When Jennie comes home, she sashays audaciously through the rooms of the old farmhouse, winding through one room then the next, swinging her hips in slow wide arcs. She takes all the time given her and a minute more, this her moment on stage.
She is fresh from summer stock, A Season of Tennessee Williams in Traverse Bay, and though summer is now past and September nearly lost, a day of warm weather has come back with her. I sit at my worktable shaping a single staircase balustrade from old stock I found in the one outbuilding left, the old outhouse converted long ago to garden shed. How I wish the henhouse still stood, the old smokehouse, the corn cribs. How I wish there was yet the big barn.
I ask Jennie how the bus was from Traverse Bay. I must speak first because Jennie is busy sizing up the place. Every piece of furniture, every book, every light bulb. She touches nothing but comes perilously close with her swinging hips. She asks why we just have books. Why never any magazines? She says this without malice but in all honest inquiry. I believe she wants to know. But she asks it with that Southern lilt she started to affect months ago before she left. I tell her that her hips look bigger in those jeans. Food on the road’s bad news I say and is she aware of this? This is malice and not honest inquiry. Jennie tried her hand to match me at outright meanness early on. A sort of jiu-jitsu of the cranky. But it laid her sad and low right away because it was not her way. It is not Jennie’s way. She smiles and wraps her hair carelessly around a finger and continues her slow weave through the house and knows that by the time she’s done with her circuit I will have forgiven her for going away.
From my window in the old dining room alcove I can see across the garden and into the kitchen wing. Jennie is standing at the kitchen sink now. Not doing the dishes though. Jennie does not do dishes. Something about the actress’s hands. Something about Lillian Gish. She is looking out at the new houses that surround us, all the McMansions situated haphazardly on curling cul-de-sacs. They are like so much blown litter across the fields, no two facing the exact same direction on the compass. A few are still being built, though this started well before I met Jennie and while my grandmother still seethed good air. It continued with stops and starts through the years, depending upon the greedy inhales and exhales of investors and traders and profiteers. But through it all the old farmhouse stood. My grandmother’s old farmhouse and no one else’s. And it still stands now by virtue of the Trust. Twice since my grandmother’s death, as tiny cracks formed in my imagination, it has been stripped and resurfaced and repainted with the best oils available by hired professionals. The grounds or what is left of the grounds are maintained weekly by a contracted crew. The maintenance, the utilities, the taxes, room and board of the caretaker (me) are all are paid by the Trust. It is true that early on I nurtured fancies of depleting the Trust when finally given the chance. Of bringing down financial ruin upon all (me) and thus releasing its indentured (me). But the Trust remains solid and whole, a firmly balanced instrument against all turpitude. It stands day in day out against the spreading mansarded McMansion rooflines the rising sun unveils in the old haying fields across the road and the setting sun bows out in the dimming back forty.
Jennie disappears from the kitchen window and I can hear her behind me again. Faint shuffling noises. Little dances with her feet. Figures drawn on the wood floors with her toes. Perhaps these are gestures she used in Summer and Smoke. Then she speaks. She asks do I know what she has been thinking? I know she will tell me because Jennie tells me all things as she’s thinking them. That I need new clothes for the winter she says. That I don’t need to go out in public with stains and splatters on every shirt and on every pair of pants I own. Like the ones I’m wearing now. Just look at myself. That I take this house with me when I go out. Surely, I do. And try as she might to reserve at least one clean shirt, I always find it. Yes, I do. Put it on to fix this ignorant old thing of a farmhouse even when it’s perfect as it is with nothing to be fixed. Oh fiddle-dee-dee. Do I know all this? I say I forget and that’s all I say. She says be that as it may but she’s picked up some nice winter clothes up north for me. And smart, too. I’ll look real smart in these clothes, honeybun. Smart I say. Honeybun I say. The rhythm of the spokeshave does not stutter.
I find that manual tools are more satisfactory when working on pieces for the old house. And I am a quick study. I pick up technique easily. For instance. I have picked up this technique of being a curmudgeon like that (snap) while Jennie is away. But I also find that there is no spark in what I do (spark). No lilt. No sway. No smile. Not even a post-modern smirk. I am the enlightened amateur. No degree. No affiliation. No structured education. Attached to only the Trust. Able to reach the second shelf and no higher, unable to make out the labels beyond the first. In this way I am like all farmers who have always known a little bit of everything to survive and maintain. Though I am without a farm, this house all I can claim. Mostly it claims me.
