Cobble Hill

by Robert Boucheron

     In June 1978, I graduated from the Yale School of Architecture and started my first full-time job in New York as a drafter-designer for the firm of Harold Buttrick, a gentleman architect on the Upper East Side. His office was in the English basement of his townhouse. He designed apartment renovations and new houses for his well-to-do friends and neighbors, with forays into their private schools, charitable projects, and carriage-trade shops. His wife, a granddaughter of the New York architect Stanford White, was also an architect. She raised their five children and drew residential projects of her own upstairs.

     Buttrick was a benevolent despot to his staff of five. They included a secretary named Amy, an office manager named Hal, and two other drafter-designers. We three and Hal occupied the front room, with a door and window on the street. Amy was somewhere in the middle, and a library-conference room was in back, along with a private office for Buttrick. He was often out meeting clients and possible clients, socializing and drumming up business, a chancy pursuit.

     “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip,” he said.

     We drew in mechanical pencil with graphite leads on vellum, a translucent rag paper that came in large sheets or rolls as wide as three feet. For a presentation, we traced in black ink using filament pens which often clogged or made blots. Drawing in ink was a slow and nerve-wracking task. We used a T-square or a parallel rule, which ran on wires attached to the drafting board, a triangle, a compass, and an array of templates. We wore dress shirts and neckties, professional attire which got in the way. Each man devised his own solution to the necktie—flipped over the shoulder, stuffed in the front pocket, clipped to the shirt front, or tucked in military-style. Ink and graphite got on our hands and clothes. Old photographs of drafters show them wearing sleeve protectors, sheaths that covered wrist to elbow.

     From the vellum sheets, we made prints on newsprint coated with photosensitive chemicals. An improvement over the blueprints that showed white lines on a blue field, these blueline or blackline prints were easier to read and better for marking corrections in red. A large office had its own machine to make prints. Buttrick’s firm sent drawings to a printer located near East 42nd Street. As the youngest on staff, I was the office boy who took drawings downtown by subway. In the heat of summer, clutching big rolls of paper that grew limp from humidity, I boarded decrepit subway cars covered with graffiti like psychedelic circus wagons. I returned with fresh prints that reeked of the ammonia used to develop them.

     A young architect serves three or more years of apprenticeship before he or she can take the state examination to qualify for a license. Hal, the office manager, gave me on-the-job training. In his thirties, he was short and stocky, smart and blunt.

     “You ask too many questions,” he said. “Instead of constantly interrupting me, use the library and figure things out.”

     Hal taught me the basics of architectural drafting, how to measure an existing building, how to inspect a construction site, and a little about the methods of getting a project built. Early in his career, he said, he was sent downtown to City Hall to deliver a sealed envelope to the official in charge of granting permits. In the 1970s, he used the high-priced services of an expediter, a person skilled in the New York City Building Code and the personalities who administered it. A quick-sketch artist, Hal drew a caricature of this man, named Nat Silberman, as a buzzing gnat.

     Architectural lettering was a stylized way of writing notes on drawings using straightedge and triangle. You flattened the lead to a chisel point by rubbing it on a scratch pad or sandpaper. You wrote in block capitals in evenly spaced lines. Verticals were vertical, and horizontals had an upward slant. It was considered good form to line up notes on the left in a column, and not to scatter them across the drawing. Arrows from the notes to the things they described could be straight or curved, but like electrical wires in a circuit, the arrows must never cross. There were symbols, abbreviations, and rules. The number “8” for example, was made of two ovals. A string of dimensions had to be straight, and the feet and inches had to be checked several times to be sure they added up. Some drafters used a non-print blue pencil for guidelines. You could draw curves freehand, but a novice was advised to use the giant ellipse template or the French curve. Like a monk in a scriptorium, I labored over my drafting until Hal approved.

     One morning, Buttrick hailed a cab and took me across town to the Dakota, the famous cooperative apartment building on Central Park West at 72nd Street. He left me to measure the kitchen, pantry, and service rooms for a modernization. Preparations were underway for a formal luncheon in the palatial suite on the park. As I sketched and inserted my tape measure through the hubbub, a tiny woman dressed in black darted here and there. She ignored me, and I said nothing. Later I learned that she owned the apartment.

     Other projects on which I helped were the eighteenth floor of the Chrysler Building leased to a law firm, a penthouse atop a grand apartment building on Fifth Avenue, a baboon exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, and a billiard room over a garage on a Long Island estate. All that first year, I felt elated. I was working in the profession I had chosen, on interesting projects, in the city to which I aspired. After seven years of higher education, with their arbitrary demands and expenses, partly met by a series of odd jobs, at last I was earning a salary.

     As for a place to live, I made shift. My first week in New York, I slept on a sofa in the apartment of an acquaintance. The apartment was high in an old building on Riverside Drive, with a sweeping view of the Hudson River. A museum administrator, Lila was married. Her husband was away on business, and she was absent most of the time. Witty and gracious, she owed me nothing. She got nothing in return when I decamped, suitcase in hand.

     The Buttricks had a schoolteacher friend who left town for vacation in the months of July and August, a single woman who sublet her apartment. Miriam accepted me without question as a subtenant. The apartment was on East 89th Street in a quirky brick pile built as a residential hotel in the 1890s. Walls were massive, windows were hard to open, and bathroom fixtures dated from the period. The apartment was crammed with antique furniture and knick-knacks. I worried aloud that I might break something.

     “There’s nothing valuable,” Miriam said. “There is, however, a box on the mantel that contains love letters my father wrote when he was courting my mother. He was aboard a ship in the South Pacific. You might enjoy reading them.”

     I got through the summer without damage and without reading the letters. Excited to be in the big city and on my own, I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, trooped through museums, jogged around the Central Park Reservoir, and rode the Staten Island Ferry. 

     As September loomed, I looked for an apartment. To afford it, I would share with a friend from Yale, a man who worked for the federal civil service. We found a place on West 21st Street near Ninth Avenue in a renovated tenement. A bedroom window faced a light well. Street windows faced the rear of Public School 11, a dreary prospect. It was also noisy, as children played in the school playground. We were not prepared for the squalor of low-budget city life. We were not well-matched, either. Domestic life became strained, and after a year, he stopped talking. I looked for another berth.

     A new friend lived in Brooklyn. I visited him on Wyckoff Street, walked the neighborhood, and checked ads for apartments for rent. In March 1980, I moved to Strong Place, in the area called Cobble Hill.

     South of Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill is much like it, with a stock of brownstone, brick and stucco row houses, “one of the city’s finest collections of nineteenth-century houses,” according to The Encyclopedia of New York City, by Kenneth T. Jackson and Philip Kasinitz. Built up between 1835 and 1860, the twenty-two blocks are low-rise and intimate, with plenty of trees, several old churches and a synagogue, and a few apartment buildings and schools. Long Island College Hospital occupies the northwest corner, and businesses line the boundary streets: Atlantic Avenue, Court Street, Degraw Street, and Hicks Street, which parallels the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The New York City Council created the Cobble Hill Historic District in 1969 and extended it in 1988.

     Turned ninety degrees to the prevailing grid are six blocks formed by streets one block long: Cheever Place, Strong Place, and Tompkins Place. Henry Street and Clinton Street run through. The arrangement discourages traffic, while it encourages safety and privacy. Even more private is Warren Place, a mews-type development off Warren Street. Two rows of diminutive cottages, eleven feet wide, line an alley planted as a common garden. Philanthropist Alfred Treadway White developed Warren Place and the nearby Towers and Home apartment blocks on Hicks Street as affordable housing for the working class in 1876. Romanesque Revival in style, an early example of such housing built for profit, they were restored in 1986. Most of Cobble Hill, however, was built for the middle class: bankers, merchants, and lawyers who commuted by ferry to lower Manhattan. 

     History had come and gone. The Battle of Long Island in the Revolutionary War was fought here, but its earthworks were erased. The western edge, toward the harbor, was fortified in the War of 1812, also invisible. The hill that gave the area its name was cut down long ago. In the early twentieth century the area declined, and immigrants moved in. Cobble Hill took on an Italian flavor. The Catholic church of St. Frances Cabrini stands at one end of Strong Place, where I lived. By the 1950s, new buyers were renovating houses, and a revival was underway. In 1963, a tiny park was carved in the middle, between Congress Street and Veranda Place.

     By chance I stepped into an urban wonderland, a pocket of architectural style. The one thing missing was public transportation. To reach the nearest subway stop, I hiked a mile to the north or east. Remoteness may have been the reason Cobble Hill survived intact. But the daily commute on trains packed full was an ordeal. The transit strike of April 1980 made matters worse for the ten days it lasted. Stranded commuters shared cabs, walked, bicycled, and stayed with friends in Manhattan. I did some of each. The Brooklyn Promenade, the elevated walkway with its spectacular view of New York Harbor and the towers of Manhattan, was a great place to stroll. And I loved the domestic scale of Brooklyn. Could green space and historical charm outweigh inconvenience?

     The house on Strong Place had three stories with one apartment on each floor. Seventeen feet wide, it had a square-shaped stair in the middle, with a skylight. My apartment was on the second floor, with a big bedroom in front, a galley kitchen and a little sitting room in back, and a narrow passage between. On the passage was a bath as compact as an airplane lavatory. Built for a single family, the house had been adapted.

     The new owner lived on the first floor with his wife and two young sons. Dan wanted to restore the house, but for the moment he needed the rental income. He apologized for the archaic cast-iron radiators. He promptly fixed some plaster damage—there was a leak at the front window. He said I could climb the fire escape in back to the flat roof, since I had no balcony. One summer day, I did climb to the roof, though getting past the cornice was tricky. From up there, I looked into fenced back yards, a comparative study in private gardens. I lay on a towel with a book, fell asleep, and woke sunburned.

     The landlord was friendly, but we saw little of each other. The neighbors threw an annual block party in the fall. Caught by surprise, I wandered through, sampled the spicy ethnic food, and said hello. Long-time residents were wary. I did not connect, and I was unsure where I belonged. What I am sure of is that odd apartment of less than five hundred square feet was the first place I could call my own. Up to the age of twenty-seven, I shared a bedroom with a brother, a dorm room with a student, or an apartment with roommates. There were episodes of house-sitting and solitude, but this was my first crack at making a home. 

     I shopped for furniture in Brooklyn antique shops. I measured the apartment, drew the floor plan, and sketched possible arrangements. I still have the drawing in pencil on yellow trace paper. I also have a map of “Cobble Hill and Vicinity” that I drew in pencil. I gave photocopies of it to Manhattan friends I invited to visit. One of these, scornful of the “bridge and tunnel crowd,” said I had become “geographically undesirable.”

     The antique mirror, chest of drawers, brass bed, cast-iron lamp, and colored prints I bought were of no great value. My one find was a Morris chair, an early type of armchair recliner invented by the English artist William Morris. Stripped of green paint, my Morris chair turned out to be made of mahogany, with front feet carved as lion’s paws. I discarded the worn cushions and had new ones made, covered with a Liberty of London fabric. I bought the chair for thirty five dollars and kept it for many years, through many moves. It showed up in an antique shop last year priced at three hundred fifty dollars.

     In the bedroom, I laid a flush hollow-core door across a low bookcase and a filing cabinet to create a desk and drafting board. Young architects yearn for independent projects, and they often moonlight for extra money. During my stay in Brooklyn, my parents left upstate New York for rural Virginia. They bought land and asked me to draw a new house. This I did, with visits to them and the wooded site. They built the house in 1981, and they lived there until my father died in 1994. I drew other projects, and I wrote poems and stories on my college typewriter.

     Nightlife in Manhattan was a problem. Taxis were extravagant. The New York City Subway ran all night, but with long waits and anxious rides. Then there was that long walk home from the station. Once after midnight, full of nervous energy, I walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge. Halfway I saw what a risk I had taken, but by then there was no turning back. No one else was abroad. It was winter, the sky was clear, and the steel suspension cables shimmered. The fresh air cleared my head. Warmed by exercise, I took off my jacket and slung it over my shoulder. I reached home safe and ready for bed.

     About a year after I started work, Harold Buttrick moved his office to a rental space in Midtown, and a nephew of his wife joined the firm. Six years older than I, a Harvard graduate, Samuel White had greasy hair and a slight lisp. He affected striped shirts and Italian shoes. My mentor Hal, who had hoped to become a junior partner, perceived his doom. He left the firm to pursue independent practice. I was laid off briefly, then wrote in a letter:

I went back to work Monday at Harry’s request, though I saw no sign of work overload. That day after work, Harry and Sam and I went out for a drink at Crawdaddy, a swank restaurant. To me it was a puzzling conversation. On the one hand, they were both critical of me for not speaking up more, Harry because he misses the benefit of my opinion, and Sam because he senses controlled resentment. On the other hand, Harry dropped a hint that some sort of promotion may be coming my way: when a project small enough to cut my teeth on comes along, it will be mine to follow through construction. I suspect Sam called the meeting, as he was negative and threatening.

     Soon after this, Buttrick invited us again for a drink after work, this time at the Harvard Club on West 44th Street. In brown leather armchairs in the vast parlor meant to resemble a baronial hall, he again praised my work. Sam, as if to make casual conversation, quizzed me on my plans for the future. He then suggested I might be happier employed somewhere else. That night I made a panicky phone call to Hal. 

     “You have to face reality,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world.”

     I searched for a new job, found one, and gave two weeks’ notice. Buttrick was sorry to see me go and asked for a delay. Again, there was no turning back.

     At the firm of Edward Larrabee Barnes, a prominent American architect, I joined a team to develop the design of the new Dallas Museum of Art. The environment was high-style, and the staff of fifty architects was a little United Nations. They came from Turkey, Finland, Pakistan, England, Venezuela, and especially China, thanks to John Lee, the second-in-command, who came from Shanghai. A Chinese classmate from Yale worked for Barnes, and she welcomed me.

     Weary from the job hunt and the longer commute, with no family or other tie to Brooklyn, and with a higher salary to pay living expenses, I looked for an apartment in Manhattan. I went to crowded showings, filled out rental applications, put down deposits, and crossed my fingers. At last I nabbed a rent-stabilized studio. I returned to Chelsea, to better subway access and a fifth-floor view.

