2015 Maine Literary Awards Finalist – The Westgate House
A surprise piece of news this morning: I received notice I’d been selected as a finalist in the 2015 Maine Literary Awards Nonfiction Short Works category. The excerpts below – that made up the submission – are part of a larger piece called The Christmas Letters. Some of you are familiar with another excerpt from that piece that is on my blog here. The winners for the competition will be picked May 28 in Portland, Maine.
The Westgate House [Excerpts]
It’s a three hour pilgrimage from Boston’s Logan Airport up to my mother’s summer place on the coast of Maine. It’s a journey I can’t make without being dragged along by currents of near narcotic nostalgia. For over thirty years, in ever-evolving family configurations, I’ve made this trip up the Central Coast towards our farmhouse on the water, swept along with hundreds of thousands of others on surging tourist tides. The roadside on the way up has changed little since the 1970’s, and where it has it has changed, it’s done so in modest, purse-strung updates. It is a general stasis for which I’m grateful as the state, unbeknownst to its Governor or citizenry, has become the personal museum of my adolescence.
A man blinded in both eyes in 1977, the year my mother bought the home, could still work his way today from the Welcome to Maine sign at the state line, gingerly groping landmark by landmark, until his extended fingertips came to rest on the welded anchor chain mailbox post near the foot of our drive. Change up here is glacial. I can’t really remember when there wasn’t a Taste of Maine restaurant or winding lines running up the side of Red’s Eats; there have always been the same long, sad marshes, the same clean strips of road cut through dynamite-scarred granite, the same life-size natural history dioramas of duck ponds kitted out roadside with model-perfect cattails, Wiscasset’s same dignified colonial homes and the angry ghosts of her tall ships thoughtlessly dragged from their burial grounds.
Flashing by are the minor gauge railway museums, the happy rent-your-basket, child-labor blueberry farms, the regurgitated table jetsam of roadside flea markets, the stranded Route 1 Army of skeletal brass beds, the ugly explosion of signage for Boothbay Harbor and countless minor turnoffs for the pine-tree crannies and salt water nooks that finger and fan out along Maine’s coastline like strands of beached seaweed. Then, getting tired but much, much closer now, the make-sure-you-don’t-miss-it Damariscotta Exit, the parking lot speed-limit crawl through town avoiding this year’s minor construction flare-ups, the runaway strollers piloted by siblings, the Beer-Bellied, Big-Bearded, Bristol Boys (“try that five times fast, kids, we’re almost there”), past the already out on video for a month but still showing this Friday night Lincoln County Movie Theater.
Then past the turn off by the high-steepled church, and the last, long, dragging, tired, cramped leg of never-ending Route 129 stretching out to New Harbor, and there, just past “the baseball field where I used to play, guys” the pilgrimage completes, and you turn past the mailbox near the foot of the road, a mailbox fixed so solidly to the ground that it will outlast the postal system itself, welded mischievously in place by some wintry, permafrosted sailor into a hard, steely winding coagulated chain clump of Forever.
The tourist surge crests around “the fawth” when the “summah people” and “city slickahs” explode into and back out of cavernous restaurant sound holes, spraying lobster parts, wooden mallets, draft beer and torn plastic bibs across the greasy varnish of restaurant picnic tables. They swamp onto ribbed, sandpaper boat ramp walkways for sunset pirate ship harbor tours. Their children splash across jutting coastal rocks that have elbowed their way up from the center of the Earth just to feel a few weeks of sunshine each year and the tickle of small fingers grappling their necks. They bob up against the shoulders of landscape oil painters who they hope will turn and acknowledge them and, in so doing, perhaps indelibly color them into the spiritual life of the painting.
They retrieve ice cream cones from voices behind sliding screen windows and get another goddamn mosquito bite on their knuckle and, sleepy from the sun, come to rest for a few blissful minutes at the apex of noon under a blue blanket of sky and fleecy clouds, their midday inertia pooling out slowly onto lighthouse lawns, where they nod off in the sizzling brine of the afternoon, the footsteps of strangers stepping delicately past their heads.