That’s right (Jennie goes on and how she does go on), she’ll keep the new clothes and dole them out when it’s the proper time to wear them. These new smart clothes. Lock and key. And I know why that is now don’t I, young man? I say I’m sure I don’t know what she means. Oh, fiddle-dee-dee. Fiddle-dee-dee. Her arms are around my chest now from behind and the spokeshave slows and slows. She has slipped off my glasses, the flexible old wire rim types, my grandfather’s. Her breath is in my ear. She knows the right words this Jennie. Fiddle-dee-dee.
When my father and mother died in a car on Lakeshore in Chicago I was still a babe in arms. My grandmother claimed me. She also claimed a certain recklessness on my father’s part, an overreaching. Summa cum laude. MBA. Chicago Board of Trade. In the aftermath she viewed all institutions as culpable. So in the grief that lasted the rest of their years, my grandmother seethed against all institutions and establishments and ambitions, while my grandfather simply worried against the rotation of the world until he could no longer bear the thought of leaving me and me alone all his fields and the unending work to be done. So he maneuvered and hatched and played chicken for months on end with local land developers and even the university up in this university town until the developers won out for all the acreage of the farm. The land and the farm and farmhouses on it had been in my grandmother’s family for many generations. But a distinction had always been made between the two. This particular house was built by her father for his bride and put in her name and then passed down in my grandmother’s name. But the acreage, the farmable land itself, was always put in the man’s name even if come to by institution of marriage. My grandfather signed the papers one fine morning in town without warning. As a surprise, I suspect. And it was. No doubt he was feeling a bit relieved and even happy when he entered the kitchen with his proud announcement. He left the kitchen defeated and dead within a year and not really knowing what hit him.
In our bath it seems Jennie and I talk about everything at once. There is too much. Too much that has happened without the other, Jennie acting far away and I who refuse to use a cellphone. Jennie holds on to my legs impossibly tight as if we were in a toboggan. When she left at the end of May I faced the drawn-out days of summer without her and felt the ghosted resentment of my grandmother creeping over my solitary flesh. I believe it found me easily in the dark of the old farmhouse with no other heart in it but mine. I still believe that a little as I sit with Jennie in our watery nest. But I am more whole now. I kiss the top of her head and smell her hair. She asks if I’m still making furniture and I ask if she’s seen the front rooms. A lot of sexual energy pent up in those rooms. Nary an inch for another chair against the walls. She asks so have I tried to sell any of them? But I say nothing. She pinches my leg to get me to talk and then, as if thinking better, rubs it vigorously and holds on tighter and leans her head on my knee. Jennie says she thinks I should start selling my chairs and tables. My handiwork. My craft. Sell them at market. I should do this. I say nothing. This Jennie needs to wise up.
My grandmother’s farmhouse has been swallowed and we are part of the sprawl. Even the bus line of this university town now reaches us. It didn’t when I was a boy. When I was a boy our nearest neighbors were still a mile away. Lately, I have discovered I enjoy having a life that reaches into another time. I am in my early thirties but I remember when, a fogey before my time. So after our bath Jennie and I take the bus into town for a day of it. Yes, the old Ford pickup is ready and parked by the front door as if in a postcard, but I consider it part of the farmhouse and don’t move it and, like the house, spare no expense on its maintenance. But there is also the question of my eyes to drive. They come and go, though that is debatable on Jennie’s part. She thinks it is my imagination or a kind of martyrdom. Or, worse, a self-inflicted possession brought on by my insistence on my grandfather’s glasses. We do not speak much of this matter, either.