     I joked about my year and a half of exile. Now I remember Cobble Hill and sigh. I hope that Dan restored his house, and that he and his family lived there happily ever after.

 

 

About the Author: Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, Litro, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Oxford Magazine, Short Fiction.

Schenectady by Robert Boucheron

     The Dutch arrived by proxy in 1609, with the voyage of Henry Hudson up the river that bears his name. They built a fort at the tip of Manhattan in 1614, and another fort at the site of Albany in 1624, the farthest point that ships could reach. They were keenly interested in the fur trade, especially beaver. They also sent colonists to farm. Headed by Arendt van Curler, a group of Dutch farmers from Albany bought land to the west from the natives in 1661. On the south bank of the Mohawk River, they built a square village of four blocks surrounded by a log palisade.

     “Schenectady” is supposed to derive from a Mohawk word that means “beyond the pines,” referring to miles of flat, sandy pine forest. There are many early spellings of the name, which strikes some people as comic. It was a standing joke in vaudeville to say that a character was from Schenectady.

     The place had a strategic cachet, probably recognized by the Mohawks and then by the Dutch. It was a natural crossing point for land and water travel. A ferry was established, and in 1808 a bridge designed by Theodore Burr. An engineering marvel, the Burr Bridge was constructed of wood trusses on stone piers and covered with wood siding. At 900 feet, it was the longest such bridge in the world at the time. The wood structure was replaced by steel in 1874. That in turn was replaced by a modern highway span, but the stone piers remain.

     Schenectady far outgrew its origin. The little square village became The Stockade, an enclave of eighteenth and nineteenth-century houses. A fire in 1819 destroyed much of it, including a commercial waterfront to the west, on a channel of the river called the Binne Kill. The Stockade became the state’s first designated historic district in 1962. Now restored, with cobblestone streets, it hosts walking tours and an annual outdoor art show.

     English warships took control of the New Netherland colony in 1664, and the English crown renamed it New York. But the Dutch people, their language, and their landholdings persisted. Dutch names are still common in the area, and the First Reformed Church holds pride of place. Built of gray stone in a massive Romanesque style, shaded by trees, it broods in the middle of The Stockade. Soon after my family moved to Schenectady in 1966, my older sister was married there, and we joined the church in a kind of quid pro quo.

     From the start, the Dutch brought African slaves to the area, and Dutch men took native wives. During King William’s War (1688-1697) which also goes by other names, French soldiers from Canada and their Algonquin allies attacked Schenectady. This fact was proclaimed in a lovely cast-iron sign, the first thing you saw on entering the city from the north: 

     Settled by Van Curler 1661

     Burned by French and Indians, February 8, 1690

The attackers killed 62 people and took 27 captive, both numbers including Africans. Marking the same event, a New York State historical sign in The Stockade notes the following:

     Ride of Symon Schermerhoorn
     On night of Feb. 8, 1690, although wounded
     he rode 20 miles to Albany warning settlers.

     According to the Schermerhorn Genealogy and Family Chronicles by Richard Schermerhorn, Jr., published in 1914, Simon (1658-1696) and his brothers Jacob and Cornelius were masters of ships plying the Hudson between Albany and New York as early as 1684. The shipping business prospered, and the family became wealthy. Simon moved to New York in 1691. “The tale of his famous ride . . . at the time of the Schenectady Massacre has been repeated to many generations of Schermerhorns.” The similarity of the story to Paul Revere’s ride in 1775 is striking. The story does not say why Schermerhorn escaped instead of staying to fight. It does say that he was shot in the leg, rode through bitter cold, and arrived in Albany at five o’clock in the morning, “more dead than alive.” 

     Schenectady continued to figure in conflicts. The French and Indians attacked again in 1748. During the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Saratoga, an important victory for the Americans, was fought not far to the north in 1777. General George Washington visited at least three times, including a sleepover in 1782.

     After the Revolutionary War, inhabitants at last broke the power of the Dutch landowners and achieved representative government. Schenectady acquired a city charter in 1798. Around this time, in 1785, the Schenectady Academy was started, to be refounded as Union College in 1795. The college moved in 1814 to a campus planned by the French landscape architect Joseph Jacques Ramée. A model for other American colleges, including the University of Virginia founded in 1819, Union College has the first comprehensively planned campus in the United States. From the Union College website: “We are a small, residential, independent liberal arts college committed to integrating the humanities and social sciences with science and engineering in new and exciting ways.”

     Union’s centerpiece is Nott Memorial Hall, named for the first president, Eliphalet Nott. Designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter, built of stone, and completed in 1879 in an elaborate Victorian Gothic style, the building has sixteen sides and a polychrome dome raised on a clearstory drum. Paved with colorful encaustic tile, the interior is ringed by cast-iron balconies. Formerly the campus library, the Nott Memorial is used for lectures, concerts, and exhibitions. In the 1960s, I attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah there. It appears as a backdrop in the 1973 film The Way We Were, starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford.

     In the 1790s, Schenectady shows up in an literary context, the Memoirs of Madame de la Tour du Pin. Born as Henrietta-Lucy Dillon, Madame de la Tour du Pin was a French-English aristocrat. As a girl, she lived at the court of Versailles. She and her husband fled France during the Terror. They reached Boston and then New York, where other French exiles gathered, including the Marquis de Talleyrand and Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who would later write La Physiologie du goût. In 1794, with young children in tow, Monsieur and Madame de la Tour du Pin sailed up the Hudson to Albany.

As we did not wish to stay in Albany itself, General Schuyler undertook to find a nearby farm for us to buy. . . . The property was four miles from Albany, on the line of the road which it was planned to build from Albany to Schenectady, a town which was then expanding rapidly.

     By her own account, Madame de la Tour du Pin became a capable farm wife. “My butter was much in demand.” She adopted the dress of the local women, cooked and cleaned, and bought two African slaves.

One day, towards the end of September, I was out in the yard, chopper in hand, busy cutting the bone of a leg of mutton which I was about to roast on the spit for our dinner. . . . Suddenly from behind me, a deep voice remarked in French, “Never was a leg of mutton spitted with greater majesty.” Turning quickly round, I saw M. de Talleyrand and M. de Beaumetz. They had learned our whereabouts from General Schuyler.

     The de la Tour du Pins stayed for two years, until the political situation in France allowed them to return. While they lived in their rustic log cabin, “a pretty cart laden with fine vegetables often passed our house. It belonged to the Quaker Shakers, who had a settlement six or seven miles from us.” The cart driver invited them to visit, and they did.

     The settlement was Niskayuna, led by Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784) from Manchester, England. Niskayuna, also called Watervliet in historical accounts, was the first Shaker village, started in 1776 and formally organized in 1787. Niskayuna grew to about 350 members at its greatest extent, and it dissolved in 1938. Much of the farmland was redeveloped as the Albany County Airport. The village is now a historic site open to the public.

     The Shakers and their mystical, celibate lifestyle were seldom talked about in the 1960s, an era more concerned with the Vietnam War, women’s liberation, the new sexual freedom, and drugs. The Shakers are known today through their design of tools, objects, furniture, and buildings; for innovations in seeds, farming and food distribution; and for the equal status of women in their communities. Two of the best books on Shaker society are The Communistic Societies of the United States, From Personal Visit and Observation (1875) by Charles Nordhoff, and The People Called Shakers (1953) by Edward Deming Andrews. More recent studies, including one by Priscilla Brewer, have examined Shaker beliefs, how their communities evolved, and reasons for their decline.

     At Niskayuna, nine buildings of the central cluster are preserved, as well as an orchard, a herb garden, a pond, and the cemetery where Mother Ann Lee and other early leaders are buried. It is a peaceful, rural place. In its heyday, according to the self-guided walking tour pamphlet:

The Watervliet community operated as a mini-industrial center where woodenware and chairs were mass-produced and agricultural products manufactured for sale to the outside world. They were among the first to standardize production and make use of quality controls. . . . Shakers invented a vacuum sealed tin can and canned hundreds of pounds of fruits and vegetables.

     The meeting house built in 1848 resembles a gymnasium, with a sprung wood floor for the communal dances which were the Shaker form of worship. The dances grew out of the original “shaking” in religious ecstasy. Gestures were symbolic—hands were extended with the palms up, for example, to receive divine gifts. Since Sunday worship was open to the public, it became a performance for which the congregation rehearsed. The meeting house contains bleachers for spectators, as well as high interior windows for Shaker elders in an upstairs room to keep an eye on things. Shakers were noted for their healthy lifestyle and longevity. A secondary benefit of the dances may have been exercise, a forerunner of yoga and movement classes today.

     The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 was a decisive event for Schenectady. The canal connected Lake Erie in the west along the Mohawk valley to the Hudson River, a navigable route from the Midwest to the seaport of New York, which quickly outgrew all other ports on the east coast. In the 1830s, railroads were built on the same route, among the earliest in the United States. Industry sprang up in a string of upstate cities: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady, and Troy. Iron manufacturing was an early pursuit. Schenectady and Troy became known for cast-iron stoves, and during the Civil War for production of artillery.

     As in New England, water power led to establishment of mills on the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers. The Harmony Mills are a group of red-brick buildings in Cohoes near Schenectady, similar to the complexes in Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts. The site is open to the public. Begun in the 1830s and extensively rebuilt in the 1860s, the Harmony Mills are documented in black-and-white photographs, measured drawings and text in A Report of the Mohawk-Hudson Area Survey by Robert M. Vogel, published in 1973 by the Smithsonian Institution.

The Harmony Mills took a great interest in the well-being and surroundings of its employees. The company built tenements for its workers. . . . The Mastodon Mill is an unusually elaborate example of Victorian textile mill construction. The two principal blocks, north and south, built several years apart, are similar and coaxial. Each is of five stories including the usable mansard attic.

     Railroad industries thrived in Schenectady in the late nineteenth century. They consolidated in 1901 as the American Locomotive Company. In 1887, Thomas Edison, based in New Jersey, moved his Edison Machine Works to Schenectady. Soon after, in 1892, Schenectady became the headquarters for his General Electric Company. ALCO and GE, as they were called, developed huge industrial plants. Each was a complex of buildings and streets surrounded by a fence with gates, a city within the city. Other manufacturing included carriages, brooms, and a patent medicine called Dr. Carter’s Pink Pills for Pale People. But Schenectady styled itself “the electric city” and “the city that lights and hauls the world.”

     In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany and Poland, as well as African Americans from the South, came to work in the factories and in construction. The city reached a peak population of 96,000 in 1930. Industry was marked by innovation. Schenectady acquired the second commercial radio station in the United States, WGY. In 1928 in Schenectady, General Electric produced the first regular television broadcast. Politics were progressive. George R. Lunn was elected mayor in 1911 as a Socialist, and again in 1915 as a Democrat.

     Charles Steinmetz (1865-1923), a mathematician and electrical inventor employed by General Electric, was a notable figure in Schenectady at this time. He was born in Wroclaw, Silesia, in what is now Poland, to a German Jewish family, with congenital dwarfism, hunchback and hip dysplasia. From boyhood, he excelled in school. As an adult, he was about four feet tall, crooked, with a beard. Photographs often show him with a cigar. He came to the United States in 1889. Steinmetz helped to develop alternating electric current and electromagnetic motors, and he amassed over 200 patents. To provide engineers for the new field, he started the electrical engineering department at Union College. He also served as president of the city’s Board of Education and president of the City Council.

     With other scientists, inventors, and executives, Steinmetz built a house for himself in the General Electric Realty Plot, a 75-acre tract that became one of America’s earliest planned communities in 1899. Adjacent to the Union College campus, the Realty Plot features grand homes in a variety of architectural styles, including Tudor, Dutch Colonial, Queen Anne, and Spanish Colonial. Among the wealth of details is a copper dragon perched on the roof ridge of 1226 Wendell Avenue. A modified California Bungalow at 1155 Avon Road was the first all-electric house, demonstrated in 1903. The Brown School was built in 1905 for Realty Plot children and run by Helen Brown. The First Unitarian Society, designed by Edward Durrell Stone, was built in 1961. Groot’s Creek Ravine runs through the middle of the tract, privately owned and maintained as a natural area and bird sanctuary. 

     In the middle of the twentieth century, Schenectady produced a historian. Larry Hart (1920-2004) was born in Schenectady, attended city public schools, and graduated from Union College. From 1945 to 1960, he worked as a photographer and reporter for the Schenectady Union-Star, and from 1960 to 1980, he did the same for the Schenectady Gazette. He wrote a weekly column called “Tales of Old Dorp” for the Gazette, “dorp” being a Dutch word for a small town.

     Hart compiled three books from his newspaper column: Schenectady’s Golden Era: 1880-1930 (1974); Tales of Old Schenectady, Volume I: The Formative Years (1975); and Tales of Old Schenectady, Volume II: The Changing Scene (1977). Self-published and abundantly illustrated, the books show colorful characters, local businesses, natural disasters, building demolitions, and vanished landmarks. In his preface to Volume II, Hart says:

The anecdotes selected for these volumes of Tales of Old Schenectady do not follow any chronological timetable. Instead, they are told at random in non-textbook fashion for the enjoyment of those who prefer to take their history in easy doses.

     As in other upstate cities, in 1925 the Erie Canal was filled in to become Erie Boulevard. A landmark at the corner of Erie Boulevard and State Street was Nicholaus German Restaurant, remodeled in 1901 with a turret and cornice to recall the Old World of its owners, Louis and Sophie Nicholaus. At first, it was a men’s saloon with a red mahogany bar and brass rail, with hotel rooms above. The restaurant expanded under later generations. Hart devotes several pages to Nicholaus, including the talking parrot Loppa, a scarlet macaw from Guatemala who entertained patrons in the bar from 1907 until his death in 1936. At that time, he was stuffed and added to the décor. The restaurant closed in 1975, but the ornate building still stands.

     In 1933, Schenectady acquired a new City Hall, a neoclassical confection like a huge wedding cake, designed by McKim, Mead and White. But from the Great Depression onward, the city declined. ALCO shrank to a shadow of itself, and the plant closed in 1969. General Electric steadily reduced its manufacturing. After World War II, retail business moved to the suburbs, especially the triangular area between Schenectady, Albany and Troy.