Then they’re awake again and back at it!
They slide down off the rocks into town, carried by boredom or the undertow of hot dog and watermelon and potato chip grocery lists, and they smash against the brittle sandcastle gift shops and outlet stores, commerce chasing them across her beaches like skittish sandpipers, the lighthouse postcard markets in uproar, old sailor ceramics flying past checkout stands, and diet all-blown-to-hell grey netted bags of clams and fingers tearing dirty black socks off their feet and plunging their bare toes into hot butter baths, and the lobster pot low-boil feud of locals and summer people breaking out in ugly supermarket parking lot skirmishes, and broken masted ships navigating horrific nor’easters in “genuine oil paintings” at 50% off through this weekend only, and seagull keychain gifts that will never find a Christmas tree, and last night’s depressed fireflies fading away in jam jars, and Mosquito State Bird t-shirts, and sentimental placards about footsteps stepping softly through the sand and Jesus carrying you when you didn’t even know and, just one shelf over, only barely out of His sight, ceramic coffee mugs with two-inch tall fuck-you fingers hiding on the cup’s seabed below the high tide coffeeline, and bored minimum wage college girls, eyes practically rolling back in their heads, sweating it out over square-cut plats of peanut fudge, hypnotic swirling lollipops the size of balloons, freakish lobster claws in frames behind the glass at the register, the Red Sox sticking it to the Yankees, miniature wooden fishing vignettes with marionette rigging that makes fish jump out of buckets or, from the same novelty house, horrible mushroom-headed plastic penises popping out of flushable boat “heads,” and sailor doormats and refrigerator magnet hardy-har-hars about skinny wives with little breasts and lazy husbands with big breasts, and wicked goowud bear’s paw ice cream, and crushed 16 ounce “Pee Bee Aaah” Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, and six-packs of bottled Moxie, that infidel root beer, and the Yankees sticking it to the Red Sox now, and dramatic thunderstorms that explode onto the car radio frightening the classic rock ghosts on every other FM station.
Maine in the summah.
Just after Labor Day, the tide sweeps back out, filtering the summer people from the barnacled natives who ain’t up tuh goin’ anywah futhah owtah town than the graveyaaaad. But in the wake of that sweeping tidal retreat up and down the coast, remain the accretions of shadow-box tidal pool worlds, one marvelous miniature ecosystem after another, thousands of trapped starfish emotional worlds supplemented and nurtured a summer-at-a-time, memory by memory, practically unnoticed, in the attics and basements and bedrooms and kitchen cabinets and thick wood, round pull knob, second-hand pine drawers stocked with boat memorabilia, summer camp totems, victorious fishing lures, rusting knives with their secret knife dreams, half-torn Dark Side of the Moon posters rolled together with prints of Christina in her World, Down East magazines waiting exposed and lonely in off-season windows slowly bleaching themselves to death, cheap, laminated placemats of anonymous tall ships and coastal bird varieties, Polaroid photos of tiny fairy houses fashioned from fir tree and moss built on deserted coastal islands, fiery, abandoned summer diaries, yard sale darkroom equipment from the week when you were going to become a photographer, galvanized steel crab buckets, 47-card decks and board games with makeshift replacement pieces fashioned from shells, beachcombing harvests strung up with fishing line peering out the kitchen window where mom hung them a thousand years ago, the delicate flotsam castoff of relaxed, summery emotional lives and a little tale preserved in each and every object like, for example, these Endless Love movie stubs here from the night the beautiful girl unbuttoned my shirt and kissed my bare shoulder in the back of her father’s car, and slid her prayer-answering lips across my face and tingling neck, landmark by landmark, and nibbled down on my earlobe and cut free the buoy and orphaned the lobster trap, and forever stranded my adolescence in the deep, cool currents off the Central Coast of Maine.