A kind of brown shell has settled around town and it feels that if we rode the bus through all the stops to the end of the line we’d hit the shell head-on somewhere out where the sprawl stops. The weather is changing in a serious way and as always I take the weather as a portending. How long can Jennie and I last together? I say I suppose it’s inevitable, though I just meant to think that. Jennie asks what’s inevitable? I am trapped now and say the weather. The weather I say. She points out how cold it was getting in Traverse Bay. But that wasn’t what I was talking about, was it? I say well, if not the weather then marriage and relationships and the lasting thereof. Inevitable. Like a winter coat in the spring when you suddenly realize it’s spring and you’ve been wearing it too long and you just have to take it off. You just have to. You’re baking and you’d like to drop it right there on the sidewalk and walk on. I have taken off my grandfather’s glasses now to polish them in hopes that Jennie will not seek out my eyes. She asks like that, huh? I answer like that, huh. Jennie says well, we’re eternal not inevitable. We’re eternal. Again, I say nothing and she pinches my arm.
The bus rounds a corner and I slip on the wire glasses and hook them carefully around my ears. I say that it’s the end of the month and does she know that? The penny slowly rolls and drops. So does Jennie’s face. I point out that it doesn’t take long. Mr Detweiler is good about seeing me right away and that he wants to get through the dance and be done with it as badly as I do. Jennie says she hates Mr Detweiler’s waiting room. It’s the magazines she says. Awful. American Lawyer. Advocacy. The Bar. Then The Angler and Cigar Aficionado. Like that’s the fun alternatives slipped in there. The Angler. I say then come in with me. She says no, that she has tried that once too often, that it only feels like Mr Detweiler and she are ganging up on me, that the dynamics of our characters and of our roles are too tense and too wrought she says. The Rule of Three is in effect. I didn’t know there was such a Rule I say. Jennie says fiddle-dee-dee.
A more intricate trust he has never seen says Mr Detweiler. He opens with this very phrase each month. I believe Grandmother wrote the actual words into Mr Detweiler’s part and he thinks I would be disappointed if he did not speak them. And maybe I would. It is Mr Detweiler’s duty to check up on me and to see that I am living up to the terms of the Trust. And I must check up on him and on this Mr Detweiler insists. Not that he isn’t above reproach in my eyes. But it is all part of my role as caretaker for my grandmother’s farmhouse. I must serve as steward for the farmhouse and what little remaining land (Grandmother’s words, Grandmother’s italics) the farmhouse sits on. Mr Detweiler reads all this from the file in front of him and does so slowly as if it is a poem he is reciting. He relishes its cadence and the break of each line on the paper and the plain yet acidly direct words my grandmother insisted on. He certainly must know it by heart by now. Still, he reads slowly. I must live in the farmhouse as a full-time resident. I must live on the interest and only the interest. The principal of the Trust must not be touched unless it is for the maintenance and preservation of the farmhouse. I must live only by whatever my own hands produce without regular pay from a third-party employer. I must avoid all institutions. Corporate, spiritual, educational, or otherwise. There are other intricate and minor clauses. Many others. But Mr Detweiler confines himself to the opening few paragraphs. I get the drift every month. I am the farmhouse and the farmhouse is me. So Grandmother in her wisdom cursed or blessed me. Her trust. Her reasons. The whole deal is a well-designed cage, an intricate mechanism as designed by a seething old woman. We are comfortable here but not too comfortable. We will remain comfortable here as long as I shed all ambition. Of course I talk here only of myself. Jennie may leave. Some day this Jennie needs to wise up.
And now comes the time when Mr Detweiler talks more casually as if in a heart-to-heart. He leans out over his desk and pushes the papers of the Trust aside. The old lawyer intones. That trust is a weighing of options. A determination of the value of a friendship. A hope of continued reliance. A wish of continued goodwill between parties. I do not believe my grandmother wrote this part. The old lawyer might have gleaned it from Black’s but I can tell he relishes these words as much if not more than my grandmother’s. And while not required of me I feel that I must nod gravely. Mr Detweiler seems more than willing to bend the Trust if not outright break it. And now is the time he opens himself to conspiracy. He fears no ghosts nor curses. But then neither do I. It is no matter of fear. It is just fine training by my grandmother. Or maybe it is simply love. It is the Trust. The interest is doing well in the bear market for some reason again known only to my dead grandmother. The principal has been put into counter-market investments out of her contrariness. Mr Detweiler seems pleased for me, pleased for the mushrooming of these discretionary funds and for the boon of interest the Trust is bearing me. He reminds me again that the interest is there for me to use and that I should not be afraid of the interest and to tap into the vastness of the interest. And that I should be (here he chooses his word carefully) I should be expansive (Mr Detweiler’s italics, not Grandmother’s) in my use of the Trust Itself for the preservation of the farmhouse and remaining land. A tractor, perhaps? A new truck? A new water filter system for the kitchen? Wire the place for the internet? He would not object. I thank him and say that yes, I know that. I’ve been ruminating several plans for the old homestead. But we live cheaply, Jennie and I. I am non-committal. He seems sad for me now as if I am bearing a Herculean burden. But these are our roles in the Trust. Parts in our monthly matinee. He pities. I shrug and smile. I ask his forgiveness and say I’ve always been a cautious one. Mr Detweiler likes that I ask his forgiveness and that I’m cautious. I assure him I’ve been thinking on the matter. But all within the strict wording of the Trust, I add quickly. I shuffle out per my stage direction to the waiting room where Jennie has a stack of magazines in her lap and a disgusted look on her face. We leave but when we get to the street she says she forgot her purse and goes back in. Jennie does not carry a purse.
