I like the view across the field. In the distance, you can see the light blinking on the bridge in Portsmouth, and on the Fourth of July, from our attic, you can see some of the fireworks in the distance. There used to be a dilapidated greenhouse behind our garage, but eventually the people who owned that land had it plowed under, taking with it tons of wild roses that had accommodated themselves to shade and yellow-jacket nests that kept me from ever picking the roses.
Recently, there was a big scare about the field. Just behind our property line, which ended where the back of our garage sat, the field was owned by a family from Philadelphia, whose son still vacationed in one of the summer cabins. They—informing no one, as is the Maine way, even though they were Philadelphians—had sold the field to a person who wanted to put up a twenty-four-hour lighted storage facility, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. The land was zoned commercial—we always knew we ran a risk—but in the twenty years we’d lived there it had never been for sale, and we assumed that whoever owned it wanted to keep it the way it was. That is, until the morning the bulldozer woke us up.
The driver was not friendly. He said, “None of your business,” when my husband asked what he was doing, and, “Your worst fears are about to come true,” when my husband persisted. We called our real estate agent and asked if she could tell us who owned the field, and what was going on. Since we’d sent several clients her way over the years, she promised to get some information and call us back. My husband said: “The fat guy had a stogie the size of an ear of corn in his mouth he talked through. He took it out to spit before he started plowing again.” An hour later, we knew that the land had recently been sold without a sign advertising it was for sale. Someone had applied for a permit to build a storage facility. We sprang into action, calling an acquaintance on the town council, our lawyer, and the local independent newspaper. The editor—who had moved to New England from San Francisco—admired my husband’s cartooning and had tried to interview me for the paper on the subject of the embroidery work I did for a French designer, though I had demurred. My husband, much more friendly and outgoing than I, had asked Clay Marshall over for coffee, shown him through his studio, and agreed to an interview if he could double-check his quotes before the piece was published. “See?” my husband said to me before calling Clay about the problem with the field. “Does it hurt to be friendly?” “NO SIR, IT DOES NOT HURT TO BE FRIENDLY,” I had shouted, Marine style. I gave my husband a bad time when he tried to rub things in.
Our lawyer decided to contest the building on the grounds that access to the storage facility would mean more traffic coming around the dangerous curve in the road that was already under review because of accidents, or near accidents, that happened regularly at the intersection of our dead-end street and the highway. Meanwhile, taking a walk down the dirt road, I came upon what I thought was some animal’s enormous turd. (It was the bulldozer driver’s extinguished cigar.)
The forces of evil were stopped, at least temporarily. An outpouring of sympathy about the proposed storage facility had resulted from the newspaper article; Maine Public Radio had mentioned it. There were rumors that the dangerous intersection would preclude the possibility of any more traffic on the street, which offered the only access to that part of the field.
I went to the door one afternoon, to find a young man holding a cap with both hands, midbelly, if he’d had a belly. He was tall and thin, with intense blue eyes and unpleasantly white skin. “I’m Adam,” he said. “I live down the road in the first cabin.” He looked over his shoulder, down the dirt road. Indeed, there was no car. “I read the story in the paper, and I just want you to know I’m sympathetic,” he said.
“Well, that’s good. It would completely ruin the field. I’m glad to know you’re with us.”
“It’s my aunt and uncle who sold the land. I never would have sold it. It’s got nothing to do with me, I just wanted to say. To be perfectly honest, I buried my beagle in that field five years ago.”
I took this in. The locked screen door was still a barrier between us. If my silence didn’t make him go away, I would give up and open the door. He seemed sincere, and harmless.
“One thing I wanted to say—”
I opened the door. He seemed a little surprised, but stepped in when I stepped back. My husband was in the attic, drawing. Recently, he’d been having a Rolling Stones revival. The band was swinging into “Honky Tonk Woman.” I continued to retreat, gesturing toward the living room. Adam took the most uncomfortable chair and sat with his hands resting on his thighs. “My aunt and uncle aren’t bad people, they just wanted the money, is the thing. When they found out it was breaking my heart, too, they felt like shit. Excuse me. And they offered to buy the land back, but the guy hung up on them.”
There was a plastic bug on the brim of his hat. An implausibly colored spider, I saw, primarily lavender. He had put the cap on the coffee table. He saw me looking and picked it up.
“I just came to say that if there was a petition, or anything, even my aunt and uncle would want to sign it. Shit, I’d sign it. Excuse me.”