Old Maine farmhouses get their nicknames from prior owners in prior generations and the homes themselves are inextricably wound up in their old owners’ identity. My mother’s place stubbornly remains the “Macomber House” in local hearts and minds even though she owned it for thirty years. We were constantly hearing about the destruction of the Macomber’s barn or the beauty parlor run out of the back room or this-that-and-the-other-thing regarding the woman who ran it.
There’s a delayed symmetry to these things and it’s not out of the question that another generation from now it will become the “Westgate House” and the owners will hear about my mother from elderly neighbors shuffling out of their houses in slippers carrying dog-eared folders of newspaper clippings related to the house and photographs of my mom standing way out on the scary, far-end ledge of the barn’s exposed rock foundation with the casual daring of a 13 year-old, looking across the expanse of her property at the harbor below.
The photos will show her, mid-fifties, in her big round glasses, holding her University of Chicago mug of tea, smiling her tight, tooth-hiding photograph smile, wearing loose jeans and baggy sweaters to cover her too-skinny frame. The neighborhood historians will do their best with their clippings and half-memories to capture her. The new owners will look with strained, nodding attentiveness at the images of the woman with the forced smile and try to think of something appreciative to say while keeping the dog from jumping all over their visitor and shushing the children who wanted to be at the beach an hour ago and wondering whether they’re supposed to want to keep the photograph or hand it back or what.
Well, no, they’re not supposed to want to keep it.
They’re just supposed to realize that they’re in this woman’s home and that the deck they built out on one side of the house killed the cluster of day lilies she planted there. Those were her favorite flowers and they shouldn’t have done that for a bunch of deck chairs and a grill. They’re just supposed to listen when they’re told she tried painting the house herself one side and one summer at a time and that one time you could actually hear her laughing all the way down at the Gilbert place with that big loud laugh of hers and everyone there looked up and it made them all laugh too and they’ll never forget that. She always had a million friends coming and going and also that quartet of classical musicians who’d come to stay at the place every summer and play out on the big front lawn and the people would stop out on the road and just listen.
They’re supposed to understand the woman who owned this house drove out here on her own every year from California in a car you wouldn’t be seen in driving up to Reilly’s Grocery Store and then she drove all the way back there just so she could spend a month here and look out the big cathedral attic windows towards Monhegan. No husband either. And when everyone else gets old they winter in Florida, but she talked about moving up here year-round, the opposite, crazy old woman, and she was going to wait out the winters so that she could see her grandchildren play on her lawn in the summer and, and, and – the visitors trailing off into their private thoughts about her maybe getting to watch their children’s children, too, for a few years, anyway, and you will never, ever, ever love this place as much as she did no matter how much you sink into it.
What they’re trying to say, polite but New England indirect, is that this is the Westgate House, and if you understand what you were supposed to understand you would know that no, of course you’re not supposed to keep the photo.
The drive up here is full of similar reverie and miniature dramaturgy, especially when travelling alone as I am today. The fantasy is broken up by the simple, practical relief of coming around the road bend and seeing the chimney standing straight, the attic windows whole, the big oak upright, the porch horizontal. I fuss in the basement to get the power and water back on, stepping over basement puddles on floppy plywood stepping stones, ducking low-hanging pipes that very possibly run septic direct into the harbor. Then the not-to-code, knob-and-tube wiring and the relief of not electrocuting myself getting the house resuscitated one more time.
I let myself into the foyer through the chipped green front-door and marvel, as always, at the time-capsule quality of her home. Everything is kind of stubbornly where it’s always been. The summers and winters play a half-hearted game of red light green light, but nothing ever strays far – not the pencils and pens, the pots and pans, the old fridge and its magnets, the warning notes about what order to light the home up and shut her down, the damp musk of the house, the boxes of ancient spaghetti, the water stains in the ceiling, the penciled phone numbers on exposed plaster where the wallpaper peeled away, the long late afternoon shadows, the lobster boats in the harbor through the living room window. I open the blinds, flush the anti-freeze out of the downstairs toilet, listen to my shoe squeaks and luggage wheels on the linoleum fill up the quiet old house. I catch myself stopping for a second because I think I’ve heard something upstairs, a whisper maybe, or somebody hiding or held at knife-point, shifting frightened from one leg to the other, exchanging terrified glances with their captor.