We wait at a crosswalk and the light changes to a white walking figure but I do not move. It changes back to a red stationary figure. I draw Jennie close to me and it is my turn to grip her arm tightly. I say I have to call in for a load of grading for the winding drive. You have to keep an eye on that drive. Always gets bad after a rain. Always did. The earth just swallows it up. And then I am quiet as Jennie and I walk again. Jennie is quiet, too. It is as if she knows things about me that I do not. It is as if Jennie knows now is the time we are quiet. Now is the time we walk after seeing about the Trust.
Grandmother slipped away quickly on that gravel drive until by the time we turned on to the county road she was a wisp. I remember riding in the back of the ambulance with her and listening to the crunch underneath. Only the year before, the Historical Society put a plaque next to the front door. We were a month’s featured farm on the Historical Society Calendar that year. April. Postcards of the farmhouse were sold in the Society’s gift shop and at convenient locations around town. Grandmother had me buy several score. I enclosed them with the Christmas cards that year as she faded away in her room. My grandmother deserved better. You just had to ask her. So much shame. So much loss. Which left her me. Her charge and responsibility. She would look at me after reciting the shames and losses of her life and shake her head. I believe she was waiting for me to break out in some sudden hive on my forehead in the form of a one word label. Gluttony. Avarice. Lust. But so far I am shameless. Jennie and I walk and are quiet. Loneliness will lead you down bad roads without end, I think of saying out loud and maybe I do. It’s hard to tell anymore. But rain has started and the temperature has plummeted. I wish I were home watching my grandfather’s old barometer he bought from a Great Lakes captain so that I can confirm the weather and make sure of the world around us and make sure of Jennie and me. Then Jennie says let’s go find our garden. I say our garden? Jennie says yes. Our garden. Our little green space. Our courtyard. So we go looking for the courtyard of our first meeting.
That one summer night many years before, my grandmother recently passed, I rambled around the university between the grand stone buildings she had barred me from. I was looking for something. I was seeking anything other than the old farmhouse. I sat for days in the libraries with books piled around me. No direction but all directions. Then I would stagger out into the night. This warm midsummer night I heard rumblings from over a tall unkempt hedge of boxwood and when I finally discovered the hedge’s labyrinthic opening I discovered Jennie spotlit in the moonlight. She was dressed in a bright Hello Kitty t-shirt and cut-off shorts and was reciting lines from a sheaf of pages in one hand, her other arm raised above her head with dagger in hand. Lady Macbeth. Did she look mad? insane? she asked when she finally took notice of me because that was what she was going for. Completely off her rocker. I said she was pretty close. I didn’t know what to make of her and still don’t. She was understudying in the fall and I shouldn’t mind the dagger because though it was real (she lightly plucked the end) to get just the right feel she had no intention of using it on me and what was my major because hers was a double. Theater and Dance. I said Bitterness and Regret. Come, come, come, come give me your hand said Jennie extending her arm toward me in the moonlight. What’s done cannot be undone.