     In 1946, the federal government established the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, with General Electric as its operator. KAPL was located in Niskayuna, several miles away from the main GE plant, and adjacent to GE’s Research and Development Center. The two research centers provided a host of well-paid jobs for a highly educated, international work force.

     Niskayuna in turn became an affluent suburb. In the 1950s, the town reorganized its school system. In 1957, it completed a new high school, staffed with newly hired department chairs and teachers. Rapid growth required an addition, and in 1967 the building doubled in size. From a report titled Niskayuna Schools at 50, “the school population rose from 1,530 students in 1968 to 1,870 students in 1974.” A vocational-technical program offered job training. As a college preparatory school, Niskayuna ranked high at state and national levels. It placed bright students in a fast track, with senior year courses at the college level for advanced placement credit. In the 1960s, elective courses included computer programming and Russian language.

     When my father took an executive job at General Electric headquarters in 1966, he bought a new house in a new subdivision that lay in the Niskayuna district. My brothers and I attended Niskayuna High School.

     I took my studies seriously, earned high grades, and was president of the Honor Society. Bookish and awkward, I practiced each fall with the soccer team, though the coach rarely let me take the field in a game. Small for my age, I played one of Medea’s children in a school drama club production of the play by Euripides. I played clarinet in the school band and orchestra. Thanks to a program set up by the music department, I took clarinet lessons from Augustin Duques of the Juilliard School. He and a brass colleague drove up once a week from New York City. I joined the Junior Etude Club, a city-wide group that met monthly to perform. A 1968 photograph in the Gazette shows four new members seated on the grass, with me holding a guitar. I never played guitar, so the photographer must have staged us.

     In the 1960s, the downtown district was dreary, centered on a seven-block stretch of State Street, but it still had most of its buildings. They included banks, a New York Central Railroad station in the Beaux Arts style, and the dour Schenectady County Office Building at the top of a hill. The Carl Company was a multi-floor department store where my mother worked briefly. Hermie’s Music Store sold sheet music, instruments, and musical supplies. I often went there to buy clarinet reeds. Proctor’s Theater, built in 1926 as a movie palace and vaudeville theater, with an interior arcade, was a cultural landmark. There I saw the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The behemoth Hotel Van Curler, Georgian Revival in style and built of red brick in 1925, went bankrupt in 1968. It was renovated as Schenectady County Community College, part of the State University of New York system.

     Schenectady had a YMCA on State Street. On rainy summer days, the Schenectady Inner City Ministry day camp met in the gymnasium. I was a counsellor. On sunny days, we boarded school buses and drove to a camp in the woods west of the city. About equal numbers of poor black and white children got their first dose of nature. As counsellors, we were encouraged to get involved with the children, so I visited the slum where many of them lived. The neighborhood called Hamilton Hill, just south of downtown, was my first dose of urban poverty.

     General Electric moved any lingering executive jobs from Schenectady to its corporate headquarters in Darien, Connecticut in 1980. Some manufacturing remained, notably of large turbines used to generate electricity. My father transferred to a GE plant in Virginia. My younger brother Edward graduated from Union College, while my older brother Pete moved from tool-and-die machine work at the main GE plant to making custom experimental apparatus at GE’s Research and Development Center. Schenectady as a whole continued to decline until the end of the century.

     At that point, the state government in Albany realized that it could develop office space in Schenectady more easily than in the capital. State Street filled gaps from demolition with new office buildings. Schenectady gained population in the 2010 census, up to 66,000. When I visited then, after an absence of thirty years, State Street looked revitalized, with newly planted trees. Hermie’s was still in business, and Proctor’s Theater had been freshened up.

     Samuel Johnson wrote, “If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone.” Allow me to introduce myself, then. I am from Schenectady.

 

 

About the Author: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Lowestoft Chronicle, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction (UK), The Short Story (UK). His plays will be staged this year in Concord, North Carolina and the Detroit Fringe Forward Festival.

Bellewood by Robert Boucheron

     In recalling childhood, we visit islands of memory that shine in a dark sea. We navigate a course from dot to dot, steering by dates and facts like stars we dimly saw back then. We guess at causes. We make up motives for other people and even for ourselves.

     What follows is set in the 1950s and 1960s in upstate New York. That I lived there at that time is certain, but the story is what I choose to tell. Or is it my parents’ story? They made all the decisions. They and other family members contradict me. I quote these characters in their own words. I cite letters and documents to buttress my case. These attempts to deceive will be painfully obvious.

*

     In 1953, my father started a new job at General Electric Company in Syracuse, New York. Pierre Boucheron, Jr. was thirty-two years old, a lean man about six feet tall, with an olive complexion. He wore his stiff, brown hair in a brush cut. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he wore a class ring sculpted with a beaver, nature’s engineer.

     Pierre bought a lot near the village of North Syracuse, and he hired the developer to build a new house. This man, Bellinger, called his tract Bellewood, and he named the streets after his family: Mary, Cynthia, Patricia, and so on. One Bellewood Circle, at the corner of Leroy Road, was completed the following spring. My mother Charlotte sold the house in Roslyn, Long Island, packed up, and moved her three children: Charlotte, Pierre III, and myself, a baby. While doing this, she was pregnant. Edward was born that summer after the move.

     At General Electric, my father worked for the Heavy Military Electronics Department. During the twelve years he stayed, he developed color television hardware and computer applications for weapons and navigation, things for which the company acquired patents. He researched new products and methods, he traveled to manufacturing plants in the United States, Mexico and Brazil, and he studied to be a manager.

     As I child, I understood none of this. My father’s work was mysterious and invisible. It took up regular hours, and it paid a salary. He left early each morning carrying a lunch box and a thermos bottle filled with hot coffee. After five o’clock, he returned home. He talked to my mother in the kitchen as she made dinner, and they drank martinis.

     He made the martinis in a large metal cup with a strainer coil in the lid. He loaded the cup with ice, gin and vermouth, shook it for the right amount of time, and poured the liquid into a glass shaped like a shallow cone on a stem. He added a white onion or a green olive skewered on a little plastic sword. I asked once to taste a martini. It was bitter, I made a face, and my parents laughed.

     To unwind, as he said, my father gave a blow-by-blow account of his day, full of the names of men, bosses and coworkers, their rivalries and thwarted schemes, the stupidities of management, and his own accomplishments. His talk was peppered with stock phrases that haunted me. What did they mean? Why did he repeat them?

     “That went over like a lead balloon,” he would say. A certain man was “a prima donna” or “God’s gift to mankind.” His boss was “our fearless leader,” to whom loyalty was due, but anyone’s “motivation” could be questioned. Proud of being an engineer—he wore a wool suit, a white shirt and a necktie to work—my father had boundless contempt for “salesmen.” His own father was a marketing director for another company, an irony that was beyond me. “That’s trivial,” was clear enough, but “six of one to half a dozen of the other” was a problem in arithmetic. Though he worked in television and often watched it, he called it “the boob tube” or “the idiot box.” Most baffling was the phrase “as sure as God made little green apples.”

     One day, the thermos bottle came home filled with liquid nitrogen. At work, my father was studying a super-cooled electronic system called cryogenics. Standing in the kitchen, he did tricks with the liquid nitrogen. He inserted a rubber band, which came out brittle and shattered. He turned the bottle upside-down to pour, but the stream vaporized as it fell.

     The house we lived in had one and a half stories, with two bedrooms on each floor and a steep wooden stair. With about 1500 square feet of floor space, it was substantial for the 1950s. It stood on a flat, quarter-acre lot planted with grass and flowering shrubs: lilac, mock orange, forsythia, and honeysuckle. A weeping willow tree stood in a low spot that collected rainwater. Our house was one of four models repeated throughout the subdivision.

     Bellewood was filled with English, German, French, Polish and Hungarian surnames, yet everyone was white and middle class. Many of the men were engineers who worked for General Electric, Porter-Cable, or other industries. The women kept house, but some had careers. Betty Wright was a registered nurse, Anne Raqué had been an executive secretary, and Henrietta Smith was an art teacher, married to a piano tuner and musician named Art. Creative and bohemian, the Smith family was magnetic and right next door. They had three children, a live-in grandmother named Mrs. Wells, and house guests from Japan, Korea, and who knows where.

     Street by street, on foot and bicycle, I came to know the subdivision. The Village of North Syracuse was about a mile away. As young as age eight, I walked there by myself on a two-lane road with traffic, under Interstate 81, to the barbershop on Main Street. With coins in my pocket from an allowance, I walked to a general store on Taft Road, and another on Church Street. Both stocked toys and candy.

     While walking with the family, though, I lagged behind. Something caught my attention, and I got lost—on the street, in department stores, at highway rest stops, and at sites of historic interest. We took day trips by car in summer, to the New York State Fair in Syracuse and to tourist attractions like Fort Ticonderoga. My father drove with the windows down, and the smoke from his cigarettes blew on us in the back seat. He wore tinted shades clipped to his glasses. When not driving, he flipped the shades up, like a beetle about to fly away.

     We attended Andrews Memorial Methodist Church in the village. Sunday service was a dressy affair. Men wore suits and women wore hats. Because my mother waited until a convenient moment came, Eddie and I were baptized as toddlers one weekday in an empty church. We went to Sunday school. Art Smith recruited me for the handbell choir, which was for boys only. My father seldom went with us on Sunday. As he said, he was “not a joiner.” He belonged to no clubs and played no sports. Yet he helped to design a new pipe organ for the church. Art Smith must have recruited him.

     By contrast, my mother played contract bridge with three women’s groups which met at different times of day. A graduate of Wellesley College, she worked full time at keeping house and raising four children. She made all of our family meals, and we always ate dinner together at the table. Mother liked to cook. She experimented, and she tried recipes from the New York Times Cookbook, Joy of Cookingand Clementine Paddleford. She baked bread, pies, cookies, cakes, and muffins. At Christmas, she made loaves of stollen, a yeast bread studded with dried fruit and almonds, some for us and some as gifts. Kneading dough one day, she threw it to me, and we played catch with the elastic, floury ball.

     Since my mother was busy in the kitchen much of the time, I lingered there too, until she ordered me out from underfoot. The radio was always on. In the morning, Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club was broadcast “from high atop the Hotel Allerton in downtown Chicago.” The comedy routines included Aunt Fanny, with her signature tune “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.”

     When not cooking or washing dishes, my mother knitted socks and sweaters, and she sewed on an electric sewing machine. By way of a hobby, she wove—she had a table loom and a floor loom, a large wooden frame in the basement. She was a great reader, had a head for numbers, sang well, and as she said, “I love to people-watch.”

     Here is her letter dated Friday, September 21, 1962, to my sister Charlotte, who had just left home for college.

     What a busy day! We are going on the Stewarts’ boat tomorrow and come back Sunday, so I’ve been making food to take. We’re celebrating Pete’s birthday this evening—I made a double Dutch cake this morning, got a cute little 1 ½ lb. canned ham and baked that. Also made two loaves of bread and four pans of sweet rolls. Pete wanted meatloaf, so I made two, one for us to take tomorrow. Zowey! Hard on the feet.

     Many people I speak to ask about you. Dad and I are so glad you called Wednesday evening. You sounded elated, and we hope it keeps up that way.

     Bridge at Barnharts’ last evening, and I went up by bike—yours. The light is grand, but the air was chilly. We have been having real cold weather. We’ll probably freeze on the boat. Guess I’ll go in blue jeans and sweatshirt.

     Mrs. Eachus came back this morning with weaving books and got all the information on looms we had. She really means to get one. By the way, when she arrived, guess what I was doing—washing the breakfast dishes. So she dried. Poor Eachuses! She wanted to know if we’d heard from you.

     I am sitting in the car at Northern Lights Shopping Center. Dodie is having heels put on her shoes. The boys are browsing through Sam’s. And this is my chance to write. The house seems strange, even if there are still five of us left. I’ll mail this now and see about buying a dish rag.

*

     A creek ran through the Bellewood subdivision, a stream no more than a few inches deep. It was narrow enough to jump across, from grassy bank to bank. The rear boundary of the lots it flowed past, the creek was no-man’s-land, or so it seemed to a child.

     Every family in Bellewood had children. We played outside in shifting gangs. In winter, we played in deep snow, tunneling through drifts, sledding, and throwing snowballs. In summer, we played running games: hide-and-seek, kick-the-can and war. Hide-and-seek had verbal formulas which had to be shouted word-perfect to be of any use. Kick-the-can benefited from poor visibility at dusk, with grass made slippery by dew. War involved gun battles, sometimes with water pistols, prisoners bound and blindfolded, daring escapes; and dramatic death agonies. We disputed who shot whom first, and therefore who was dead.

     On a summer evening, we chased the fogger. This was a cart that sprayed insecticide to keep down the mosquitoes which bred in the creek. Men of the neighborhood took turns towing the fogger behind their cars at dusk, when there was no breeze. We raced ahead and lay face down on the grass. The white, sweet-smelling fog washed over us. The fogger roared. Deafened, our lungs filled with poison, we writhed in ecstasy.

     We played on swingsets in anyone’s yard. We played in weedy vacant lots, on the tar-and-gravel streets, and near the house in a cautious way, knowing that we might be watched. At all times and in all weather, we played in the creek.

     Where the creek crossed Leroy Road through a culvert, it widened to a shallow pool. The south bank had a seesaw and stubby mounts to ride, a half-hearted attempt at a playground. The ground here was pebbly and strewn with trash. The creek, for that matter, was polluted by runoff, drains from washing machines, and more. Each house had its own septic tank, and the drainfields were prone to mishaps. Foam clung to the edges of the creek, and objects lurked in its bed—shoes, cans, a pouchy, airless ball. Still, the water was clear. Minnows lived in it, frogs and creeping things.

     The culvert frightened me as a child. It was dark, the bottom was slick with algae, and cobwebs hung in the air. Another toddler dared me to walk through it in a low crouch, the same one who dared me to climb to the top of a willow oak in his back yard, or to balance on the top rail of a fence and walk as on a tightrope. Three times, I made careful steps halfway through the culvert and chickened out. Finally, tired of my own fearfulness, I dashed all the way through to daylight, splashed with mud and glory.