It’s childish to spook myself like this, but I’m tired from travelling and without the fresh energy of my wife and children racing around the home and their simple thrill of being here, the home has an uneasy edge and I busy myself in a flurry of activity to keep the nostalgia and mental spooks at bay. I move from room to room inventorying the place haphazardly, taking in the familiar views and moods, looking in closets I know are empty to eliminate them as hiding places for criminals, poking at the crumbling plaster wall decay, wondering if the neighbors will notice the lights on in the home, imagining their conversations…
Jesus, the place is falling apart.
I’m predisposed, probably genetically, to fantasizing on the systematic deterioration of things, and the house presents a marvelous, meditative prototype for a high-speed, time-lapse study in the Last Days, of the world coming apart writ small. The giant oak tree tumbles onto the roof. The stained glass in the attic windows blows out, the rain melts the cardboard storage boxes down through their honeycomb sidewall. The chimney tears free in a storm on one side and a slight, but ever-widening gash lets water seep in, continent shaped chunks of plaster crash off the lathing. The wind and water find inroads and pool into the fireplace hearth, ash floats and bobs on the surface and then spills out indifferently onto the living room floor, spreading soot and bird nests from the chimney. Hard clusters of mouse scat harden and soften in the cyclical washout, soulless, high-speed, time-lapse photography shake-shake-shaking everything. Jittery buried things rise to the surface, occasional visitors flit about in spectral high speed and disappear.
I imagine the place becoming a not-so-secret high school hangout. Local kids sneak in and get high in the kitchen, sitting on the dead stove, feet on the countertops, flicking their ashes into my mother’s pencil jars and her mother’s crystal. Some stoner comedian finds my Louisville Slugger in the storage room and makes the group laugh doing a madman impression and taking out a wall. Everyone’s mortified and “you’re totally crazy, dude,” but they still feed it with their laughter because it is funny, and he continues smashing. A drunk girl urinates in the upstairs bathroom sink reading my mom’s letters out loud and says “oh, that’s so sweet” before chucking the letters in the bath moments later, bored. They steal records they like from attic boxes and Frisbee the ones they don’t. Some teenager fighting with his miserable parents squats there, pulling power off the city, his cigarettes accumulate in the toilets. Strangers screw on the mattresses, spray paint the stairwell, wipe semen into our linen and towels. It’s everything my father believed money could help us avoid.
It crosses my mind yet again that I really shouldn’t come here without the kids.
But I haven’t finished my arrival walkabout, because I haven’t been to the attic.
Regardless of season it is uninhabitable up here. It is a sweat lodge in the summer, and bitterly cold in winter. Its bare boards flop dangerously about the floor framing like see-saws. Everything smells sharply of dusty barn wood. It has vicious roofing nails poking haphazardly through the uninsulated ceiling. It has a cracked brick chimney with a pie plate thingamajig that blocks a chimney port. On the pie plate’s illustrated face is a fairy-winged 1930’s White Rock girl, a lovely, but helpless icon to watch over the room and cling to her rock so she doesn’t, God help her, accidentally slip into the family tragedy. The windows have towels stuffed in holes where leaks have sprung. When I pulled up this time, I noticed that you can see the towels from the street, another add-it-to-the-list problem to deal with. This house didn’t miss a beat – it picked up where my mother’s health left off, a seamless transition, an old age deterioration that would not be denied by a premature death and has now taken up residence here.
Like all harsh environments it still has its beauty, and there’s no denying that looking out from the attic’s giant cathedral windows. The attic view ranges out past our long expanse of lawn, the majestic oak; it winds along the harbor edge and then opens out towards Monhegan and unnamed islands and the teasing, curved edge of the deep sea. On a rainy Thanksgiving weekend long, long ago my mother stood in front of these eight-foot triangle-peaked cathedral windows – the wild, triptych fancy of an architect who owned the home just before her – and seeing all the Heaven she was ever going to need or believe in, invested the last of her father’s inheritance in the land and water and sky framed here.
