Hieronymus Bosch's American Landscape
Bethany Glaspell approached the first-ever meeting with her great uncle much as a cat burglar might plan his next heist, telling neither friend nor family her intentions. She placed the long distance call late Thursday afternoon when no one was home; she even bought her plane ticket on the sly. Now the twenty-five-year-old woman with the frizzy auburn hair and hazel eyes was sitting in a rental car in the middle of the woods just outside Rehoboth, Massachusetts, staring down a badly rutted, gravel driveway that emptied out alongside a cedar-shingled farmhouse.
Forty-two years - that's how long it had been since anyone in the family had seen or heard from the reclusive, Great-uncle Vern. As a young man, he joined the army late August following high school graduation, returning from the jungles of Vietnam three years and ninety-four days later with a sucking chest wound from a Viet Cong bullet and Hmong bride married on a drunken whim a month earlier. Crackpot, kook, weirdo, deviant, social misfit - the newly-minted civilian couldn't hold a job or get along with much of anyone; within the year and to the family's great relief, Uncle Vern and his not-so-new bride promptly moved away. Far away!
Now the computer software firm Bethany worked for was running training seminars in the Boston area, teaching social service personnel a new web-based program. "How many days you gonna be in town?" Uncle Vern inquired in a lumpy voice, when it finally registered who was calling.
Her original intent was to stay at a motel in the Boston area. "A couple of days, that's all," Bethany lied. The seminar extended all week with additional support services straight through the weekend, but she wanted to see how the first visit went before committing to anything long term.
"How's my sister?"
"Grandma Helen had a stroke and died last October."
"Well, that's too bad. I didn't know she married much less had any kids, so this all comes as a bit of a shock." He cleared his throat and paused to collect his thoughts. "We got two empty bedrooms since the kids left. You could stay with us."
"I wouldn't want to impose."
"It's no problem." The uncle, who no one had seen or heard from in forty-plus years, brushed the tenuous objection aside. "From Logan Airport just hop on the southeast expressway and… "
A scruffy tabby cat eyed Bethany warily as the girl ascended the rickety porch. The bell was broken but the front door was unlocked. "Hello, is anyone home?" She heard someone moving about in the interior of the home. "Helloooo!"
Feet were shuffling toward the front of the house and shortly an elderly, flat-faced Asian woman was staring out at the visitor through the wire mesh on the screen door. "Bethany?" The gaunt woman didn't seem particularly welcoming.
"Your uncle is in the back yard." She pointed to a narrow path lined with slate-colored flagstones leading to the rear of the house. There was no formal greeting, no wasted effort, gratuitous hugs or small talk. A smallish chicken craned its scrawny neck and peeked curiously at the interloper as Bethany passed a patch of goldenrod. The bird clucked its disapproval then began pecking randomly at the clayey earth. In the back yard, an older man wearing a plaid flannel shirt and dungarees sat on a wooden bench alternately flexing the fingers of his right hand and rubbing the wrist with his left. He looked up when the girl appeared. "Hello there."
"Just finished milking the cow." He indicated a dilapidated shed a hundred feet away alongside a massive apple tree loaded with ripe fruit, before resuming where he left off massaging his bony wrist. "Fingers hurt… arthritis. But at least there's plenty of fresh milk for cereal and whatnot." A plastic milk pale three-quarters full rested on a blue-gray flagstone.
Bethany was at a loss for words. The man seemed even less engaging than his close-lipped wife.
"Gotta bed down the chickens for the night before the coyotes make short shrift of the brainless birds." Only now did Bethany notice the odd assortment of Barred Plymouth rock hens, Rhode Island Reds and White Leghorns meandering about the weed-choked lawn. "Each of the dull-witted critters – even in the same breed – has a different personality and temperament. Some birds are aggressive while others, like the rock hens, tend to be more laid back, curious and easygoing.” He stroked his unshaven face thoughtfully then rose to his feet stiffly and, as if on cue, the feathered flock followed him in the direction of a sturdy, if somewhat jury-rigged plywood coop.
Bethany traipsed at a distance behind the bowlegged man and watched as he shooed the skittish birds into the coop, securing the gate behind them. "Red-tailed fox broke in over the summer and made a mess of things," he noted in his clipped speech. "Wanna meet Freda?"
"The cow," he corrected, taking no offense.
Who ever heard of a Hmong named Freda? Bethany felt her face flush hot."Yes, of course."