     In rubber boots or barefoot in summer, with or without friends, I waded in the shallow pool next to Leroy Road. Bending double to use my hands, I built dams of sand and gravel. I observed patterns of ripples, the rising flood, and slowly drowning islands. As water overtopped it, the dam eroded. Then it broke and gushed a torrent. This moment of disaster was worth hours of effort. My back ached from bending like a farm worker in a field, and my feet grew numb, but I was never happier.

     My older brother Pete introduced me to the jungle. This was a marshy area upstream, overgrown with reeds and poison sumac, which was death to touch. Trails wandered through the jungle, which steamed under a pitiless sun. The mud and rotting plants smelled vile.

     “Is it the breath of a cougar?” I asked.

     “Yes,” Pete said. “Cougars lurk on low branches. They spring out of hiding and eat you.”

     “You’re walking too fast.”

     “You have to keep up. But stay on the path. One false step, and you’ll sink up to your neck in quicksand. No one will hear you cry for help.”

     There were forts in the jungle, but all I saw was a small clearing, with a fallen tree trunk that served as a bench. Pete never specified what they did, the gang of older boys. I believe they sat solemnly in council, trooped through the jungle in single file, raided a fort with bloodcurdling yelps, and perfected their skill with knives. Every boy had a jackknife. Some had ropes and other useful gear. Pete’s specialty was pulleys, which he rigged between trees to transfer cargo. Their training as Boy Scouts was not for nothing.

     Farther upstream, beyond the jungle, was a private dump. The creek was a trickle here, down a steep bank, engulfed by briars. Pete and his friends roamed the hillocks of the dump and destroyed whatever they could find—bottles, boards, crates and paint cans. I was drawn to construction debris—bricks, lumber, and globs of plaster that looked squishy but were hard as rock. I collected ceramic tiles and scraps of wood in a damp cardboard box to carry home.

     We had a bin of scraps, a miscellany of wooden dowels, dominoes, offcuts, shingles, and alphabet blocks. Eddie and I built cities that sprawled across our bedroom floor. The ceramic tiles were good for floor slabs—the cities were multi-story. Eddie had a catapult that launched empty thread spools by means of rubber bands. We laid siege, lobbed boulders, admired the ruins, and cleared them to build again. I later became an architect, while Eddie became an engineer and joined a firm that made thermonuclear bombs.

     Where did the creek flow downstream? One listless, overcast day, Eddie and I explored. Exiting Bellewood, we plunged into a dense forest whose canopy blotted out the sky. Along a streambed that twisted and turned, we trudged for miles through uncharted wilderness. There was no path and considerable underbrush. The trees had giant roots that were hard to step over. We wore shorts, and our legs got scratched.

    “Where are we?” Eddie asked plaintively.

    “I forgot to borrow Pete’s compass,” I said. “Lichen grows on the north side of tree trunks. If we get lost, we can find our way back.”

    “I’m hungry,” Eddie said. “Did you bring supplies?”

    “No. Tighten your belt a notch.”

    “It’s lonely out here.”

    “An explorer has to keep going, regardless.”

    “I want to go home.”

    We never discovered the end of the creek.

*

    Our living room had a Windsor chair. Made of wooden spokes and slabs, the chair resembled a cage. It had a rounded back, a double hollow carved in the seat, struts like those on a biplane wing, lathe turnings, and an oval tray on the right arm. I say oval, but the shape was more of a teardrop, and it had a slight tilt. You could write on it or lay open a book, but eating was risky. A plate or bowl was apt to slide.

    Too hard and bony for comfort, the Windsor chair was an apparatus. You could crawl under it, hang things on it, bang the spokes like a xylophone, roll toy cars around the curves, and shake the bars of your jail in despair. Once, I climbed up the back and tipped it over, unaware that I posed an eccentric load.

    A little wooden drawer hid under the seat. You could see it by lying flat on the floor, or by looking between your legs, upside-down. When the chair was vacant, I pulled the wooden knob, and was surprised when the drawer came all the way out. A runner on each side fitted snugly in a slot. With practice, I learned how to close the drawer. Since it was empty, I put things in—a penny, a cat’s-eye marble, and a plastic scoop that came in a can of ground coffee.

    Our grandmother Dodie brought the Windsor chair from Hartford, Connecticut, and she often sat there. She spread a magazine on the oval tray. Her head leaned back, her eyelids drooped, and she snored. We had an overstuffed couch and armchair, a Welsh dresser, and a dining suite. The house was modern, with large windows, clamshell trim, and a one-car garage. It had a furnace, ducts, and a thermostat, but no fireplace or chimney.

    “How will Santa Claus get in?” I asked.

    “Through the front door,” Dodie said.

    “But the door is locked at night.”

    “Santa Claus has a key.”

    “Does he have keys to everyone’s house? Because that would be a lot.”

    “He only needs one. It’s a master key.”

     Dodie steered clear of grandmotherly clichés like knitting. In her late sixties, she had arthritis in her hands. She wore old-fashioned clothes that smelled of camphor, and she had a stock of archaic lore—gypsies, bad luck, and the evil eye. In the Windsor chair, she took one child at a time in her lap and told about her youth in the 1890s. Children picked wildflowers and twined them in wreaths. Dodie learned to play the zither.

*

    On a wall over the dining table hung a large painting, oil on canvas in a gilded frame. The painting showed a young woman in a long white gown and blond braids standing on a stage, with her mouth open. Behind her stood a man in a red robe, hat and shoes, with a sinister mustache and a sharp tail sticking out behind. Red flames flickered in the background. Below, with his back to the viewer, was the top half of a man in a black coat with arms raised, holding a baton. The man in the red costume was clearly the devil, but what was happening?

    Our grandfather, the advertising director for the Radio Corporation of America in the 1920s, had commissioned the painting. It was reproduced in magazine ads for radios. Other ads showed well-dressed people at home listening or dancing to the Radiola, RCA’s brand name. These early radios were large, operated by vacuum tubes. They came in handsome wooden cabinets, which were expensive. But there was no radio in this painting.

    After a detour of many years, the painting passed to me. Then, in a junk shop, I found The Victor Book of the Opera, subtitled “Stories of the Operas with Illustrations and Descriptions of Victor Opera Records” and printed in 1929. In that year, RCA bought the Victor Talking Machine Company, the leading American producer of phonograph records and players—the Victrola with its white beagle-terrier mascot named Nipper. The book confirmed my hunch.

    Loosely based on the play by Goethe, the opera Faust premiered in Paris in 1859. It was popular in New York in the 1920s. The opera “with its conflicting human passions and religious sentiment . . . amazing wealth of melody . . . and colorful orchestral treatment” shifts the focus from the elderly scholar Faust to his young love interest, a soprano named Marguerite. She wears a long white gown and blond braids. Mephistopheles, however, a bass dressed in red, steals the show. He behaves like the devil, deceiving, tempting and mocking the other characters. A child could easily mistake his sword for a tail.

    Faust does not have a duet between Marguerite and Mephistopheles, though they appear onstage with others. The painting, then, shows the essence of the opera, not an actual scene, with the conductor in the foreground. This is what you could hear on the radio—live music, an exciting story, and high culture.

    The grandfather connected with the painting was married to Dodie. But she lived near us in a garden apartment, and he lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He visited us in North Syracuse for a few days one summer while she was absent. A dark, cultured, energetic man of seventy, well-dressed, he brought a tray of slides from a trip to Paris and projected them on a wall. He brought a supply of liquor, which he drank in the evening. And as gifts he brought children’s books in French, which we could not read: Bambi, Histoire de Babar, and Le petit chaperon rouge. Was this grandfather also the devil? Why did he live in Fort Wayne, Indiana?

*

    As a toddler I waited for the morning school bus with Charlotte and Pete and tried to climb aboard with them. Once, I slipped past the bus driver. My mother had to fetch me from the school. I have an early memory of sitting with Charlotte on the living room floor, writing letters of the alphabet with a pencil on scraps of wood. By the time I entered kindergarten, I could read and write, and my theory is that my sister taught me. She denies this.

    Legally enrolled, I found school tedious. Coloring printed drawings with crayons struck me as childish, so I used the wrong colors. The teacher made me stand in a corner. I quickly completed written assignments, then chattered and giggled with classmates. The teacher scolded me. Eager to please, I blushed at reprimands.

    The school building was brand new, one story, built of concrete block and large sheets of glass, with a polished terrazzo floor and a flat roof. The curriculum and teaching methods were up-to-the-minute. New York State had a Board of Regents for public schools, and standardized tests were the norm. North Syracuse schools also tested students for sight, hearing, teeth, and muscular reflexes. They gave immunizations for polio, and they evaluated IQ, though they kept those results secret. They offered classes in art, sports of all kinds, social dancing, and field trips to museums, state parks, and the Robert Moses Niagara Hydroelectric Power Station, itself brand new in 1961. In the era after Sputnik, a field trip to a hydroelectric power station was something Soviet children would envy.

    Once a week, the Catholic children boarded buses which took them to a parochial school for something called “religious instruction.” Those of us in the decimated class had art. We cut and glued construction paper into colorful chains for a Christmas tree, or valentine hearts, or Easter baskets. We painted pictures and modeled with clay. We pressed our hands into pads of plaster, which dried and hardened. Our hands outgrew the casts in a year. The Catholic children missed all the fun.

    We had two music teachers, Miss Philips for singing and Mr. Harp for instruments. We sang every day, using children’s song books that included “White Coral Bells,” “Frère Jacques,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Dixie,” and “The Erie Canal Song.”

    In the third grade, the whole class took a test in sound pitch and pattern that lasted for hours. The Seashore Test for Musical Ability was devised by Carl Emil Seashore in 1919. Students who did well could then take free weekly lessons on a musical instrument. I chose the clarinet. I took lessons, learned to read music, and practiced at home every day. The elementary school had an orchestra and a chorus, which combined to present two concerts each year. In the cafeteria, which had a curtained stage at one end, Mr. Harp conducted beautifully, while parents listened in folding chairs and applauded.

    On November 22, 1963, as I warmed up on clarinet for the concert scheduled that night, my father came upstairs from watching television. He was in tears. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the concert would be cancelled. This was one of two occasions when I was conscious of national events. The other was Kennedy’s inauguration, which I watched on television in the school library. Each teacher sent one student from her class to watch, then to describe the ceremony to the other children. The word “execute” in the oath of office confused me, so Miss Rand explained it to us.

    We had free subscriptions to Weekly Reader, we had spelling bees, and we had assignments to write in class: book reports and personal essays. At some point, maybe in the fourth grade, we had a series of reading comprehension exercises printed on cards in color-coded boxes. The exercises were self-scored. Students competed for points and speed, to see who got through the rainbow of readings faster.

    Charlotte graduated from high school in 1962. College was by no means assured. Her grades were mediocre, and our father was reluctant to pay for it. But our mother “put her foot down,” Charlotte says. She left for Minnesota, and I got her bedroom, until she came back for vacations. For months at a stretch, then, I had a room of my own. It contained a desk, dresser, and twin beds with padded, pastel headboards. I listened to the radio, played with a tape recorder, and did homework at the desk.

    From age ten, on odd scraps of paper, I wrote letters to Charlotte. While cleaning house for a retirement move, she found a stash and sent it to me. The letters show a precocious brat with an outsize vocabulary and an urge to make up stories. They include drawings. They complain about school and mention a craze for Monopoly. They ask questions, such as: “Did you find the rubber alligator I put in your suitcase?”

*

    By the mid-1960s, the boom in federal defense spending was over, and prospects at the Heavy Military Electronics Department looked dim. My father at age forty-four was not ambitious in the sense of money and power, but he sought advancement in the corporate world. For all his talk about independent thinking and starting a business, the steady paycheck and the pension plan were too good to pass up. Above all, he wanted work that engaged his intellect and made use of his skills as an engineer.

    He applied for executive jobs within General Electric, and he tried a “headhunter” for positions outside. The result was a new job at company headquarters in Schenectady, New York. Again, he started work before moving his family, again he bought a new house in the suburbs, and again my mother was left to sell the old house and pack for the move. We left on a bitterly cold day in February, 1966.

    In town on business recently, Eddie visited Bellewood. He found it unchanged from our childhood. “That was the time to leave,” he says.

 

 

About the Author: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories, essays, poems and reviews appear in Bangalore Review, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction, Tishman Review, and other magazines.

The Dialtones by Robert Boucheron

     A report card for David Gooch from Hapsburg Elementary School bore this handwritten comment by Mrs. Lang:

David is happy, intelligent and well-developed for a boy his age. He reads at or above grade level. He refuses to apply himself, however, in subjects he dislikes, such as spelling and arithmetic. Occasionally, he disrupts the class.

     What a harried teacher saw as disruption, her students saw as live theater. A born entertainer, David made up songs and skits which he acted out during a lull in the school routine. He also liked to draw people. Some all-too-recognizable caricatures offended humorless teachers and school administrators.

     In response to criticism of her son, Winifred Gooch was quick to defend him on the grounds of a difficult early childhood.

     “David was seven years old when his father Arnold was struck down by a freak accident involving a golf cart. This loss, which I share, may have reinforced a tendency to dote. But I ask you: under the circumstances, what mother could resist?”

     Observers said that the boy was spoiled. A lively, talkative cherub who enjoyed perfect health, he grew into a handsome young man, careless of his appearance. Coasting through high school, he picked up more knowledge through casual reading than some did in class.

     His sister Jane struck everyone as a sensible girl who worked hard and did not call attention to herself. Two years younger, by the time she entered high school she was a serious student, the best in her class. She was attractive enough, but she was not about to pull punches when it came to academic achievement. That was her ticket to the future. But brains, like an invisible shield, repelled boys. Jane had a best friend, Emily, the daughter of a bank president, and she was courteous to adults. Her only fault was that she adored her wayward brother.

     Winifred struggled to raise her brood, as she called them, with generous advice a brother-in-law and limited financial help. A life insurance policy paid a small pension. Ladylike, she did not ask for more. When the children were older, she took a job as secretary at the architectural firm of Banister and Picket. The wage was low, but the crotchets of old Mr. Banister provided inexhaustible material for grumbling.