My mom looked out these windows and saw the Future widening out to her children’s children. But these days there’s a strange reverse telescoping of time in this attic. If you could look back in today you’d see the Past all compressed together, piled up in storage boxes and buried beneath sprawling protective blue tarps. Old sheets with faded 1960’s sunflower explosions cover our family things and the residual sum of what’s left of my parent’s lives and my brother and my childhoods, the toys and hobbies and books and drawings and graded schoolwork – the abandoned, torn-down scaffolding of childhood.
Other than the weary Diaspora of memories wandering about in aging or dying friends, the evidence that my parents worked and loved and married and divorced and fought wars and concluded peace and drank and sobered and laughed and cried and did everything at full human volume is all really right here in this attic under the blue burial tarps. If there is proof that their children had train sets or model rockets or report cards or chemistry sets it’s here. And if you want to learn anything about our unsung Indian tribe or the dying language of her people, well, then you’ve come to the right place.
It crosses my mind standing here that no matter how long I spend downstairs messing about on arrival poking here and there, or inspecting the latest domestic wounds, I haven’t really come home until I’ve stood up here in this attic on these see-saw floorboards and looked out my mother’s windows and felt the family ghosts spinning about me in this filial vortex. It is our family’s ground zero, our last chance reservation, my mother’s Gethsemane, and everything that had a little spiritual gravity left in it rolled here before the End or soon after in the wake.
I have travelled here from Seattle to divide up the family pictures and letters and get them out of here before this place really does burn down, but I’m certainly not up to starting the project this evening. I left it too long to get dinner in town, so I’m skipping it. I had promised to call home when I arrived, but I haven’t. I really just want to go to bed. Padding about the dusty wooden floors in pajamas and bare feet, I check that the downstairs doors are all locked and the windows closed. For all of that, ghost and robber noises still rise up just offstage. I pretend to ignore them, as if the ghosts and robbers were monitoring me for visual clues of weakness as intently as the rest of the world. Or so I imagine, imagine, imagine, because imagining is what I do.
I retrieve old family sheets and mismatched bedding from a plastic linen box and make my bed in my mother’s bedroom. I curl myself up under layer upon layer of old blankets. Despite the bed’s growing warmth, I get up again after a moment or two, for the minute neurotic satisfaction of closing the tiny hook latch on the bedroom door and thereby shutting out the world more fully. I pull the covers over my head and draw myself up, just for a trial moment, into the profound disappointment of an adult fetal position.
There’s a photograph of me that week I spent in the Maine house dividing up the family photos into two piles, a week spent working my way through our vast collection, trying to be fair in my brother’s absence, to be a good umpire, an honest judge, a wise Solomon splitting our pictorial inheritance down the middle, one nice picture for this pile, one nice picture for that pile.
After a few years of worrying about it at 3AM I finally got myself out to the East Coast to split everything up – like Voldemort distributing his soul into horcruxes, backing everything up for the Apocalypse. My thinking on the split was that there’s no way both our houses are going to burn down the same day and, counting on the reasonable interval between inevitable disasters, my brother and I could always just keep dividing and photocopying what we’ve got, cutting our past lives in half and letting the memories grow back like cemetery earthworms.
This nightmare of a New England barn fire consuming our family photographs would keep me up at night. I would imagine the flames burning the dime-store photo album covers and the plastic liner sheets, then licking at the photos, curling them up on the tongue like red fortune telling fish. I would prop myself up on my pillows, wide-awake now, and I’d picture the volunteer firefighters standing on our front lawn watching the “Macomber” blaze burn itself out. I’d check the 3AM clock radio and imagine the firemen shaking their heads about the faulty alarm and the overgrown access road that blocked the trucks and them mumbling “waan’t to code,” watching the old tinderbox incinerate. “Droy as a matchstick.” I’d see their faces all orange and aglow, their chins raised like firefighters in cautionary insurance advertisements. They’d try to mask their excitement by harping on the out-of-towner’s dereliction.