In the shed a small, tan cow with graceful legs and creamy white markings around her eyes and muzzle, was munching fresh fodder. “She’s a real classy lady. Calm, mellow… don't hardly give me or the missus no grief.” The shed smelled of fresh manure but the odor was mild and inoffensive “I could have gone with a Dutch Belted, Ayrshire, Guernsey or Dexter, but, to my mind, that Jersey was a sensible choice.” Uncle Vern nodded his grizzled head approvingly. “Holsteins go upwards of twelve hundred pounds, consume a heck of a lot more fodder and the milk ain't nearly as rich.” He stared thoughtfully at the docile cow. “Now this here Jersey might seem a tad on the small side, but she produces thirty pounds of high-fat milk weekly.”
"What do you do with it?"
"Make our own butter, cheeses, cream and yoghurt. What we can't use, we barter away to neighbors." Uncle Vern slapped the cow on the rump sending up a swarm of tiny black flies. "Where's your business meeting tomorrow?"
They retraced their steps back out into the fresh air. "Braxton… ain't that a rough section?"
"No, I don't think so." In truth, Bethany didn't know a thing about the city just south of Boston. The girl logically assumed that it was a middle class suburb of the metropolitan area.
Her uncle shrugged. "Let's get you settled and then we can see about supper." The sun was setting over the tops of the knotty pines, the temperature becoming downright chilly as the old man with the uncooperative hands led the way back toward the farmhouse.
Uncle Vern's wife was Houa, which meant 'cloud' in the Hmong dialect. In her late sixties, the coppery-skinned woman must have been a beauty in her day. "They're not our birds," she said, lowering a platter of cordon bleu on the supper table. "The chickens you saw out back are layers not dual purpose."
Dual purpose - Uncle Vern's wife worried that Bethany might be offended if she thought they slaughtered the fowl on her account. There were no outward displays of affection between husband and wife. Each shifted about comfortably in their own skin. The frail tabby that Bethany had noticed earlier lay curled up on a braided rug along with a blonde poodle. As Bethany helped herself to mashed potatoes and green beans, a weirdly phantasmagoric thought flitted across her brain: Uncle Vern was unaware that his sister died the previous year. That being the case, he was also ignorant of the fact that Bethany's maternal grandmother married and divorced four times! Uncle Vern, the mentally unstable crackpot, managed to stayed married to the same woman across four decades. All his faults and shortcomings taken aside, that had to count for something!
Aunt Houa pointed at the mound butter in a porcelain saucer. "Homemade… we churn it ourselves by hand." Bethany bit into a flaky roll slathered with the ivory spread courtesy of Freda, the delicate-legged Jersey hunkered down in the cozy shed. "How did you find us?" Houa asked.
"A friend, who works at the IRS," Bethany explained, "ran Uncle Vern's name along with his date of birth through their database."
After the meal Uncle Vern placed some moist dog food in a dish and cut it up into bite-sized portions, then flopped down on the throw rug next to the poodle. "This one here," he indicated the dog "is getting absentminded. Some days he can't properly remember what dinner's all about, so we have to jog his memory." The man gently pried the dogs jaws open and placed a morsel of food on his tongue. The sensation brought the animal to life, and he sat up on his hind legs now, as Uncle Vern placed a second sliver on his tongue.
"We knew something was wrong," Houa continued, "because the pooch sat for hours at the back door, not where it opens but close by the hinges."
"He couldn't remember which way the door opened," Bethany offered, "or how to find his way outside?"
Houa nodded. "Other times he became frightened and barked for no apparent reason," the Asian woman continued. "We figured he was confused… didn't know where he was anymore."
"Most times he's okay, though we don't let him out much unless he's tethered." Uncle Vern offered the dog a drink from a plastic bowl before feeding him what little remained of the food. "Of course, he can't hardly see nothin' what with the cataracts."
Houa brought the empty dishes to the sink. "I tell you uncle," she quipped, "that someday I'll get discombobulated like the dog, and he will have to cut my food up and feed me by hand."
"Fat chance," The older man replied, shaking his head emphatically. "Only in your dreams!"
"Mattress ain't lumpy, is it?" Uncle Vern lumbered upstairs around nine o'clock after Bethany had settled under the covers.
"No, it's quite comfortable." Actually, the bed sagged like a hammock, and she could feel several coiled springs that had given up the ghost on the right side near the headboard.
The man chose a straight-backed chair in the far corner of the room and began speaking fervently in hushed tones as though what he had to say represented the continuation of a conversation already in progress. "During the war, my platoon came ashore to reinforce a firebase in the Mekong Delta near Soc Trang. Vietcong were waiting for us with a pair of thirty-caliber machine guns… caught our troops in a crossfire. It was a massacre."