     David graduated under the proud gaze of his mother. His grade average meant that college or university was possible. He could attend a Virginia state school, with its low tuition for residents. He could apply for a scholarship and work part-time. As for scholastic work, he would have to buckle down.

     Winifred left none of this to chance. Accepted at a campus some hours away, David enrolled, signed up for courses, got a job in the cafeteria, and bought the appropriate textbooks. Then, away from home for the first time, he tasted freedom. Temptation lay in the young man’s way, and he followed it with zest. By mid-semester, feeling a twinge of guilt, he tried to study, but he was too far behind to catch up. He went through the motions of writing papers and taking exams. The faculty who read them scratched their heads in bewilderment.

     Without waiting for the result, David crammed his belongings into a used car and drove back to Hapsburg. He wore a prodigal grin as Jane watched him arrive.

     “Down in flames?” she asked.

     “Crash and burn, with no survivors.”

     Thrilled to have her brother back, she helped him carry clothes, sketchbooks and a guitar to his old bedroom before their mother got home.

     Winifred did not have the heart to throw David out, as Uncle Irwin said he deserved. She did insist that he find a job. The same uncle steered him to a place in the Hapsburg Iron Works, generally known as the foundry, where Irwin Gooch toiled in accounting. As unskilled labor, David lifted heavy boxes, swept floors, took out garbage, cleaned toilets, and sorted through scrap metal. The routine was irksome. He amused his coworkers with impressions, including one of the president of the company, and got himself fired.

     David felt that he had scored against the bosses and had no qualms about the future. No longer on speaking terms with Irwin, Winifred turned to Jane.

     “I’m at my wit’s end.”

     “Paying bills again?”

     “That brother of yours! All the common sense in the family went to you.”

     “Relax, Mom. Leave him alone for a while.”

     “All he does is play guitar in his room and sing. He draws cartoons and scribbles poetry. He listens to something on headphones.”

     “You left out the cigarettes.”

     “I hope that’s all he smokes.”

     Jane knew better but let this remark pass.

     “Can you talk some sense into him?”

     “Take a deep breath. You pushed a prodded and did what you thought was right. What happened is not your fault. College is not for everyone, and it wasn’t for David, not at this time in his life. The foundry job seemed like a good idea, too. It didn’t work out.”

     “I hate that expression. Go on.”

     “You may not realize it, but David is an adult.”

     Winifred’s brows shot up.

     “Let me rephrase that. He’s trying to become an adult. Let him work it out.”

     Winifred winced.

     “Oops. You know what I mean.”

     “David can’t stay in his room forever. He has to earn a living, get on in life, meet people, all of that.”

     “David has no trouble meeting people, you have to admit. And he’ll get on just fine. We don’t know what shape his life will take, and neither does he. If you can’t afford to let him stay here, be honest. You have a life, too.”

     “I do?”

     “In theory. Sooner or later, he’ll leave the nest. For that matter, so will I.”

     “Oh!” Winifred stopped to consider this idea. “What will I do then?”

     “It’s up to you, Mom.” Jane was about to add “work it out” but caught herself in time.

     Winifred shook her head doubtfully.

     “This mother-daughter chat is fun,” Jane said. “We should do it again.”

*

     Lionel Small was the proprietor of the Catharsis Café. A short, energetic man of color, he had bought the moribund Rialto Lounge on Main Street and transformed the interior. Gone were the fishing nets hung from the ceiling, the candles stuck in wine bottles, and the antediluvian juke box. The pressed tin ceiling was painted black, classic film posters decorated the walls, and a tiny stage encouraged live performance. Tuesday was comedy night, Wednesday was country music, Thursday was rock, and jazz ruled the weekend. Monday was dark. 

     With a bar and a basic menu of snacks and sandwiches, the place won a reputation as the place to be among those who wanted to be somewhere. Always on hand like a master of ceremonies, Lionel dressed for success. He greeted each customer like a long-lost friend—every man was his buddy, and every woman was a special lady. He let it be known that he came from the big city, where he did interesting things including theater. What role he played was left to the imagination, but he picked up the vocabulary. “Café” conveyed the image of a swank nightclub. “Catharsis” suggested the experience one might have there.

     David passed much of the time outside his room at the Catharsis Café. There he could talk to anyone—people with years of experience, people his own age, men and women, successes and failures. Underage, he did not drink. The atmosphere alone was intoxicating.

     When a vacancy developed in the wait staff, Lionel easily persuaded David to wear a white dress shirt and black bow tie. He had no trouble remembering orders, he was courteous and prompt, and he gladly worked late and irregular hours as business demanded. Without a resume, without networking, and without even looking, David found a job that suited him.

     Winifred was deeply ashamed, first that her darling was a waiter, and second that his boss was black. Unable to admit that her attitude was racist, she found other reasons.

     “Lionel Small is shifty-eyed. He talks too fast, and he wears shiny suits. No one knows where he came from.”

     “Mr. Small is a businessman,” Jane said. “You don’t have to like someone to do business with them. Have you ever met him?”

     “No, not to talk to.”

     “Let’s go to see the place, check it out.”

     “Some time, maybe.”

     “You could go incognito—dark glasses, head scarf, ratty old sweater. Like Jackie Onassis.”

     “Not like her. But some time.”

     In no time, David revealed his gift as an entertainer. He sang and clowned between sets and before the regular program got underway. His humor was innocuous. His tenor voice quavered in a way that sounded authentic. Patrons listened politely and laughed without knowing why. The fresh material caught them off guard—no one expected spontaneity in Hapsburg.

     One night, a man at the bar asked for a telephone. He dialed, listened intently for a minute, then slammed the handset down in disgust. David happened to be standing next to the man, holding a round tray. With his free hand, he picked up the phone. To the tune of “The Shadow of Your Smile,” he sang:

          The number you have dialed no longer connects.

          Please hang up and consult your Rolodex.

     David gave the impression that he was making up the words as he went along, or that he was repeating what he heard as he pressed the handset to his ear. It was a thrilling performance. Applause was as thunderous as the early birds could make it. Lionel took notice, and a career was launched.

     “Can you put together an act?” Lionel asked. “Bring your guitar and ten minutes of material. You’ll be the warm-up.”

     David’s songs and patter were well received, and word got around. To give the act more weight, Lionel asked a couple of musicians who were regulars at the cafe to play along. Slim Oliphaunt, a pale, skinny boy, played banjo and sang baritone. Gabby Wilson, a mean-looking black man who seldom said anything, played saxophone. The three hit it off. Lionel booked them on a weeknight, and the audience was appreciative.

     “The Number You Have Dialed,” arranged for the group, became their first hit. David followed it up with other telephone-related songs, such as “So Glad You Called,” “Alone with My Cell,” and their next hit, “Please Hold.” As yet, the group had no name. Lionel wanted to call them Dave and the Dialtones. David felt that their appeal was greater as an ensemble. They agreed on the Dialtones.

     Lionel started to pay them as a house band. He booked them in a regular Friday slot. David continued to work as a waiter, and the other two musicians kept their day jobs. The gig was promising, but as Gabby said, “Can’t eat no promise.”

     A band without a drummer was unthinkable. But for a band as unusual as the Dialtones, not just any drummer would do. Lionel put out feelers. A young Chinese with a savage manner surfaced, a demon on drums who went by the single name of Wu. Eyes closed, black hair tossing wildly, Wu improvised with brilliance, then dropped into synch with Gabby, Slim and David. When Lionel heard them jam in the empty café, he turned inside out with glee.

     “Paydirt! These boys are going to be paydirt in the right hands. Namely mine.”

     Always on the lookout for upbeat stories, the local newspaper jumped at Lionel’s suggestion of a weekend arts feature on the Dialtones. The Vindicator sent its sole reporter-photographer to the cafe one afternoon. Jimmy Lense was a recent graduate of journalism school, eager for new stories and apt to repeat whatever people told him. David provided terrific copy. The group photograph, with a Mickey Mouse telephone in the foreground, was as slick as an album cover. The article burbled:

It would be hard to imagine a more diverse foursome. But when they play, it sounds like they all grew up together on the same block. Dave Gooch plays lead guitar and sings his own songs as well as modern favorites in a reedy tenor. The talented nineteen-year old is also an artist and a side-splitting comic. Slim Oliphaunt plays old-time banjo and sings harmony. These two white boys are joined by Gabby Wilson on sax, a big black man with a jazzy, big-band style. Chinese drummer Wu rounds out the group, with riffs seldom heard in this hemisphere.

     The spread in the Vindicator resulted in calls to do charity events and benefit concerts. The group could ill afford the expense of travel. Lionel urged them to take advantage of the exposure, and he helped with small amounts of cash. He got in touch with club owners in nearby towns to arrange paying gigs. That spring, the Dialtones played up and down the Shenandoah Valley, with forays to Lynchburg and Charlottesville.

     On college campuses, they acquired a cult following. To students, David seemed to be one of them, and indeed he was the same age. His lyrics appealed to their sense of irreverent wit, as something they might have written in their spare time. The left hand held to the ear, with thumb and pinky extended, became the in-sign for the Tones. Pirated recordings from their concerts circulated. It was essential to bring a cell phone, the more antiquated the better.

     Telephone paraphernalia appeared as a sight gag onstage. In the course of a performance, Gabby or Wu would pretend to receive a call, flourishing a handset with an absurdly long and tangled cord. David used touchtone sounds in one song, along with a busy signal, electronic beeps and computerized voices.

     The Virginia Telephone Company got wind of the band’s antics. Executives and their lawyers disapproved. A letter reached Hapsburg, care of the Catharsis Café, urging them to cease and desist. Lionel drove to Richmond, where he sweet-talked the marketing people in their sleek, glass tower overlooking the James River. He emerged with an offer to sponsor a statewide tour.

     “I made it clear,” he later said to the group, “you are in no way selling the rights to your songs, your name, or the concept.”

     “Concept?” David asked. Slim stopped fussing with a guitar string, Wu opened his eyes wide in astonishment, and Gabby sat up.

     “You know, the phone thing. Plus this whole multicultural show you got going.”

     “So that’s what we got,” Gabby said. “And I thought it was juice.”

     “I signed you up for a tour this summer, towns big and small, playing in memorial halls and high school auditoriums. Eight weeks, all expenses. And a modest stipend.”

     “Say what?” Gabby was skeptical.

     “He means a paycheck,” David said. “Can you get away from your regular job that long?”

     “Maybe.” He turned to the others. “What about you two? Oliphaunt? Wu?”

     “Long as we stay in Virginia, I’m good,” Slim said.

     Wu nodded agreement, and the tour was on.

*

     David moved out of his mother’s house to an apartment. He shared the rent with Wu. Winifred was torn by this development. On one hand, she was relieved by David’s success, however little she understood it. On the other hand, she had to release her son to the cold, cruel world. How would he survive without her? 

     She need not have worried. Food ran chronically short at the apartment, as did heat and hot water. In any case, it was only a brisk, ten-minute walk away. David popped in continually, as did Wu and the other band members. They adopted Winifred as a den mother.

     “I haven’t lost a son,” she said. “I’ve gained an entourage.”

     Jane continued to do well in school. She stuck to her goal of attending an Ivy League college, or maybe a school like Williams or Swarthmore. She would need a scholarship, but with her grades she was in a good position to win one. She sang in the school chorus, played clarinet, and joined the debate club, where she competed well against nerdy boys who wore white socks. She thought of becoming a socially responsible lawyer.

     Meanwhile, Jane was her brother’s biggest fan. She pasted press clippings in a scrapbook. She went to as many concerts as she could, hitching rides with friends who might be less passionately loyal but who owned cars. In her senior year, with studies, extracurricular activities and the band, she had no time for a social life.

     David teased her on this point. It was September, and the Virginia Telephone tour was a recent triumph. He lounged unshaven and in need of a bath on the sofa.

     “So, who are you dating?”

     “If you must know, I’m not dating anyone at the moment.”

     “Wu is available. I think he has a crush on you.”

     “Right.” Jane rolled her eyes.

     “Come on. Don’t you think Wu has a certain something?”

     “Cute, but I’m not interested.”

     “Maybe later?”

     “Much later.”

     “Sore subject?”

     “No, just tiresome. Let’s change it.”

     David turned an imaginary page in the air.

     “What about this trip to New York?” Jane asked.

     “Mom told you?”

     “In a confused way. She got the story from Slim and Gabby. Something about an audition, a recording studio and a tape. She’s all wound up about the tape.”

     “Nice. Lionel wants us to make a recording that he can peddle. It’s called a demonstration tape or demo, and it has to be made in a sound studio for quality. You pay by the hour, and you pay big bucks. He thinks we’re ready for the big time.”

     “Do you?”

     “I don’t know. The music is fun, but it’s hard to take seriously. It happened so fast. One day, I’m a bum with no future. The next day, I’m the star of a hot new band. Some days, I’d like to go back to drawing and writing poetry, or just being a waiter.”

     “What about college?”

     “What about it?”

     “Do you want to go back?”

     “A college degree isn’t very useful in this line of work. You’re the smart one in the family. Go for it.”

     “It’s only a year away. I’ll miss you.”

     “For a week, a month tops. Then you’ll be caught up in the varsity whirl. Like a rose cheeked, dewy eyed varsity girl.” David tried to snap his fingers and missed.

     Jane made a face. “What comes after the demo?”

     “A contract, I guess. Or we disintegrate. Gabby is making noises about too much time on the road. Did you know he’s married? Slim is terrified of New York, of setting foot in it. He’s a country boy at heart. Richmond was a stretch, and New York might push him over the brink. Lionel is talking personnel changes.”

     “Is Lionel capable of dealing with New York?”

     “Good question. We’ll see when we get there. It’s funny. He thinks he’s using us, but I think we’re using him. Like we might ditch him, if the opportunity came.”

     “Whatever happens, it looks like you’re moving on.”

     “Who would have thunk? I met a lot of people in the past two years, and I learned how small this town is. I know what I want to do, now, and I can’t do it here.”

     “So away we go.” Jane remained slumped in an armchair.

     “What about Mom? A year from now, she’ll rattle around this old house. Will she clean obsessively, take in stray cats, talk back to the radio?”

     “David, she has a job.”

     “With crusty old Mr. Banister. She can’t wait to quit.”

