Walking on Ash Point
by Jim Krosschell
Jim Krosschell worked in science publishing for 30 years, starting as a 29-year-old production assistant. (He avoided getting a real job until then by grad school, Peace Corps, travel and teaching.) He has mostly retired now, writing essays and a blog http://onesmansmaine.blogspot.com , and dividing his time between Newton, MA and Owls Head, ME. His essays have appeared in Cantaraville and Sangam, and are forthcoming in Saranac Review, Amarillo Bay, and others.
The name sign on the trailer must have fallen off — I don't remember seeing it in the last couple of years. The mailbox on the opposite side of the road still says, faintly, "D. Heard," or perhaps "Hoard." We've never seen anyone there in seven years, although I seem to remember, when we first came walking, an old car parked most days on the grass. A little picture would come into my head, a grizzled man, old, in bib overalls, listening to local radio at his kitchen table, but it was quickly dismissed as soon as we turned the corner and saw the ocean below. Same for another trailer just up the road, this one with lovely flower beds that changed with the seasons, and lacy curtains, and my fleeting image was a widow in skirt and stockings and reading glasses and several grandchildren that visited on certain Sundays, again brutally disremembered, until the next time we walked.
Walking alone today, down to the water in the fog and cool air, I wonder what happened. Where did they go? Where are the sons that took care of the mowing and the medicines? Did they know each other, this man and this woman living in trailers on Ash Point Drive in Owls Head, Maine? Did they have coffee together in the mornings, talking about the loose dogs in the neighborhood, or the out-of-towners in the big shore houses at the bottom of the hill?
Ash Point runs from the airport for a mile or two, then tips steeply down to the ocean. The trailers are near the top of the hill. You can't see the ocean from there, but you can smell it. Maybe that was the appeal, that and to be able when they were younger to walk down to the shore and sit on the rocks and gaze at Ash Island directly in front, or lift their eyes to the islands of Muscle Ridge glowing in the sunset, or look to the left down the beach and the undeveloped land to see the surf and great shelves of granite and fir trees pointing to heaven, no sign of people-anything, or civilization, or the smelt factory or the notions store where they worked, the illusion of perfect wilderness among the houses of the little colony at the end of Ash Point — simple pleasures, simple trailers close to the bay they loved.
They are dead now, or lying in nursing home beds waiting for Sundays. Their yards are overgrown. The curtains hang heavy. Their children wonder, at odd moments of the evening, what to do with the ancient fishing tackle, knick-knack shelves, formica tables, stacks of Courier Gazettes and gardening catalogues. There weren't any wills, let's say, and dividing up such little estates among so many siblings seems hardly worth it. I imagine the trailers are still stuffed like bank vaults with beach treasures and anniversary cards and Social Security check stubs, like my own head with obsessive schemes for when I have hours and years to call my own at last.
I will be seeing my own parents tomorrow on my way back to Boston, and they live in a trailer, and they are getting old. They have settled for a trailer park in the exurbs of Portland because it's cheap, which allows them to have a little summer camp on Lake Winnecook up north. They live for the summer and I am afraid they will tell me this is their last at the cottage. They will talk about assisted living options and their wills. I don't know how they will do without the lake and the loons, the early morning mists. I don't know how I will think about the mowing and the medicines and their precarious financial position.
So we all rest on, just out of sight of the money.
The chorus starts almost the minute my wife and I turn onto Ash Point Drive. The German shepherd is always out, cruelly in all weather, tied to a tree and gently barking. Next door, where there used to be two mournful braying beagles, sits a mutt who sometimes adds a tenor. We walk past Fog Farm, quiet of menace the last couple of years after we complained but home in the past to a black mixed Lab who ran out to chase and growl. Almost immediately there's another shepherd, a mean one this time who barks with his fur up and his tail down from behind a Frito-Lay truck, pacing and snapping his chain in fury. Across the road, fenced in by chicken-wire, are two largish Labs, generally quiet, and next to them, in an expanse of yard surrounding a wonderful rambling one-story colonial, Harold the big golden roams, now on tether because he was obviously too friendly and followed all walkers home, and with him a new younger golden companion, provided in recompense for the tether, we guess, who also hollers at our approach. An English setter belongs to the raised ranch next in line and she gives us a perfunctory woof or two before returning to her charges who are mowing the lawn or riding pink tricycles. Then we are safe. The big white house set off in the woods no longer emits that lean yellow chasing mutt (although we switch to the other side of the road just in case), and the houses with the water views down on Ash Point itself oddly enough have no dogs we've ever seen.
