I slide as I return from the window and gather her hair to the side of her head, revealing the lure of the nape of her neck. Her ear is a flower, the side of her throat now within easy reach of my lips. I pause before awakening Carol to check out my surroundings again: the dark shadows and airy mysteries of sounds and night, the fingernail moon, the fray of ivy bordering the window, the new smells of this old house. Frog snores unevenly, his exhalations whistling intermittently. Somewhere east and north, a truck sings its gear change. But it is mostly quiet now that the cats outside have settled their territorial disputes. Lu had been fitful earlier on but seems now to be resting, her anger at Frog having subsided in sleep. A small glow from a circular fluorescent around the corner in the kitchen has made its way into our room and illuminates the white of Carol’s gown. Ann Karass’s pre-suicide self-portrait in oils, its bright sexy smile, catches my eye and seems to eyeball approval of my intentions. I’m not sure that Lu is asleep, but I don’t really care whether or not she is. I only care that I want to make love with Carol, to ritualize our first night in the house, thereby kicking off our quest that Carol get pregnant.
Now Carol is modest, and it takes some pointed negotiatory linguistics and playfulness to convince her of the seriousness of my intentions, to which she assents, her face to the world dissolving in our mutual devotions and ministrations. Mass of flesh said and offered, we fall deeply and luxuriously to sleep, Carol fetal in the womb of my embrace . . . only to be awakened a short time thereafter by a pesky repetitive gasping that I guess to be a small frightened animal, perhaps that of a pet in the talons of a raptor. The noise turns out, however, to be quite human; it emanates from Lu, who is frightened and quietly hysterical.
Sitting up as if just aroused from a bad dream, she is exceedingly agitated, unable to put words together coherently. With her left foot she is poking Frog in a futile attempt to arouse him from his stupor. With a horse and laryngitic voice she babbles, begging him to wake up. Her eyes are wide open, yet, catatonic; her face is dead serious and frozen in its grimace.
Although she is sitting on the couch, I sense she is somnambulant. She rotates her head as if she is scanning the house in search of someone, some thing, but the blank demeanor of her eyes leads me to think that nothing much is registering upon her visual cortex. I remember my mother’s old wives’ admonition never to awaken a sleep-walker, but as her cramped voice pleads for help, I roll out of bed and take a few steps towards her. Unexpectedly and suddenly, Lu’s vocal chords defrost when she sees me in the archway. A piercing scream - human, female, and terrorized - ensues, penetrating enough to awaken even the intoxicated Frog who opens his eyes to find a naked man approaching his terrified wife. The wrestler in him rises to consciousness, and he springs into me bent on a take-down. I tumble forward and over him, crashing hard atop the ever increasingly hysterical Lu, propelling her from catatonia to this present absurd reality. I gain my feet just as Carol wakes up. Her scream confuses us all even further, and I take the moment of inaction to turn on the floor-lamp. The sudden infusion of wattage constricts everyone’s pupils, and I move past Frog who then moves aside Lu. I join Carol on our bed in the dining room. An anxious few minutes elapse before Lu recovers enough of her composure to relate to us what had frightened her.
Lu tells us she had awoken to empty her bladder. The house was cold, and she remained under the blankets waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. She knew there was a bathroom beyond the room where Carol and I were sleeping, but she intended to use the bathroom on the second floor so as not to disturb us, now that we were finally asleep. She maintains that she had hardly slept herself; as proof, she alludes to having enjoyed spying on our love making, and she, too, had heard the feline meow-ings outside, had seen me open the window drapes and undress.
She knew it would be dark, going through the house, through the foyer, up those stairs and down the second floor hall to the bath. There were no wall switches and the pull strings that hung from the ceiling fixtures would be difficult to find in the airy darkness. She was delaying her departure from the warmth of where she lay by thinking about the whereabouts of her purse, which contained a penlight and her eye glasses, when she noticed someone in the next room where we lay, beyond our bed, in the doorway that led to the pantry. Lu thought it must be Carol. Its appearance suggested a female; its movements were feminine, poised, gliding, dance-like, gracious. Without stealth or sleuth, this guest approached our bed and bent over it, presenting a profile shrouded by a cascade of hair. Next, “she” pulled back the covers, revealing Carol sleeping deeply. This unveiling, this revelation, startled Lu, for she had assumed that the figure moving about the room had been Carol. Next Lu figured that it had to me, maybe in a hooded bathrobe mistaking the hood for Carol’s long hair. But no, it wasn’t Edwin, as was revealed to be sleeping in bed next to Carol once the visitor rounded the room to my side of the bed and pulled back the blankets, at which point Lu noted that this figure seemed to float, disregarding gravity and other earthly laws. As the guest had done with Carol, she replaced the covers, literally tucking me in and taking a long look. The realization that the figure was neither Carol nor I, this thought terrified Lu. Adrenalin surged and her heart raced. Not that the visitor was at all threatening; rather, Lu was afraid of a world where such things could happen. She shut her eyes and screamed as best she could, but her vocal chords were as frozen as her muscles were in spasm. Some time passed before an awareness of her own tensed muscles convinced Lu she was not dreaming, and curiosity opened her eyes. The visitor as well as Lu’s voice was gone. Even under the blankets a chill enveloped her. Unable to take a deep breath, Lu shivered, rattled and shook awhile before the big cry, the purge that softened her stress enough to release the hold on her vocal chords. It had been her whimpering and attempts to vocalize that woke me.