“You’re completely fucking excused,” I said.
His eyes opened wide. He smiled. “I wasn’t sure how old you were,” he said.
“That information I’m not giving out,” I said. “Would you like coffee or something else? Orange juice?”
“Where’s that music coming from?” he said.
“The attic. My husband has very good speakers,” I said.
“Cool,” he said. “Maybe orange juice.”
He followed me into the kitchen. “Cool,” he said again, looking at one of my husband’s cartoons, blown up and framed. Underneath it was my husband’s drill, waiting to be taken back downstairs. Someone had enlarged the cartoon and given it to him for his birthday. It had just been hung.
“He’s famous, right?” Adam said, as I poured the orange juice.
“That’s how we can afford to live here and hardly ever leave the house,” I said. “I guess we haven’t been too good about meeting the neighbors. Have you lived down the road for a long time?”
“Four months,” he said. “Recently a little down on my luck.”
“But you won’t be able to stay there in the winter, will you?”
“Wood stove,” he said. “My uncle got it for me. He said selling the land was more or less my aunt’s thing, except even she didn’t want to sell it if the guy was gonna put up ugly buildings. They got too old to come here. Primarily my aunt. She’s older than my uncle by a lot.”
“She was ahead of her time. Aren’t boy toys the big thing now?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “No old lady ever asked me.”
I poured a glass of juice for myself. He held his glass aloft to clink with mine. I did it carefully. For some reason, I’d poured juice into my husband’s crystal tumbler.
“So you’ll be spending the winter here?” I asked.
“I’ve got zero idea where to go. I was in a barn in Connecticut last year, and never again. I sort of dropped out of college and thought I’d gotten admitted to some place I apparently didn’t get into.”
“Where was that?” I said.
“Harvard,” he said.
“Oh. You didn’t get into Harvard?”
“No, I didn’t get into Julliard. I dropped out of Harvard.”
“Tell me how old you are, and I’ll tell you how old I am,” I said. I was suddenly willing to trade, to get the information.
“Twenty,” he said.
“Fifty-nine,” I said.
“No way,” he said. The music shook the house.
“Well, in a week,” I said.
“That makes you a Virgo. Virgos are attentive to detail. Well organized. You do your husband’s secretarial work, I bet.”
I shook my head. “I’m not all that helpful.”
“I met the newspaper editor at the bar at The Library, and he said you sewed. He also said I should stop by and say hello, so you’d know everybody around here wasn’t an asshole.”
“It’s not exactly sewing,” I said. “I create patterns for things like dress bodices, or big cuffs. Things like that. I FedEx it to Paris. I’ve also been doing some stuff for Stella McCartney.”
“Have you heard of Valentino?”
“No,” he said.
“Well, Valentino’s retired, but there’s still a house of Valentino. So I do things for Valentino, too.”
“That’s totally in keeping with being Virgo. It’s very meticulous work, right?”
“How’d you get started doing stuff like that?”
“It was my hobby. I used to embroider things that a good friend suggested I frame. Believe it or not, somebody from Paris bought out my show on Newbury Street, and the next thing I knew, I got a call asking me to do piecework for Valentino.”
“Peace marches, you mean?”
“No. Piecework. Like, pieces of costumes.”
“Wow. So are you famous?”
“No,” I said.
“To be honest, I’d like to be,” he said. “Without being famous, you can’t make any money at music, you know?”
“That’s a hard life even if you’re famous.”
“Being famous... shit! Your husband gets to listen to rock ’n’ roll all day, and is that cool, or what? Do they take everything he comes up with?”
“Dude!” he said, giving the air the high five. “My aunt and uncle aren’t going to believe you had me to your house.”
“Write down your phone number,” I said. “We’ll have you for dinner.”
“There should be an article about you two in Bomb or something.”
“We’re just people living quietly,” I said.
“Yessss!” he exploded, doing a quick riff on air guitar. He took the pen I held out and wrote the number on the front of the electric bill.
“Twenty,” I said, deciding to see how he’d react to a cliché. “Your whole life in front of you.”
“Yeah, like a field,” he said. “Meaning, until somebody ruins it.”