     “So she says, but she never misses a day of work. And she might fill the aching void of your absence sooner than you imagine.”

     “Oh? This sounds interesting.”

     Jane realized that she had said too much and tried to wave it away.

     “Tell!” David caught her arm. They wrestled, and he fell off the sofa. Jane got the upper hand as they rolled on the carpet. Panting, she kneeled on his chest and pinned his arms. He was weak with laughter.

     “You know, David, you stink.”

     “Is that a moral judgment?”

     “No, you stink.” Jane wrinkled her nose.

     “The water heater at the apartment is busted. I came here to wash up.”

     “No wonder. What about Wu?”

     “He gets into cold showers. Maybe it’s a Zen thing. Does this mean you’ll go out with him?”

     Jane shook her head, as if at a hopeless case. She rose to her feet and brushed herself off. David lay on the floor. He straightened his legs and crossed his arms over his chest, like an Egyptian mummy.

     “I’m off,” Jane said, “shopping with Emily Clough.”

     Staring upward, David began to hum.

     “Toodles.”

     “Oodles.” David resumed humming.

     Jane lifted a seat cushion to search for spare change.

     “I beat you to it,” David said. “Two life savers and a peanut. I ate them.”

     Jane dropped the cushion on her brother and ran for the front door.

 

 

 

About the Author: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories, essays, poems and reviews appear in Bangalore Review, Bloodstone Review, Conclave, Digital Americana, Gravel, Grey Sparrow Journal, Lowestoft Chronicle, Milo Review, NewPages, North Dakota Quarterly, Poydras Review, Sheepshead Review, Short Fiction, The Tishman Review, and other magazines.

The Girl in Mauve by Robert Boucheron

     Soon after they married in St. Giles Episcopal Church, Blair and Eric Wolfram bought a house on Myrtle Avenue, on the edge of the historic district. The house was drafty and dark, and it sat on a narrow lot. But it was sound, it had the original millwork, and it came on the market at the right time.

     “It’s a bargain,” said Larry Block, the realtor. “Fix it up, and watch your investment grow.”

     This idea appealed to Eric, a securities analyst with the firm of Xavier, Young and Zwieback. Blair scrubbed, scraped, painted, sewed curtains, covered chairs, and made the most of her decorating budget. The improvement was startling.

     “It looks like something in a magazine,” said a friend of Blair from Junior League. “Could you help me with my living room? It needs freshening up.”

     In this way, Blair started to work part-time as an interior designer.

     Eric worked in the yard. He cut grass, pulled weeds and trimmed bushes. Blair planted bulbs in the fall and annuals in the spring, and she provided design direction. It was her idea to plant box along the front walk.

     “Box is traditional, and it will thrive in the shade of the trees,” she said.

     Laetitia Tharpe, a retired schoolteacher who lived across the street, watched Eric set out the tiny bushes.

     “She turned up her nose,” he later told Blair.

     “Some people object to the way box smells,” she said.

     “I don’t think that was it.”

     “If it’s a matter of taste, never mind. Look at her yard, so overgrown. In any case, it’s a safe bet that we will outlast Miss Tharpe.”

     Blair’s family, the Willikers, went back generations in the area. She had studied art history at the local college and was a member of St. Giles, where she served on the hospitality committee. Eric was a newcomer to Hapsburg, with a college degree from New England and experience with financial firms in New York. They were a handsome couple, everyone agreed.

     They even looked alike, of medium height, slightly stocky, with fair skin and dark brown hair. The same age, their birth dates were a few days apart. They shared a taste for classical music, for simple food that wasn’t too spicy, and for movies that weren’t too violent and ended happily. All that was missing was a child.

     Originally, Eric wanted a son. After eight years of marriage, and five of those years actively devoted to procreation, he would accept a baby of either sex. As for adoption, he was against it. The proposed child must be biologically theirs. Both were under thirty, so age was not a pressing matter. Still, Eric felt that thirty was a milestone, perhaps a turning point. He was old enough to be a father, and to be a father was to be a complete man.

     The couple did have Muffin, a fluffy spaniel with a bow on her head. Blair chose Muffin in the early years of their marriage. Eric would have preferred a German shepherd, but any dog would do. He took Muffin for walks and played tug-of-war with her leash. She had her own doggy bed in the kitchen. She enjoyed being the center of attention. But Eric still wanted a human child.

     Blair felt the maternal instinct to be weak. On the other hand, she always assumed that she would raise a family. Parents on both sides agreed. There was no reason to think she was infertile. It was just as likely to be the man’s fault. Then Blair’s younger sister Joncey had a baby boy, dissolving any doubts that people might have entertained about her sudden marriage to a backwoods character seven months before.

     “The pressure is on,” Blair confessed to her doctor.

     “Why don’t you visit a reproductive specialist?” Dr. Laverne said. “You can afford it. They don’t perform miracles, but at least you’ll know.”

     The Wolframs drove two hours to the big city and made a date of it. They stayed overnight at a hotel with valet parking and a cavernous three-star restaurant on the ground floor. They ordered the steak dinner, with apple pie for dessert.

     The clinic took tissue, blood and urine samples, as well as a semen specimen. The couple filled out a long questionnaire. They were already nervous, and some of the questions tipped them over the edge. They started laughing and couldn’t stop.

     The next morning, Dr. Abbondanza met them in his office, where the sun beamed through vertical blinds onto framed diplomas. He was a ruddy, hirsute man, rather plump, wearing a spotless white lab coat over a silk necktie.

     “You’re both fertile,” he said. “And you’re perfectly healthy. Sometimes, it’s the luck of the draw. Keep trying, and check back in six months.”

     He gave them a brochure with suggestions for technique. Eric called it a sex manual. He kept it in the bedside stand and had fun reading it aloud. Blair would have preferred to sleep. They both learned a great deal about the human plumbing system.

     Each had activities that occasionally took them outside the house in the evening. In addition to hospitality at St. Giles, Blair served on two other committees. Eric belonged to a sports club, and he put in a few hours of volunteer work each month, as his firm encouraged. One night in early spring, he slipped on a suede jacket, as it was chilly, and hopped in his truck.

     The truck was a sport utility vehicle which he kept in spotless condition. He drove it to the office, to the shopping mall, and farther afield, but not so far as to require four-wheel drive.
On this occasion, he drove a few blocks to a bar. His idea was to have a drink and look around.

     The Catharsis Café was the one nightspot in Hapsburg with any claim to being avant-garde or in touch with metropolitan culture. It boasted live music on weekends. The classic film posters on the walls, some in foreign languages, lent an air of sophistication.

     The bar was dim. A sprinkling of other patrons sat hunched over glasses, watching television and talking softly. Eric sat on a stool, ordered a beer, and tried to look nonchalant. There was nothing to look nonchalant about. He was about to conclude that the experiment was a failure, when a few people came in, young people who talked loudly to each other. They wore skinny jeans, rumpled shirts, and impractical footwear—oversize boots or sandals.

     One of the young people caught Eric’s eye, a girl in a muted purple shawl. She stood a few feet away in profile, listening to her friends. When she happened to look his way and saw him staring at her, she stared back with wide-eyed exaggeration. When the group moved to a booth, the girl passed him and smiled.

     Eric wished that the group had stayed so he could continue to stare. Was the girl beautiful? What did her smile mean? What would he say to her? He nursed his beer. Suddenly, the girl was beside him, leaning over the counter to get the bartender’s attention. She was calm and lovely. She smiled at him again.

     “Hi,” she said.

     “Hi,” he said.

     “Having a good time?”

     “Sure. Great time.”

     “Okay, now you ask me if I’m having a good time.”

     “Sorry. Are you?”

     “Sure.” She tossed her hair out of her eyes and tugged her shawl. Seeing that Eric was at a loss for words, she laughed.

     “Cat got your tongue?”

     “Hunh?”

     “Never mind.”

     The bartender appeared, took her order, filled four glasses with beer, and plunked them on the counter. The girl was in no hurry to get back to her friends in the booth.

     “I haven’t seen you here before,” she said.

     “I’m new in town.”

     “Is there anything you’d like to ask me? Yes, I’m with those turkeys. No, I don’t smoke. I like country-western music. I have no pre-existing conditions likely to require surgery. Anything else?”

     “That scarf you’re wearing—what color is that?”

     “Mauve.”

     “Mauve.” Eric wanted to ask her to spell it. The girl laughed.

     “What’s so funny?”

     “You are.”

     Eric looked at his hands, as though they might be performing a trick on their own.

     “What’s your name?”

     “Eric.”

     “What do you do, in life as we know it?”

     “I work in investments.” He fished out a business card and gave it to the girl. He always carried a few cards, but until now had never found an occasion to give one away. She read the small black type.

     “What is a securities analyst?”

     “I read about investments and recommend which ones to buy or sell.”

     “Here.” She tried to return the card.

     “You can keep it. I have more.”

     With a slight shrug, she tucked the card beneath her shawl.

     Eric glanced toward the booth where her friends sat. Were they becoming impatient? Should he tell her about the stock pick of the week? The girl turned something over in her mind.

     “You’re cute,” she said.

     She seized the four glasses of beer with a dexterity that implied waitress experience, and glided back to the booth, her long hair streaming behind her.

     Eric squirmed on his bar stool. What was her name? How could he see her again? Why did she say that he was cute? Unable to sit still, he paid his tab and left.

     Fuzzy from the beer and agitated by the girl in mauve, Eric neglected his driving. While maneuvering out of the parking space in the alley next to the bar, he heard a small thump and felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

     He drove at a snail’s pace through the deserted streets, shivering in the late grip of winter. He parked in his driveway. He tried to assess the damage in the darkness, but was unable to see. He dared not use the flashlight in the glove compartment.

     Blair had gone to bed. As quietly as possible, Eric brushed his teeth, got undressed and slipped into bed. Blair was either asleep or doing a good imitation. Eric’s mind raced. He imagined that he would not fall asleep for hours. Within minutes, he was unconscious.

     By daylight, he found a small dent in the side of his truck, with a scratch in the finish. It was on the passenger side, down low. Eric fretted over this first blot on the purity of his vehicle. He could not tell Blair about it. He could not take it in for repair, as that would tip her off.

     A week passed. Blair noticed that her husband was preoccupied. It was not like him to have moods or to keep secrets. He loved to narrate the incidents of his day, heedless of whether anyone was interested. Now he was taciturn. Twice at dinner he seemed not to hear what she said. He spent less time fussing over his truck.

     On Thursday, Eric went back to the Catharsis Café. The girl in mauve might be there. He wore his suede jacket and sat on the same stool. The girl and her loud companions failed to appear. The bartender remembered Eric and talked in a sympathetic way. He wore a black bow tie and a mustache.

     “Business is slow,” he said. “Everyone seems a little down tonight.”

     The next morning, Eric was gloomy. They were at breakfast in the one sunny spot that the house could muster. Blair had hung bright wallpaper here and yellow curtains in the bay window. Eric crunched cold cereal while reading the weekly Vindicator, though he had already seen it. Blair laid a hand on the newspaper.

     “Sweetheart, what’s wrong?”

     Eric stopped crunching for a moment then scowled. “Nothing’s wrong.”

     “You seem out of sorts. Did I do anything?”

     “You? Not at all. It’s the office. Xavier is on my back.” He snapped up the paper, threw his cereal bowl in the sink, where the spoon clattered, and dashed out the door.

     Perplexed and sensing a threat to her marriage, Blair sought out Father Theodore Percy, the rector of St. Giles. Hands folded in her lap, she told him as much as she knew. She gazed out his office window, where the pink, wavy glass gave her the sensation of drowning in a sweet, alcoholic drink.

     “Do you think he’s seeing another woman?”

     “I don’t know.” Tears of frustration welled. Was the frustration with Eric or with herself?

     “Would your husband have any reason to be jealous of you?”

     It took a second for this question to register. When it did, Blair shook her head vigorously.

     “I don’t suppose you told your husband that you were coming here today.”

     “No.”

     Father Percy sighed.

     “What should I do?” Blair’s voice rose in a sob.

     “Mrs. Wolfram—Blair—I suggest that you try a bit of marriage counseling. It’s nothing to be afraid of, quite the opposite. And it needn’t go on for months. The key is for both of you to go.”

     “Could we come to you?”

     “If you like. Have I met your husband?”

     “I don’t think so. He rarely comes to church.”

     “Then it will be a pleasure.”

     Blair took more trouble than usual over dinner that night. She had set the table by the time Eric got home. For his part, having reflected on that morning’s outburst, Eric took a conciliatory posture. He arrived with a bunch of daisies from the florist. It was rare for him to bring flowers. Blair made much of them, found a vase, and installed them on the dining table as a centerpiece.

     Both were on their best behavior. They lingered over coffee.

     “I saw Father Percy today,” Blair said cheerily.

     Eric was instantly on guard. He did not care for organized religion or the old-fashioned rector, though he could be lured into St. Giles for musical events.

     “On the street?”

     “I went to see him at his office.”

     “For the hospitality committee?”

     “No, for us. He suggested that we both see him for a brief talk. I’d like to, actually. Will you come with me?”

     “Let me think about it.”

     That was all she could get for the moment.

     The next Thursday, Eric went back to the Catharsis Café. It was now early April, and the weather was mild. Still, he wore his suede jacket. Shreds of cloud drifted across the nearly full moon, and there was a hint of rain. The warm night breeze felt fecund.

     The bar was crowded. His stool was taken, so he moved to a vacant one. Before he had a chance to say anything, the bartender drew a glass of beer and set it before him.

     Eric felt at ease in the hubbub and gazed around with frank curiosity, swiveling on the stool. The girl in mauve was absent. This was not going to ruin his evening. He was going to drink in the scene as he drank his beer.

     This resolution lasted until the girl entered. She was with the noisy group of young people and wore her shawl. Eric’s eyes fastened on her at once. She was unaware of him. The group stayed near the front of the bar, laughing and shouting. When they drifted in his direction, Eric swiveled away. There was nothing to look at behind the counter, just rows of glasses. He hunched his shoulders and waited. Trailing behind her group, the girl paused by the silent figure.

     “Eric?”

     “How did you know my name?”

     “You told me, silly.”

     “I forgot. How are you?”