“Waan’t to code. Blocked the road. Waan’t to code…”
Obviously you can’t tell all that from a photo of a guy in a room sorting pictures but you can imagine it sort of, now that you know the back-story anyway. You certainly can’t see the great school of red fish funneling out of the attic roof into the night sky, sailing off like souls at the end of a weepy science fiction movie, but I could, and the dread got me out there from Seattle to do all the splitting and dividing.
In the picture I’m caught mid-curation in the overcast afternoon light. It’s dark enough that table lamps are on and haloing out in the exposure. Rubber-banded stacks of photos, albums, broken topped shoeboxes, steel boxes for slides, yellow one-hour photo sleeves holding 35mm negatives and framed memorabilia cover every available surface of my bedroom – the nightstand, the carpeted floor, the quilted bedding, the wooden strips of window sills. Golden speaker wire is draped over my bed. An extension cord winds out of the room and into the hallway past the orange toaster-wire glow of the rusty space heater and the plastic-dome record changer.
You can see the overcast, rainy weather through the window behind me. I’ve got one hand on a hip, the other is scratching the back my head in the posture of near cartoon puzzlement, maybe overwhelm from the staggering quantity of scenes and faces, relatives, and friends arrayed and stacked in front of me on every available surface. I’m not sure it’s really all that great a picture compositionally and all the rest, but it’s a keeper because truthfully they’re all keepers. In my family we are inveterate collectors of images and in a consistent but patternless way have accumulated a staggering amphitheater of faces – faces that I don’t even always remember or recognize, faces in postcards, paper-clipped faces scissored from National Geographic, faces of family friends whose names elude me, faces ordered in Rexall discount sets of ten, faces from journeys to China, to Cairo, to the Statue of Liberty, from somebody or other’s dad at a school picnic.
Other than Time there are no natural predators in the Maine house for life captured in photography and the wardens will tell you point blank that no picture has ever been discarded here, a policy that has led to this staggering abundance of photographic wildlife. We are graspers and hoarders of the first order; we are not pruners. Every picture must be saved, every visual artifact a treasure for some possible future. The tree that spawned these moments may have withered away long ago, but its petals remain fixed on the ground, frozen in the Autumn that gave birth to them, scentless, perfectly distributed, Gaussian, Zen-like, trapped in a glass bulb.
The crush of detail in the picture of me sorting invites closer inspection: there’s a record arm caught in flight, mid-song, an album cover with a watercolor flower against a lamp, what must be the big speakers mentioned earlier. There’s a chunk of missing plaster on the wall by the queen size bed where crusty wall lathing is visible. There’s a glass of wine, a brick of convenience store cheese, a blue and red box of Stoned Wheat Thins, a Burgundy shaped bottle of red wine on the night table and a cork and a corkscrew beside it. You can see the cork is still in the corkscrew. You can make out a cluster of wood knots in the window frame, the slight bluing of veins on my visible hand, the shadows of my hand’s tendons, and the features of total strangers in the photos on the floor. A sea of impersonal detail.
The whole scene, the crowded world of its composition, the near and far of it, all of it is perfectly focused, the even-handed neutrality of the wide-angle lens. I look at it now and imagine the oily, blue-green optics of the lens that took it, that orbited coolly, that glistened in the dark for just a flash, its polished lens glass curved as smoothly as the arc of a planet, that rendered details upon details on every hair of light, that painted worlds upon worlds, stories and feelings appearing wherever attention is cast, visions flowering out from the tiniest of pinpricks like the nested dreams of Indian deities.
And behind the camera’s eye, eclipsed, a neighboring world-in-miniature creates the photograph’s illusion of life, a vast soulless desert where the light-swept sands of silver salts shift and flicker in the bitstream, indifferently rendering an image of a man and his things – his precious, precious things – an image viewable only at a great distance, from some vast outer space of feeling, from the vacuum of gain and loss, from the breathtaking cosmos of memory and all of its twinkling stars of ephemera.