"That's when you got shot?"
"Yeah, but my injury was no big deal. The bullet cauterized the blood vessels as it passed cleanly through the flesh and didn't bleed much. Except for the collapsed lung, I was pretty stable. A lot of my buddies - the ones that survived - were a hell of a lot worse off."
"I got triaged at a MASH unit near the firebase before being transported to a naval hospital in Yokosuka, Japan, where they re-inflated the lung and removed shrapnel."
"What about Houa?"
"We were already married several months. As soon as I arrived stateside, I sent her a one-way ticket and brought her to San Francisco." Uncle Vern fell silent. Bethany could see the vague outline of the old man sitting slumped over in the chair, his gnarled, arthritic hands resting on his knees. "In Yokosuka, I had one of the hospital corpsman bring me a copy of the Stars and Stripes military newspaper, which featured a lengthy account of the ambush in the Mekong Delta."
"The battle where you were hurt?"
The old man's head bobbed up and down in the darkened corner. "The military brass reported the ambush exactly as it happened with one slight difference: the newspaper stated that we caught the enemy unawares, and the communists had to pull back after suffering horrific casualties."
Bethany felt her brain go numb. "They turned everything upside down."
"Upside down, topsy-turvy, inside out, every other which way but how the events actually unfolded in the real world." The man rose to his feet. "Good night, Bethany."
"Goodnight, Uncle Vern."
In the morning, Houa was sitting at the kitchen table sipping herbal tea. She offered Bethany breakfast, but the girl wanted to get on the road. As she left the house, she noticed the chickens foraging in the side yard. The tabby was lounging on a rock; the senile poodle who couldn't remember to feed himself was tethered to a rope with a water bowl within easy reach.
The southern New England countryside was stunning, fall foliage turning every shade of earth color from rust through bright yellow and orangey-red. She cruised past postcard-perfect farms where silos, tractors and hay ricks were scattered about. Cattle grazed in fenced-off fields. A riding academy with a mix of horses and smaller ponies roaming a spacious paddock loomed directly ahead. The route to Braxton was uncomplicated. Ten miles due east, the narrow, two-lane road she was traveling on bisected the interstate. From there she traveled north another twenty miles, exiting onto a smaller roadway. Only when she reached the outskirts of Braxton did the bucolic landscape noticeably fade. Reaching the gritty downtown area, Bethany spotted a parking garage. Locating an empty space on the third level, she rode the elevator down to the street.
Downtown Braxton resembled a third-world, banana republic.
There were few Caucasians and the people she passed were, for the most part, poorly dressed and clearly in no hurry to get where they were going. Many of the buildings were for rent or plastered with neon orange signs from the building inspector indicating that the structures had been condemned. Every so many feet the sidewalk was torn up with patches of concrete strewn in the gutter.
None of the residents looked like they had two nickels to rub together much less a plan, to better themselves. Horatio Alger was not an option. Where would the money come from to make repairs? Certainly not from the hardscrabble residents milling about downtown Braxton. Directly across the street and sandwiched between two scorched structures that looked like they had been set ablaze for the insurance money, stood a brand new courthouse. An architectural anomaly, the municipal building was lavish in the extreme. It would appear that Braxton possessed resources sufficient to finance a multi-million-dollar, state-of-the art courthouse and nothing more. Bethany located the dowdy, social services office two blocks down.
"Why is the community so…" Bethany wasn't quite sure how to finish the sentence.
"Excuse me?" The thickset woman she was addressing was the director of a local food bank.
"Down at the heels," Bethany ventured.
The food bank director stared at her icily. "The country is in a recession, if you hadn't noticed."
Bethany glanced at the director's name tag: Marisol Gonzales. The Hispanic woman had probably misconstrued the remark as a personal slur and now there was no way to make amends.
On the other hand, why should she?
None of the minorities Bethany passed in the street looked like they were gainfully employed. Many jibber-jabbered amongst themselves in staccato, rapid-fire Spanish. Those illegal aliens who did work, were, of necessity, employed in a murky 'underground economy', paying no federal taxes or social security. Bethany felt her face flush hot as an iron poker held over an open flame and bristled at the notion of apologizing to the fastidious food bank director.
After the training session wound down around four in the afternoon, Bethany hurried back to the garage. Exiting onto a one way street, she quickly became disoriented and pulled over in the parking lot of a Dunkin' Donuts. The girl got out of the car and went into the donut shop. Everybody in the place looked like they were on welfare or AFDC or just escaped from prison or a loony bin or were receiving a disability check because they exhibited dull normal intelligence. "Where's Laurel Avenue from here?"
