With this post, I start a new series called Hilltown Postcards. I happened to be going through old files in my computer when I found a doc with short stories I had written a long time ago about our life in the hilltowns in Western Massachusetts. My agent at the time wanted me to write a tell-all book with lots of dirt, but I didn’t have it in me. Some are long, like this one, some are short. Rereading them has inspired me to try writing more. In some instances I will change the names of certain people. That’s true of this story about our move.
It was a little dump of a house, once owned by the landlord’s grandparents in Worthington, a cluster of modest homes on the curve of Route 112, which is a good country road. The house’s clapboards had long lost their coat of white paint. The inside was dirty and filled with trash left behind after the old man died and the old woman, his second wife, moved. It would take a lot before our kids, we had four then, could live here, but the rent was right, $150, and we could work that off fixing the place. This was 1981.
We were living then in a two-bedroom apartment in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, a nice dead-end street with friendly neighbors, but only blocks away from some tough sections of that city. Our oldest daughter went to third grade in Roxbury, one of the few white kids, and I had to take two city buses then walk through a bombed-out looking neighborhood to visit the school. A guard unlocked the door to let me in. The day I brought her brother to register him for kindergarten, a little boy tossed a Hostess cake onto a table and announced to the teacher he had brought his “mother-fucking snack.” I took one look at my son, a sweet boy who cried easily and loved to draw, and knew he’d have an awfully hard time here.
Then, one winter night I was coming home from the movies, waiting at a trolley stop on Huntington Ave., when a man tried to force me into his van. I had our youngest, just a baby, strapped to my front. The man claimed he worked for the transit system and knew the next trolley wouldn’t be here for an hour. He drove the van onto the sidewalk. I kept talking my way out of it, so shook I didn’t even think to go inside the corner bar for help or use the payphone to call Hank. I was lucky a stranger, a longhaired guy in a puffy down jacket, arrived to intercede. He told me, “I’m not a violent man, but I’d have killed him if he touched you and the baby.” He said the man had blood on his hands. Didn’t I see?
Hank and I decided our kids would live in a place with clean air and clear skies and where people looked out for each other in a good way: A small town with trees and fields and wildlife. The city had gotten too expensive. We were living paycheck-to-paycheck, Hank doing his best to support us as a carpenter, but it seemed easier to do that in the country than in the city.
A friend of a friend mentioned a friend had work in Worthington, a town in Western Massachusetts I’d never heard of although I’ve lived in this state most of my life. Hank made the two-hour drive to meet Win Donovan. Win was ten years older, from that rock ’n’ roll generation, but he and Hank hit it off, two carpenters, deep thinkers, which often comes with the occupation. Then for a summer weekend we visited Win and his wife, Joan, to get a closer look. Win was building a cabin for a customer, and Hank was part of the crew raising its timber frame. We camped in the Donovans’ field, and that night after we had put the kids to sleep in our tent, the sky was awash with streaking gobs of color. Northern Lights. Hank and I stood there, watching the display. Surely this was a sign.
Now, in this house’s yard, I held our baby on my hip as the other kids played. Hank and I listened to the man, who I will call Frank although that wasn’t his name, talk about his family. Frank spoke in a heavy Yankee twang, his loud voice coming from high in his chest, calling Hank “chief” and me “young lady” although he was ten years younger. He had a face that belonged on a cartoon character: thick glasses, rubbery features, and ears that stuck out like jug handles, a family trait I was told later. He’d been in a bad accident so he was having a hard time getting around. He may have been using crutches.
He told us his grandfather had been an upstanding citizen in Worthington, one of its constables. His father, also dead, had been a war hero. The family was a part of the town’s history. We listened politely. As I said, we wanted the house. It’s a small town, just over a thousand people then, and places to rent were scarce. We had found out about this one from the Donovans.
After we moved in and the neighbors learned we were renters and not friends of Frank, they told us he showed up when his grandfather was near his end and got him to sign over the house. One woman was embarrassed she had agreed to be a witness when the new will was signed. Frank’s version was that no one was taking care of the old folks and they were grateful for his attention. At any rate, none of this sat well with his aunt who lived in a nearby town. Later, when she took him to court, the judge gave Frank a choice: flip a coin for the house or give his aunt half its value. He gave her half.
Everything we owned fit into a small U-Haul and the VW microbus we had taken across Canada from Seattle to Boston. We stacked the boxes in the first space we could clear in the house, because the Donovans had generously invited us to stay with them until the place was livable. We’d have to let our big city cat to temporarily fend for himself in the yard. Frank showed up, unembarrassed that the place was filled with trash and filthy. He wanted to talk business and get his first month’s rent. He did agree that given the circumstances a security deposit for damages would be unreasonable.