Naturally we all cry “Dream” as a way of explanation, to calm her, to reassure Lu the world is still intact. After all, Lu had been sleeping in a strange house under embarrassing and straining circumstances and irate with her husband for having gotten absolutely smashed, she would be prone to bizarre emanations from her subconscious. And, earlier in the evening at dinner, had not Carol’s brother, Anthony, joked about ghosts? There are other aspects of the dream-theory discussed. If Lu had been at home, she would have had a different dream. The house, as much as and maybe more than her own subconscious, had colored her dream and provided an architecture for its theater. That it is our first night in the house contributes as well. Besides, Lu had been a captive voyeur to our love-making, and sex and frustration have long been associated with apparitions. And what about the dream itself? Had the ghost, whose name Carol decides is Sara, been checking us out, attempting to ascertain who had come to tend the house and gardens? It seems her actions had been friendly enough. Yet no amount of theorizing or speculation can convince Lu that she’d been dreaming, and all four of us stay up ‘til dawn wondering and talking about Sara.
Naturally I keep an eye out for Sara over the course of the next few months. I go as far as to hang out where one would expect to encounter a ghost: in the basement, in the four empty bedrooms on the second floor, and in the attic. Up in the attic there are two somewhat unfinished rooms from the windows of which I can survey the quiet town with its euphoria of trees. A designated wilderness area is a quarter of a mile away and downhill, and for the first time in my life, bird life blows my mind. But Sara never physically appears to me as I hope and imagine she will. Yet there are incidents indicative of her presence: my dog’s ears cocked to something I don’t hear, and other circumstantial testaments.
I spend much of my at-home time rehabilitating and maintaining the house, the majority of that time redesigning and fixing up the second floor. Carol always has had an executive wardrobe and the house lacks closets; thus I intend to convert one of the four bedrooms into a giant walk-in closet and dressing area. Access to the third floor is presently in the room I intend to remake into a dressing room, and I am going to provide third floor access via the hallway by removing one wall and erecting another. Carol and I have spent hours planning our revised second floor and paid much attention to detail and expense in procuring the required materials to carry out our design.
Spring break finds me ready for my labors of destruction and construction. Carol is working in the city and I am alone in the house. In anticipation of the fine plaster dust that will soon fill the air as a result of my de-construction, I wear a surgeon’s mask. For scalpel I have sledge, hammer that is, and I prepare for my first strike at the wall by drawing an X where I think I’ll do the most efficient damage. The hall is wide at this point, and I intend a full hundred and eighty degree arc to give my swing with the sledge emphasis, to empower its punch, hoping as I am to take out a two-by-four as well as much plaster and lath. Excited I am at the prospect of such calculated destruction and well into the fun of it, although I must admit my palms are clammy as I raise the iron hammer in my hands and take a practice aim at my X, when a sudden distinctly un-April chill passes down the hall.
I am just stepping into full swing when Sara inspires me. Serenely and quietly.
To abort my swing - as I now wish to preserve the wall as is - given the arcing momentum of the sledge, I fall ass backwards and spiral away to prevent the hammer from connecting with the wall. It is out of nowhere these images in my mind, this idea to do things differently, to incorporate a curved wall where Carol and I had envisioned a straight one, to build a doorway over by the entrance to the second bedroom. None of it makes easy sense, yet there is a clever wisdom to it. I scrap my well-laid plans.
When Carol returns in the evening she expects to find a hallway with one wall removed; instead, she finds me all excited about my newly inspired design that contradicts the logic of the plans we had made together. I soon convince her of the beauty of a curved wall and an arched doorway joining the two west rooms. To carry out my idea, we need to remove the carpeting in the room where the dressing area will be.
Imagine the hair on the back of our necks when we roll up that carpet and see that my idea replicates the original structure of the house exactly, as revealed by the patterns of wood stain on the floorboards. Where there had been a doorway, the floor is stained; where there had once been a curved wall, there is no stain. My inspiration has been right out of the last century and arguably attributable to Sara.
Now I do not maintain that I had a vision, for visions are something quite different, more vast in scope and archetypal. What happened to me, somewhat like what happened to Lu, has much to do with forces outside of my own subconscious. An understanding of how the house was originally designed and built springs not from within me, for I am no architect nor have I insight in that discipline. Something, some present consciousness named Sara, imposed that idea, that dream-like pictograph of an idea upon me, that dream or apparition upon Lu.
During my tenure at Sara’s Place, I come to conceive and appreciate much about Sara. Certainly she had loved the house dearly; the flowers and gardens and landscaping attest to a creative spirit well expressed. I imagine a childless woman, an artist, a teacher or home-maker; maybe Sara taught botany at State. The hybrid roses and exotic flora that color the world about the house affirm a love and skill well spent. There is something haunting in the fact that from April through October some portion of the grounds is in bloom.
Of course, Carol, Lu, Frog and I speak endearingly of Sara whenever we get together. Our speculations and theories help form the spirit of that now missing poem which I wrote in the screened-porch study of Sara’s Place. Had my life not taken the turns it did, I might have fulfilled my intention to restore even more of the house to its original state. But these days, as is well known, life is more like free verse than fairy tale romance. Thus, even though Carol and I eventually separate and divorce, we do live happily ever after, and a haunt is something unfulfilled and its attachment is beyond our ken, beyond an understanding of our longings.
This has been another true story.