     “Just fine. And you?”

     “Fine.” He was unable to think of what else to say.

     The girl smiled. She looked exceptional, cast in a finer mold, especially her chin. The man on the stool next to Eric abruptly left, without a word or a backward glance.

     “May I join you?”

     “Sure. What about them?” He indicated the group. Absorbed in their argument, they had taken possession of a booth.

     “They’re big boys. They can take care of themselves.” She sat on the stool facing Eric. She was so close. He was excited.

     “Can I . . . may I buy you a drink?”

     The girl laughed. Eric laughed, too.

     “Okay, big spender.”

     Eric raised a hand and waited patiently, like a child in school who wants to be excused. The girl clinked a spoon on his bottle to get the bartender’s attention.

     “Hi, Charles. Same as him.”

     A glass of beer appeared before her, and Charles discreetly vanished.

     “Here’s mud in your eye.” She drank off half the glass. Flecks of foam remained on her upper lip.

     “You must be thirsty.”

     “Not anymore.”

     “Do you come here a lot?”

     “Often. The phrase is: ‘Come here often?’ Not really. Thursday with the guys, the traveling debate team.”

     “I just started. Thursdays.”

     “I know. I know all about you.”

     “You do? Like what?”

     “You’re married—the gold ring on your left hand. You have a desk job, working with investments. You gave me your card. You have a nice house, with big trees in the yard. No kids, but that could change. A dog or a cat, or both, but a small dog is likely. You keep in shape at the gym. You drive a Toyota or a Hyundai, a nice, sensible car.”

     “Pretty good, except for the car. It’s an SUV with four-wheel drive.”

     “Really?” She was interested.

     “Dark blue with a tan vinyl interior.”

     “Does it have custom decals, pink plastic windshield wipers, and floodlights on top like bug antennae?”

     “No, I don’t go in for that stuff.”

     “Stereo?”

     “It’s okay. It won’t break your eardrums. Four speakers. My CDs are classical, folk, country.”

     “Sounds like a dream machine.”

     “Want to see it?”

     “What are we waiting for?”

     Eric led the way out of the bar, and the girl slipped her hand into his. They turned into the alley where he was parked. Taller than the other cars, it gleamed in the moonlight.

     Eric led the girl to the passenger side and opened the door. She climbed in. He walked behind the vehicle to the driver side and climbed in also. His heart raced and he felt giddy. He had no idea what would happen next.

     “Nice,” she said.

     “Thanks.”

     His mouth was dry. Hands on the steering wheel, he stared straight ahead at a rough brick wall, the side of a building that had been torn down. There was a rustle beside him as the girl slid closer. He smelled her, a faint perfume mixed with human musk and beer. He turned his head and lifted his hands from the wheel.

     The girl was beautiful. Her shawl was black in the moonlight. In slow motion, he took her in his arms, as she took him in hers. Their lips met. They kissed for a long moment.

     And what a kiss it was! The more delicious for being stolen, forbidden, with a girl Eric had barely met, whose name he didn’t know. She disengaged and tossed her long hair.

     “This is too easy,” she said. “We should know better. Like teenagers on a hot date, parking. Eric, you’re a sweet man. I know we could have a wonderful time, but it would be wrong. Not for the reason you think, or maybe it is. I don’t know. If you were less sweet, it would be less wrong, but then I might not want you so much. Twisted, no?”

     Eric was stunned.

     “Go back to your wife. Tell her you love her. She’ll never know how lucky she is.” The girl opened the door, got out, and leaned back in.

     “Bye, Eric. Have a kid, have two. You’ll be the best daddy on the block.”

     She slammed the door and walked away, swinging her hips without mercy.

About the Author: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His academic degrees are Harvard B. A. 1974 and Yale M. Arch. 1978. His articles, book reviews, short stories and interviews appear in Atticus Review, Bangalore Review, Bloodstone Review, Conclave, Construction, Digital Americana, Grey Sparrow Journal, Lowestoft Chronicle, Montreal Review, New Orleans Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Origami Journal, Outside In Literary & Travel, Poydras Review, Short Fiction (UK), Slippage.

A Historical Sketch by Robert Boucheron

     The Hapsburg Historical Society printed this sketch by Ella Eulalia Finch as a pamphlet, available free of charge at its headquarters in the Lyceum. Miss Finch is a noted property owner, local historian, past president of the Garden Club, and sharpshooter.

 

*
 

     From the early eighteenth century, white European settlers flowed into the Valley of Virginia in two distinct streams. One, pouring south along the Shenandoah River, was a hardy race of Scotch-Irish and Germans. The other, trickling westward through gaps in the Blue Ridge Mountains, was English, from the genteel lands of Tidewater and Piedmont. The confluence of these two streams has at times been turbulent.

     The earliest known settler near the junction of Quicquid Creek and Willow Branch was Joseph Happ. A member of a German pietist sect called Die Bewegung (The Movement) similar to the Mennonites and Moravians, Happ established a grist mill here before 1750. He and his extended family had farms in the area. Other names that appear in sparse documents and on weathered gravestones include Michael, Heinrich and Johan Happ, as well as their spouses Anna, Emma and Sophia-Magdalena.

     Happ’s mill stood where an existing road running north and south crossed the creek at a ford. Perhaps derived from an Indian trail or a deer track, this road was ungraded and unpaved, a natural route to the future. Stirred by talk of great cities sprouting in the wilderness, Joseph Happ aimed to capitalize on his location. In the spring of 1750, on a relatively flat portion of his land, an unknown surveyor staked a small grid of streets. This was the usual layout for a frontier settlement, with the existing road as Main Street. About thirty years later, as the area population grew, Quidnunc County was formed and named for the local Indian tribe.

     The Quidnunc were a branch of the Algonquins who occupied the eastern Atlantic coastal region. Here they came into conflict with the Iroquois, who expanded aggressively from the north. In the incessant tribal warfare of the time, the Quidnunc fared poorly. When the whites arrived, they were ready to deal. Unlike the stock image of the taciturn warrior, the Quidnunc were talkative—incorrigible gossips, according to one account. Visited by rival missionaries, including a French Jesuit who wandered in from the Great Lakes, they readily learned English and converted to Christianity. Like other Native Americans, however, they lacked immunity to diseases brought from Europe. By 1800, through intermarriage and natural decline, they had vanished as an identifiable group. All that remains are a few place names and dialect words, and a local dish that resembles Brunswick stew.

     The struggling village, which was identified on early maps as Hapbrucke, Happ’s Bridge or Hapsborough, acquired a new importance as the county seat. It incorporated as the Town of Hapsburg in 1783, the same year the Peace of Paris concluded the Revolutionary War. A courthouse was begun at once and completed the following year. Nothing is known about this structure, which may have been of rough-hewn logs, beyond complaints that it was drafty. It was replaced in 1799 by another wooden structure of which a sketch survives, showing a simple quadrilateral. In 1832, citizens raised money through a lottery to erect a neoclassical temple in red brick. This is substantially the building we see today. The block in which it stands was reserved as a public square or park, which attracted law offices, churches and public buildings to its perimeter. Now the center of town, Court Square is a classic set piece of urban design and a sterling example of Southern taste.

     Hapsburg developed as a market center for agricultural products, as well as for legal business. The coming of the railroad in 1856 accelerated the trend. Roads were improved, more land was cleared, and the population grew. A crude wooden bridge over the creek was replaced by a stone and iron span in 1858. Businesses gravitated to an ill-defined area known as the Corner, where Main Street turned to meet the bridge. What promised to be a period of increase and prosperity was then rudely interrupted.

     The Civil War of 1861-1865 spared Hapsburg from the wholesale destruction visited on cities like Fredericksburg and Richmond. Yet the Shenandoah Valley was the scene of three major campaigns and innumerable skirmishes. One of these, which took place in a field north of town in 1864, came to be known as the Hapsburg Engagement. Two foraging parties, one from each side, met by chance. Hoping to seize whatever supplies the other had scrounged, the parties exchanged verbal threats. A shot was fired—from which side could never be determined. More shots attracted nearby troops, and the scuffle escalated. The result was inconclusive, with few casualties. Nevertheless, local volunteers stage a reenactment each year, and the colorful event attracts onlookers and photographers.

     For lack of material and manpower, the mills on Quicquid Creek closed during the war. In 1866, an enterprising man named Raphael Poindexter arrived from Massachusetts. With access to bankers in Boston, Poindexter acquired control of the mills, reorganized the operation, and launched the Hapsburg Iron Works. At first, it produced rails, spikes, struts and stanchions for the rapidly expanding railroads. Then it moved into rolling stock and machine parts. The foundry, as it was informally known, grew to become the town’s major employer in the late nineteenth century.

     As his fortune rose, Poindexter bought the Belle Meade estate from its impoverished heirs. The mansion on Water Street faced the town, while the garden extended down to the creek, with a view of his industrial empire on the far bank. Anxious parents introduced the forty-year old bachelor to all the eligible maidens in the county, but he remained unswayed. Perceiving a need for “a more literate and rational helpmeet,” he started a school “for the edification of young ladies, especially those in reduced circumstances.”

     Poindexter wrote to relatives in New England to inquire if an adventurous professor might be available. They sent a recent graduate of Harvard, one who had dodged conscription in the Union Army by reason of “impaired bowels due to excessive study.” Henry Aires became the first headmaster as well as the entire faculty. He made a remarkable recovery in the fresh air of the valley, where the food was also an improvement over Boston baked beans and cod.

     The Poindexter Female Academy occupied a former overseer’s house and threshing barn on the estate. In the course of years, the mansion became Founders Hall, new buildings were added, and the Belle Meade property was transformed into a campus.

     The Poindexter Girls, as they were dubbed, combined academic subjects with useful arts such as sewing, cooking and household management. In what struck contemporaries as a startling innovation, they participated in sports and gymnastics. Their reputation spread, and they were sought after as brides. Poindexter himself married an early graduate, Lucy Fox from Staunton, who then bore seven children in seven years. Aires followed suit, marrying a raven-haired beauty named Sarah Pike, said to be part Indian, who also proved to be prolific. Their girls attended the school, and descendants continue the tradition.

     The academy became a college, and the college hired qualified women to teach. Following Aires’s retirement in 1896, Poindexter College chose as its president Minerva Watkins, a capable mathematician and formidable horsewoman. Her full-length portrait, dressed in riding habit and boots, hangs in Founders Hall. It has been an inspiration to generations of students, including the present writer. In the 1920s the curriculum expanded, with the addition of liberal arts, modern languages and music. To this day, however, each student must acquire a “marketable skill” in order to graduate. While not on a social par with other Virginia women’s colleges, Poindexter attracts girls who are determined to succeed.

     To meet the needs of commercial travelers and summer visitors seeking escape from the big city, the Hotel Shenandoah was erected in 1898, near the railroad depot and bordering Quicquid Creek. A huge, wooden structure with three-story porches and rambling additions, the hotel boasted an elegant dining room, a bowling alley, and a theater for the presentation of lectures and vaudeville shows. In its heyday, it was the center of social life. It attracted luminaries such as Theodore Roosevelt, on a hunting trip, and the Canadian singer-actress-comedy star May Irwin. The hotel lost business through the 1930s, revived fitfully, and closed in 1966. It burned to the ground in a spectacular fire in 1997, one year short of its centennial. The vacant lot is now the site of a weekly Farmers’ Market and the staging ground for the annual Mayday Parade.

     The Hapsburg Iron Works adapted to a changing economy through the twentieth century. During World War 2, it experienced a boom. The company produced metal parts for the Norfolk shipyards, and filled orders for tanks and other military equipment. Decline set in during the 1950s. By the 1990s the physical plant was outmoded and mostly idle. It fell victim to a series of corporate mergers, and early in this century it was shuttered for good. The great brick mills, stripped of machinery, with abandoned yards, raceways and sheds, await a new vision to bring them back to life.

     To house mill workers, the town added rowhouses, double-deckers, and rental apartments. Largely intact, this housing stock avoided the monotony and wretchedness associated with its type, hinting at an enlightened paternalism by the Poindexters and their successors. Gingerbread adorns even the humblest dwellings, and front porches are ubiquitous. Throughout America, people once sat on their porches on a summer evening and chatted with neighbors. In Hapsburg, they still do.

     Apart from an unsightly sprawl of automobile dealers, motels, liquor stores and nightclubs to the southwest, an area known as the Strip, Hapsburg has not seen significant growth since 1950. Built primarily of red brick, with gray slate roofs, white neoclassical columns, and black wrought iron railings in a bewildering variety of designs, the town seems to slumber, arrested in time. Church steeples dominate the skyline, with the baroque dome of Town Hall playing against the severe lines of the Courthouse, all softened by plantings of box and crape myrtle. Cobblestone streets surround Court Square, while Main Street offers shops, dining and art studios in actual nineteenth-century interiors.

     Mature oaks and beeches shade the sidewalks. Residents tend their gardens, which yield a profusion of vegetables, herbs, and flowers, especially antique roses. Competition among gardeners is keen, and neighbors are quick to point out a broken fence or a weedy border. The Garden Club sponsors an annual spring gala, when private gardens are thrown open to the public, or at least to those who had the forethought to buy a ticket. Informal walking groups led by volunteers are a frequent sight in the summer months.

     Hapsburg has achieved recognition as an Authentic Southern Town, is listed as a Designated Picturesque Landmark, and is regularly included among the 100 Best Places to Reside. The Chamber of Commerce and the Quidnunc County Visitors’ Bureau are both active. A website has been discussed. Visitors exclaim on the beauty of the physical setting, with mountain ranges to east and west covered in mature forest. The flowering trees in spring and the red and gold leaves in fall are especially attractive.

     The Historical Society promotes public education on issues of preservation and adaptive reuse from its offices in the Lyceum, an eclectic structure that has at various times sheltered a library, a debate club, the Knights of Pythias, and literary lectures. The Society also remembers worthy figures of the past, whose descendants still live among us.

     Churches are the key to ethnic groups. St. Giles Episcopal, the oldest structure in continuous use for worship, stands for the English, while Lane Presbyterian and First Baptist compete for a crowd of Scotch-Irish. Brickfront United Methodist harbors those of Welsh and Border heritage, and Paraclete Catholic has a motley group from all over. Black slaves were few in the area, but their descendants persist, as indicated by the Ebenezer Mission Chapel. Church attendance is high, choral singing is a cherished local tradition, and the ability to read music is second only to respect for the printed word.