It was September and yellow sun choke flowers growing along the foundation were taller than the windows in the dining room, the sunniest space in the house. The old couple used to keep a dog barricaded in the dining room by a makeshift plywood gate, its surface clawed, one of the first things to go. They also had cats, lots of them, and after the house was empty, a neighbor brought them bags of dried food. Eventually, the cats ran off or died. Later, when Hank replaced the back porch, he found cat skulls and empty booze bottles beneath the rotted planks.
The house was situated on a small bluff overlooking Route 112, a state-numbered route, with enough of a yard for the kids to play before it rose steeply into a two-acre wooded lot. This was the Ringville section, named for the Ring family, including Johnny Ring, a Civil War hero. The trees on the lot were not remarkable or large. Like much of the settled part of town, the forest began reclaiming its turf when most people stopped burning wood for heat.
The one interesting tree in the backyard lot had grown around a scythe. Some careless member of the family left the tool leaning against the trunk long ago and the tree consumed its blade so the rusted metal stuck out like a thorn. The wooden handle had long rotted away.
It appeared the people who lived here never went to the dump either. They stuffed their garbage in bread bags, and then buried them on the hill. I tried yanking the bags. Their contents now were disintegrated to colorful dust, but I gave up when I realized how many were there.
I have a photo of Hank, wearing patched jeans, as he stood in debris on the living room floor of that house. His arms are spread akimbo and he’s looking upward toward the blackened ceiling as if this situation was hopeless. But he was joking because he knew we were capable of scrubbing and clearing and painting, that we could make any place livable.
At least the house was structurally sound, with more room than it appeared from the outside, with two bedrooms on both floors and a large living room. The bathroom was tiny, but clean enough. The kitchen wasn’t. The counters beside the sink were old unfinished planks, and we poured straight bleach to disinfect the wood and vowed never to put food or a utensil on them. We used our apartment washer, because there was no hookup, attaching hoses to the faucet and drain, but I couldn’t forget when it was filling or it’d overflow onto the floor.
In all the places we lived, we never locked the door. Mostly it was because we lived in a safe neighborhood or we had an extraordinary faith no one would want to rob or harm us. We wouldn’t be locking this house either since it appeared on the outside that nothing inside would be worth stealing. That was correct. No stereo, just a black and white TV someone gave us. I had a few pieces of jewelry, valuable to me, like the amber earrings that had been a birthday present from Hank, and of course, his tools.
If someone sunk some money into the house, gutted it, upgraded the mechanicals and poured a cement floor in the cellar, it could have been a very nice home. But the man who owned this house wasn’t planning to do that. He wanted something on the cheap, so for the next several days Hank and I hauled trash, shoveled dirt into barrels, and removed the broken furniture. We scrubbed the ceilings, walls, and wooden floors, their finish long worn away. Hank washed the windows, and one of the neighbors, who stopped to say hello, told him he had never seen them clean.
One day while we were working, two women from the Board of Health arrived unannounced to inspect the place. Lois Ashe Brown explained they were making sure the place was habitable. She said it was one thing for people to live in squalor when they owned a home, but another to rent it out. They heard how the old couple had lived. The other woman rolled her eyes as she talked about what she expected of our landlord. They weren’t unfriendly but were businesslike. It got me worried. Our belongings were still packed in boxes. We didn’t have enough money to return to Boston, and we had no other prospects.
So Hank and I showed the women around, trying to convince them we were getting the place in shape. The trash was gone and most of the walls had been washed of soot. We had a lead on a woodstove for heat. The plumbing worked fine, and the phone was hooked up. The town was so small and the lines old, we only had to dial four digits to call another person living in town. Our number was 5989, and the ring was something quaint and tinny.
Yes, the two women could see we were making progress. They were satisfied, and in parting, Lois remarked brightly, “Livingston. Now that’s a good name for Worthington.”
Still thinking about that backhanded welcome, I didn’t have the heart to tell her Hank and I were not married, even with four kids, and that my last name then was really Medeiros. We had been a couple for six years but were part of that generation who had disinherited just about everything our parents did like marrying and staying in one place all your life.
So I smiled and said thank you.
FICTION: The fictional hilltowns is the inspired setting for most of my adult novels, including the Isabel Long Mystery Series, The Sweet Spot, The Sacred Dog, and my most recent, Northern Comfort.