But in the now of now I say my glasses are foggy. I say not to lose me. And Jennie says I don’t even need the glasses and to quit pretending. I tell her she needs to wise up. Jennie says it’s around the corner. Our courtyard is just around the corner. No. Wait. That isn’t it. Fiddle-dee-dee. Where did it go? I say it’s not the past and it’s not summer anymore and it’s not there and that she needs to wise up. Jennie says shut up.
Now I have the disease of frost about me. Think hoary stuff that stiffens rope and makes solid gutter water. I cannot move with this disease. Thus, the perfect custodian of the farmhouse. Jenny has left again, briefly, but Jennie is back again. This time from the last month of the Shaw. A fill-in, yes, but without the sway that summer and Tennessee Williams left her. November and she glides erect through the farmhouse judging everything with the calm murmur of an English accent with a faint brogue underneath. Mrs Warren’s Profession. Eight performances a week. Four on weekends. I swivel on my work stool to face her and say I have been considering. Considering? she asks. Considering I say. And then Jennie says to wait and to hold that thought. That first she has a surprise for me. She exits left.
I am working on a piece of door trim. A top corner block medallion de fleur unique to my grandmother’s farmhouse, fashioned and set by some artisan’s hand over one hundred years ago, but now cracked and chipped from years of dryness then humidity, dryness then humidity. The climate of the farmhouse takes its toll. We accept what the seasons give us here, slower and less fierce maybe than what the old barometer has seen on great stormy waters, but no less a weight. I sit like this for some time in consideration of the weather until Jennie enters wearing a red velvet leotard with fur trim running hill and dale over her pushed-up-and-out breasts. On her head she wears a pointy cap to match and red rouge on the end of her nose and elf ears. She has the temerity to ask what I think. Ignoring the physical her, ignoring the obvious erotic appeal to my hermitic senses, I say I’ve been considering. Considering I say. Considering the possibility and the possibility only of a small barn. A workshop. Something meticulously designed to match the old farmhouse and to block the McMansions. Something appropriate. For some time I have felt guilty about using the dining room so roughly as a workshop. With a new barn we could finally make right the dining room, we could properly restore all the rooms. Jennie puts her hands together over her breasts and draws a deep breath and beams. At least I think it is beaming. What her exact stage direction reads is beyond me. But this Jennie is happy. I say maybe we could start planning it all this winter and…
And here she stops me and does a pose in the doorway that looks like a prelude to a musical number with her hands on cocked hips. She says that they’ve got it all covered, she and Mr Detweiler. They’ve had an architect out taking pictures and designing it and he’s done now and the crew for the foundation will be out next week. Then she hitches her hips the other way and runs her hands up and down her costume as if in an advertisement. She says now back to her costume. She says they were ridding out the wardrobe department and lordknows what this was from. Some theatrical holiday extravaganza but that she snatched it up. Perfect, eh? I ask her perfect for what? What games has she in mind? She says why, to sell my furniture at the farmers’ market, of course, and to not even think about opening my mouth because she’ll handle it all. She’ll load a few pieces in the back of the old pickup and start this very holiday season and with this get-up she’s bound to sell out.
Surely I am trapped now. Completely and in perpetuity. Trapped in this pristine nineteeth-century clapboarded farmhouse surrounded by the mansarded underwater architecture of the twenty-first. Trapped with a harlotty elf for a keeper. I turn back to my piece of trim and apply putty which I will form and let dry and attempt to carve out a new section to match the original trim of my great-grandfather. Attempt to live up to my portion of his daughter’s trust.
My great-grandfather built this farmhouse and passed it down to his daughter. My grandmother. He probably knew her only as a bright-eyed young woman with much love in her and much willingness to please and make happy those around her. A young woman given to trust. I knew her not at all.
I can hear Jennie behind me start to move her happy slippered feet and I can see in my mind her elf toes rolling up and back toward her. Only after a few steps do I discern the truth. And it is an awful truth. That the elf shoes are equipped with taps, tiny elfin taps on their bottoms, and my Jennie is lightly tapping her way across the old thin-slatted floors toward me.
BD Feil has somewhat recent credits in The New Guard, Huffington Post, Slice Magazine and Mulberry Fork Review, among many others. He writes from Michigan. He has also written a novel, The Return of Tom Bright, that has yet to find a publisher (anyone?). His website is www.bdfeil.com.
Image credit: takomabibelot