     If the pace of life is slow, and prospects for the younger generation limited, Hapsburgers are content. They take the world on their own terms, and the world returns the favor. Tourists are welcome to visit, and they are invariably charmed by the experience. Accommodations are few, however, beyond the Tea Cozy Bed & Breakfast and the Budget Motel. Those contemplating an extended stay are advised to seek out relatives or make private arrangements. As for real estate, it is next to impossible to buy property. When a rare listing does appear, someone who has long coveted it is apt to pounce.




About the Author: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, website boucheronarch.com. His stories, essays and book reviews are in Atticus Review, Bangalore Review, Digital Americana, Harvard Review, New Orleans Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Poydras Review, Work, and other magazines.

Firefighter by Robert Boucheron

     Daddy didn’t want any more children, because they would probably be boys, and the army would take them. In the 1960s, feelings ran high over conflict in Asia. So they stopped with me and Carol Ann, my older sister.

     Older by a scant year, but more gifted in the looks department. That was the general opinion around town. Of the Metzger sisters, she was the one to watch. From the start, she was Mama’s favorite—blonde, chubby, simpering and giggling. She was a happy baby, whereas I was thin and colicky and cried all the time. As if that was my fault. I was also dark, and not just my hair and eyes. It was one of those things that babies grow out of, but it was disconcerting.
     
     Daddy couldn’t stand by and watch me suffer. He took me on like a 4-H project. His mother died right after he was born, and his father vowed to honor her memory. That was all well and good, but a man who worked full time and had never changed a diaper was ill-equipped for single parenting. The children were farmed out to foster parents. Mrs. Gilman raised her lamb to fear God and hope for mercy.

     “I was grateful for her care,” Daddy said. At age sixteen he went to work for his father.

     Barbara Susan was my given name. Early on it contracted to Bobbie Sue. This caused Mama no end of grief. Bobbie Sue sounded like a low-class girl, someone who had dirt behind her ears and ran around barefoot in torn blue jeans. Which was an accurate description of me in the summer. I liked to climb trees and ride my bicycle and explore the creek with Tommy Cantrell. These activities did not appeal to Carol Ann, who favored dolls and crafts.

     As soon as I could go anywhere, about age five, Daddy took me to his construction sites. He was a brick mason and house builder, like his father before him. They also built the Brickfront Methodist Church, the office block that has the Dime Drugstore on Main Street, and the addition to the Town Hall. If you see a brick structure in Hapsburg from after 1940, chances are good that Metzger and Sons built it.

     Once I started school, the site visits were confined to Saturday morning. Daddy dragged me out of bed at the crack of dawn, fed me a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage and grits, and hoisted me into the cab of his pickup truck. He always worked Saturdays, even if his crew had the day off. He needed the exercise, he said, or his muscles would go stiff. Daddy was of medium height but strong from all the heavy lifting. His arms and legs were as thick as tree limbs. He always wore long pants and a long-sleeve shirt, so I never saw them until one family vacation when we went swimming in Bluenose Lake.

     I loved walking on bare joists, climbing rickety ladders, and crawling through rafters. The wood frame of a new house was a jungle gym, as far as I was concerned. A rope left hanging in the structure was as good as a vine. I grabbed it and swung, doing an imitation of Tarzan’s yell, up an octave.

     Daddy wasn’t worried about me getting hurt. That was the charm. He saw that I was no dare-devil and let me play to my heart’s content. Only once did he warn me against something, and that was later, when he taught me to drive.

     “Bobbie Sue, if you come to a stretch of road that’s flooded such that you can’t see bottom, turn around. There’s a pit waiting for the fool that tries to cross.”

     Daddy taught me how to mix mortar, lift a hod, snap a chalk line and so forth, so I could be his mason’s helper on Saturday. I was so proud, even if it was tiring. Daddy wanted to build up my strength, as I was naturally thin and small. I never did put much meat on my bones. That was not the point, he said.

     “Work as you are able. That’s all the Lord will ask.”

     Mama wasn’t keen on this construction labor, but they didn’t have a boy for Daddy to train. Anyway, she had Carol Ann to mold into her idea of a lady. That was my lucky escape. Not that I got off scot free. There were lectures on behavior and what was expected of a young woman.

     “Expected by who?” I asked.

     “Whom is grammatically correct, and don’t talk back to your mother. When you’re out in the world, you can ask all the questions you want.”

     Carol Ann had it worse, since expectations were higher. She was a cheerleader and a field hockey forward, though she hated sports, and a future homemaker, though she loathed wearing an apron. We both had to learn our way around the kitchen. Mama was an equal opportunity tyrant when it came to that.

     To the extent that Daddy had a hobby, it was firefighting. From the time he could wield an axe, he was a volunteer on the Hapsburg Fire Brigade. He took me to houses he was raising, and he took me to houses burning down. When I was little, he planted me next to the firetruck, just inside the yellow tape barrier, and told me not to budge. They equipped me with a helmet and a yellow slicker, and they gave me badge number 13, which was too special for anyone else.

     “You’re our mascot,” they said. “Instead of a Dalmatian, we have Bobbie Sue.”

     House fires generally happen at night. This made it convenient for Daddy and the other men to rush to the scene, since they didn’t have to leave work. And a fire looks better against a black sky—the bright flames and billowing clouds of smoke. As I got older, both parents were less thrilled about me going to fires, especially on a school night. Once I sneaked out anyway, ran to the station where everyone knew me, hopped on the firetruck, and rode with the siren wailing in my ears. When Daddy saw me at the blaze, he was mad, but he couldn’t leave to take me home, so I stayed. I was grounded for a week.

     We had a piano in the house, though neither of my parents played. It was a standard upright, a parlor piano that Mama inherited from her family. She decided that Carol Ann would take lessons when she was age ten. Unfortunately, Carol Ann had no musical aptitude. She was forced to practice, and we were forced to listen. Her lessons ended in tears as often as not. At the end of a year, Mama admitted defeat.

     Meanwhile, I begged for piano lessons. I was allowed to watch Carol Ann’s so long as I kept quiet. Then I practiced on my own. When Carol Ann’s year was up, Mrs. Reynolds started teaching me instead. She made me unlearn everything. I held my hands in the wrong position, I used the wrong fingering, and I couldn’t keep a steady rhythm.

     Mrs. Reynolds had a wooden ruler and she used it. She beat time on top of the piano, and she rapped my fingers when I made a mistake. In the beginning, she also held it under my wrists so I would arch, and she held it vertically to my back so I would sit up straight. Now and then, she hit me on the top of my head, to remind me to think.

     Daddy and Mama never beat us, but they approved of Mrs. Reynolds’s instructional method. Whether or not pain was a motivating influence, I was a quick learner. After the first year, the ruler limited itself to marking time and waving in the air. I progressed rapidly through John Thompson’s Modern Course. My practice time was first thing in the morning, before school. That way, I was limited to forty-five minutes, which was the recommended daily maximum for a child. To her credit, Mama supervised me, though it meant neglecting her chores.

     By the time I reached high school, I wanted to join the fire brigade. Daddy said my hands were too precious. I was no longer allowed to handle bricks and mortar or to roam a construction site, even if I wore thick gloves. By then, I was busy with academic studies and other activities. I was assistant pianist to the school chorus, and I played rehearsals for amateur shows.

     My junior year, Mrs. Reynolds invited me to take organ lessons, a rare distinction. As soon as I got my hands on the organ console at First Baptist, I was hooked. A slender, serious girl of sixteen, with long brown hair and glasses, I was just tall enough to reach the organ pedals. Once a week, I skipped gym class and walked to the church for my lesson. She was never one to praise, but it was clear what she thought. Women were scarce as keyboard performers. She was grooming me.

     I went off to college at Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, where I was a music major. At the time, there were no auditions. Piano students were assigned to faculty at random. I showed up for my first lesson and played a sonata. The teacher was an older woman who knew nothing about me.

     “You learned from Reynolds,” she said. “I’d know that style anywhere, clean and precise. You have the technique. Now we’re going to work on drama.”

     It was an interesting four years. My idea of drama was different from what the faculty held dear. In a nutshell, they liked Liszt, while I preferred Beethoven. Senior year, we compromised on Rachmaninoff. Another issue was concert performance, the possibility of a solo career.

     “The public wants power and dazzle,” they said. “Concert pianists are generally men with upper-body strength. Your hands are too small.”

     It was true that I weighed less than a hundred pounds, but I was not ready to give up. For two years, I studied organ at Baylor University. The organist is often invisible to the audience, and electronic tracking from the keyboard to the pipes makes gender and body size irrelevant. The only woman in the program, I proved that I had all the strength it took to produce a glorious sound. My parents drove to Waco, Texas for my graduation recital, then drove me and my belongings back to Virginia.

     That fall, the Hapsburg Public Schools had an opening for a music teacher. I slipped into it, guessing it would do for a year or two. Then Mrs. Reynolds retired from First Baptist, and I stepped into her shoes. Literally, since she left them at the organ console, the thin-soled patent leather shoes she wore for playing pedal. Not only that, I inherited her private students. These part-time jobs kept me busy.

     I still lived with my parents. Carol Ann had left for nursing school, and then some graduate business courses. It turned out that she had a head for numbers and a real talent for getting things done. She wound up in hospital administration in Fairfax and visited on weekends. I didn’t consider dating or setting up on my own or much of anything, when a young man showed up in the Singles Class at First Baptist.

     Kent Taylor was six years younger, a materials engineer. He came from a musical family, played piano a little, and sang in a sweet bass register. Due to the age difference, I paid him no mind. He asked me out to lunch or a movie, and I made excuses. It was lodged firmly in my head that he was interested in Carol Ann and wanted to pump me for information. I also thought his name was Ken, because he ran the two names together, and I didn’t hear the T. For professional reasons, I had switched to Barbara. So Kent knew me as Barbara, students knew me as Miss Metzger, and a dwindling cohort knew me as Bobbie Sue.

     After persistent phone calls, Mama drew me aside.

     “It’s you he’s after, not Carol Ann. Why don’t you invite him for dinner?”

     The morning of the day we settled on, snow began to fall. It turned into a blizzard, one of the deepest snowfalls on record. Kent was not deterred. He arrived on cross country skis that afternoon, and we played in the snow. We slid downhill on saucers and rolled off. He tried to explain the properties of crystalline water in a loose packing arrangement, as opposed to solid ice, while I pelted him with snowballs.

     Mama cooked pot roast, which was and is his favorite. He addressed Daddy as Sir, which went down well. He had worked for a carpenter one summer, so they talked construction. He stayed overnight in Carol Ann’s room. The next morning was clear and sunny. After breakfast, he helped Daddy shovel snow. Then he strapped on his skis and went home.

     A proposal followed. We got married in May, after the school year was over, and after Mama and I had time to arrange the wedding and find an apartment. Daddy built us a house that summer, the same brick house on Hill Street where we live today. It was his last construction project. He retired that fall and turned the company over to a nephew, another Metzger, so the name stayed the same. In the course of nature, Kent and I had a boy, and then another. We named the first one William after Daddy, and the second one Robert after Mr. Taylor. We call them Billy and Bobby.

     Soon after the boys were born, Daddy passed away. He was only 65, but a lifetime of hard work wore him out, and he wasn’t one to linger. We buried him in Riverview, made sure Mama was comfortable, and got on with our lives. I was busy teaching, playing organ, and raising a family. The event didn’t sink in.

     A week or so after the funeral, I woke in the middle of the night for no reason. Normally, I sleep like a log, through barking dogs and thunderstorms. If Kent or one of the boys needs something they have to shake me with both hands. So this was strange. The house was quiet. In the dark, I padded barefoot to the bedroom window.

     Hill Street is elevated with a view of the whole town. The sky was bright to the southwest. I heard the distant wail of a siren. A large building had caught fire near the railroad. It had to be the Hotel Shenandoah, a rambling wooden structure from 1888, once a resort for city folks but long vacant.

     I threw on a coat and boots and drove to the scene. I parked and stood outside the yellow tape, next to the firetruck. I was shivering, and tears were streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t know why, but I had to be there. Chief Wilcox found me and gave me a hug.

     “It’s okay, Bobbie Sue. It’s okay. This heap of kindling was due for a bonfire. All it needed was a spark. We can’t save it, so we’ll let it burn to the ground. You’re welcome to watch from here, or you can sit in the cab. Might be you’ll catch more of the action up there.”

     A half hour later, there was a tremendous crash, with flames and cinders shooting up in the sky like a Roman candle. The structure had collapsed. From that point on, it was a smoking, smoldering mess.

     “The show is over,” Chief Wilcox said. “We have to stay until morning, in case it flares up. You go home now and rest. In the future, if you want to join as a firefighter, we will be proud to vote you in.”

     My husband was one hundred percent in favor. I took the state-mandated training course and passed the examination. With Kent and the boys at my side, I was inducted in the Hapsburg Fire Brigade. They gave me Daddy’s old badge number, a two-way dispatch radio which I keep on top of the piano, and a certificate.

     Skeptics may note that I can squeeze into tight spaces those burly men cannot. I have rescued cats, dogs, caged birds, and a six-foot anaconda. My volunteer activities do not interfere with my music, and vice versa.

     Billy and Bobby never took to the piano. When they were little, they liked to sit with me on the bench. They were fascinated by the dispatch radio. Much better was the big, red firetruck, which they got to climb all over when we visited the station.

     Mama worries about risk, but that’s what the training is for, I tell her. Carol Ann does not approve. Due to high standards and an intimidating position at the hospital, she is still unmarried. We are working on her.



About the Author: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, website boucheronarch.com. His stories, essays, poems and book reviews appear in Atticus Review, Black Heart, Construction, Cossack Review, Digital Americana, Foliate Oak, Milo Review, Montreal Review, Mouse Tales Press, New England Review, New Orleans Review, The New Poet, Niche, North Dakota Quarterly, Pachinko, Piedmont Virginian, Poydras Review, Talking Writing, Virginia Business.