So that was how I came to have a soul mate, the year before we moved. We were both big fans of green tea, and I loved sitting by his wood stove, having a cup of tea. For a while, we went to the same yoga class, but it was too touchy-feely for us, so twice a week we’d go to the gym and watch the talking heads on TV and run on treadmills at 4.2/5%. My husband paid him to model. He stopped by, those few times he drove to Whole Foods in Portland, and took me along. He happened to be at the house, watching a mystery on the VCR with my husband and me, when the doorbell rang one evening, and a cousin of his stood there—though he’d only met this cousin once, and that was before either of them had started school. The cousin had apparently come up with a game called Pretzel, which consisted of him twisting Adam’s arms behind his back and pushing him over, then making loud gagging noises, pretending to choke while in the process of devouring him. I knew none of this when I opened the door, and Adam did not recognize the cousin.
The man had come from Whistler, BC—his name meant nothing to me; neither did I care about the van to which he pointed. He was there, it turned out, to notify us of his intentions to build a house on the field across from us, which he said he had taken possession of as payment for a gambling debt. He was cross-eyed with frustration—why, I didn’t know—and his hair looked like a hedgehog that had been caught in a lawnmower. Because I backed a bit away from the door, instinctively, my husband came out of the TV room, and as soon as he walked out, Adam followed behind him.
“Whuzzis!” the man exploded, eyes bulging. “Pretzel! Whuddafuuuuuck! Consortin’ with the enemy!”
To be precise (which I could be, later), he was the ne’er-do-well son of Adam’s mother’s stepsister. And it turned out to be true that he was the new owner of the land: an acre plus a little more, midfield. He’d gotten wind of our having successfully fought the previous developer, but he was there to tell us (and Pretzel) that he was going to build what he called (if I remember correctly) “a big mother Tudor” that would be “built like a brick shit house,” with solar panels that could rotate and burn our house down, if we intended to try to make trouble all over again.
He was standing there, hands clenched, yelling on our front step. Only moments before, we had been convinced that Russell Crowe was going to save the world. Then, the next second, the big bully hunched over and ran into the house, head-butting Pretzel with all his might, toppling him in the hallway leading to the kitchen, as my husband pulled his cell phone out of his pocket to dial 911. I know he was terrified, because he couldn’t speak, and handed the phone to me to talk to the operator. An account of this occurrence can be read in the local paper. Our lawyer was also involved, and was instrumental in getting the thug jailed until he was deported.
But what was wrong, long-term, was that we’d been through enough misery—enough lost sleep, enough vitriol, and enough bitter midnight strategizing—trying to protect the field. In a year, we would be gone. “You don’t want to leave a twenty-year-old!” my husband had said, when I stood at the window in the near dark, once we’d reached our decision to leave, looking out on everything we were about to lose.
“I care about natural beauty,” I said, correcting him, but he was crazy on the subject: I was mooning over a beautiful twenty-year-old.
So I retaliated with my own crazy scenario: “You’re quitting on the field, but you hate to feel powerless, so you’re pretending it has something to do with me.”
“And as an ironic note,” the person covering the “Fields and Streams” segment on Maine Public Radio said, “a dispute about building a commercial property on a lot in a residential neighborhood that was resolved to environmentalists’ satisfaction last year has still ended sadly for the state of Maine: Artist Toby McArthur and his wife, who once worked for Rudolph Valentino, will be leaving for Tucson, following a head-butting incident by another would-be developer, when things turned ugly at their home.”
Rudolph Valentino? Either Adam had misunderstood, or someone at the station had rushed to that conclusion. But Adam had to be the one who told them. No one at all, except for Toby, knew about my beadwork. Or might Adam have thought I was so old, I had worked for Rudolph Valentino?
He and I write each other. Old-fashioned snail mail. He’s moved to Cambridge. His aunt has died, and the land is now posted as being for sale. Also, the UPS man has been in touch, scribbling, on a forwarded package, the address of his website for paintings he does of people’s houses. “Hope all is well,” he added.
But of course, it never seems to be. They lasso saguaro cacti from the air, like aliens who come in a quick, soundless flood of light, to carry helpless people away from Earth.
© Ann Beattie, 2008
Wild Things: The $wiftest Pigeon
What is the sound of one million yuan flapping?
VICE News: Sisa: Cocaine of the Poor
A new drug called sisa is tearing its way through Athens' poor.
Wild Things: The Dog Hunter
In the close-knit world of dog hunting, Tom Varney is a legend.
Ground Zero: Syria - Snipers of Aleppo
Picking off the enemy, one by one, day by day.
VICE News: The Battle of Taksim Square
The protestors started throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, and it all escalated.