The black woman she was addressing stared impassively into space as though Bethany had requested a description of quantum physics. "Dunno," the girl mumbled.
Back in the parking lot a police siren caterwauled somewhere in the distance. A teenage girl in her third trimester waddled past. Bethany retreated to the safe haven of her car. Two blocks up she pulled into a liquor store with wrought iron bars on windows and doors. A malignant panic metastasizing in her chest, it was becoming increasing difficult to keep her voice from breaking. "Laurel Avenue… where is it from here?"
"Easiest thing in the world!" A short, dark-skinned man, who looked like he might have been Malaysian or from the Indian subcontinent or Pakistani or Yemenite squeezed out from behind the counter and stepped into the late afternoon sunlight. "Two streets down… see that brick building just beyond the gas station?" Bethany nodded. "You turn right and keep driving maybe eight or nine blocks until you bump your nose." The pleasant man tapped his scimitar-shaped honker with a forefinger.
"Bump your nose," Bethany repeated softly. "What does that mean?"
"Bump you nose… until you can't go any further," the man elucidated. "Then you take a right and a quick left onto Laurel Avenue."
"Thank you so much."
"It's no problem." The man went back inside the stuffy prison-cell-of-a-building and shut the door behind him.
Three-quarters of a mile down the road Bethany 'bumped her nose' and, after a couple of deft maneuvers, was back on the main thoroughfare heading to Uncle Vern, Aunt Houa, the single-purpose chickens, demented dog, scruffy tabby and Freda, the high-fat-content cow. In a rest area shortly before the interstate, the girl eased the Volvo off the road, killed the ignition and volubly sobbed her heart out. Fifteen minutes later, she wiped her puffy eyes, located an FM radio station with reasonably good reception that featured country and western music and continued her homeward trek.
"There's been a change of plans," Bethany announced later that night at supper. "I'm running additional, training seminars in Boston straight through the weekend."
"Well then," Houa replied, "you will remain here with us and save the expense of a hotel room and all that frivolous nonsense."
"Are you sure-"
Her uncle raised a mottled hand indicating that the issue was not open for debate. "How did you find Braxton?"
She wanted to say that Braxton resembled one of those surrealistic, satanic scenes straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, that Braxton was the unmitigated toilet of the universe - Shitville USA! "A bit down at the heels."
"So I heard." Uncle Vern reached for another slice of meatloaf. "If you came for an extended visit during the summer, we could take day trips to Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard - maybe even view a Red Sox baseball game at Fenway Park."
Houa positioned an ear of sweet corn on the side of Bethany's plate and nudged the crock with Freda's homemade butter closer. Though the woman wore the same pokerfaced expression, Bethany had the distinct impression that the oriental was holding her breath while smiling inwardly. "Yes, I'd like that just fine. I'll come back for an extended stay in the spring."
"Well then, it's settled," Houa announced in a whisper-soft tone. "May is nice around here… June equally so."
"Look out your bedroom window as soon as you rise in the morning," Uncle Vern counseled, shifting gears. "You'll probably see a family of white-tailed deer wandering about the backyard. They clean up the fallen apples before wandering off elsewhere."
"They're also crazy for acorns," Houa noted. "Sometimes I see them over by the oak trees eating their fill of nuts."
In the morning just as Uncle Vern assured her, the deer - a buck with a narrow set of velvety antlers, his doe and two Bambiesque youngsters with speckled pelts - were meandering close by the apple tree, gorging on fallen fruit. "I generally take my vacation the beginning of June." Bethany hugged and kissed her uncle before heading off to Boston on the second full day of her visit.
Houa was lingering at a safe distance, but Bethany approached and kissed her too and the dark-skinned woman generously returned the favor. "When the worst of the winter is over," Houa said, "your uncle drills tapholes with an auger and we make our own maple syrup. You might enjoy joining us." "We boil down the syrup usually in the spring," Houa explained, "once the sap begins rising through the roots and -"
"Autumn, too," Uncle Vern blurted, lurching awkwardly closer to the driver's side door. "The practice is less common, but there's plenty of sugary sap flowing in these beauties before the New England winter sets in." He gestured at the thickly wooded countryside bordering the farm. "We got plenty of sugar maples but also red, silver and black. Personally, I favor the blacks 'cause of the high sugar content."
"Well then," Bethany eased onto the front seat of her car and smiled mischievously at her newfound relatives. "That changes everything!"