We've had three dogs in the past year, puppies all. Phoebe died under the spaying knife in February; we tried again with Ernie, another bichon-poodle mix, but he got into a poisonous mushroom his first week in Maine and we had to go to the vet's, parents dragging children, and acknowledge his failing systems and say goodbye on a terrible Friday in July. Neither of them particularly liked the hubbub on Ash Point so we tended to take them the other way, down to Crockett's Beach, and save this walk for ourselves.
Kids and dogs, of course, are the main topics of conversation as we walk. What will they be when they grow up? Why do they have to be so sensitive? If only we could feed them self-confidence in their food. . . . In August in our agony we vowed never to have another dog, couldn't put the girls through that again. By October our little troubles had vanished in the flames of 9/11 and we were resolved once again, officially for the sake of the girls, to try again. No mixed breeds from part-time pet brokers this time; we went for the champion breeder, and the purebred — Mia our black miniature poodle.
And the unsaid words? The hidden resolve only glancingly referred to? In just over five years high school will be over and our nest empty.
Mia doesn't like Ash Point either, so we take her to Crockett's where she can run on the sand and sniff at clam holes and not have to stop and tremble at the sound of every bark. We walk alone down to the magnificent view, trembling inside for children leaving home, and loose snapping mongrels, and hijacked airliners, and hold hands on the way back up the hill, hoping we'll be strong enough to love until death.
Arlene Siletti sold us the house. We saw her husband, Charley, stand up in town meeting once and denounce the expansion of the airport. There is a tenuous connection through our Auntie Kathy, who knew Ash Point and the Sillettis from Community Concerts. Is this enough to do more than look at their house as we walk by, or wave as they work in their gardens?
Their house rests on top of the hill. Perhaps it was one of the originals, built when Maine was farmed not visited, built long before the end of the war brought ranches, and the boom of the sixties brought vacationers, to Ash Point. It looks extremely comfortable, surrounded by an orchard and stone walls and some tasteful statuary on the lawns, just as the Sillettis do. They dress in denim and khakis and drive an SUV and a Volvo and appear to be the archetypal couple from away, who spent years of summers coming to Ash Point and then retired here. But I don't think they are. I think and hope that somehow the Sillettis are different.
The challenge in this part of the world is the idea of belonging. Even after fifteen years of coming to Maine we don't qualify. I like to think it's possible, that if we retire here and join a conservation group or tutor at Headstart, we too can be comfortable in our house on the shore. The aloofness will be gone.
Arlene and Charley clearly are different. They are old money, or they emigrated from New York in the 50s when the coast of Maine was nothing special, or they took second careers — whatever the modus, it worked. They belong. They broke down the barriers. They've found their lives.
Is there still time for us?
The Ship House
All of the other houses at the top of the hill are echt New England — saltboxes, Victorian farmhouses, Capes, and even the mansion invisible behind trees and two stone pillars guarding its driveway. Farther down the hill, closer to the water, there are small ranches and other products of the middle twentieth-century, post-war expansion, and right on the ocean, of course, the bigger money resides. It's clear that the nineteenth century liked its views from on high. As does the ship house.
It's not New England at all, it's a mad cross of California and Sweden: brown, cedar-like siding, great three-story windows to catch more than enough of the view, a deck encircling the front like a wide belt from the sixties, the whole house jutting forward in a very bad imitation of the prow of a Friendship schooner. There's a large trampoline rusting in the front yard. Three-wheelers and snowmobiles used to be parked in front of a barn at back built of the same ugly brown wood.
It went up almost overnight, neighbors tell us, like a mushroom gone bad, and has been for sale twice in the seven years we've been walking on Ash Point. We don't know the current residents but can imagine the leaky windows, the floors that increasingly slant, the huge drapes drooping and sagging against the fierce sunrises over the islands of Muscle Ridge, the frustration of bad plumbing in Maine. In fifteen years, we say smugly, the whole thing will gently implode and release its dried-up contents in a puff of brown smoke.
Yet this must have been someone's dream. Someone drew up these plans, someone had a fuzzy vision of three-masters sailing up the Gut. Someone perhaps hated the white paint and turned-in lives of Olde New England. Maybe they did love it here, until the winters dragged on and Florida beckoned, or a heart attack struck on the very floor of the car dealership, or the children whined and fought and drove over flowerbeds until they won and were moved back to town. Maybe the new owners still rejoice at the bargain price. Maybe there was happiness here.
Yet it is so ugly, such a bald statement of the lack of confidence of the late twentieth century, the posing, the need to be and have new, the lives lived out of pages of magazines. One doesn't know the Sillettis and the Antonious and the Heards and the owners of the mansion behind the stone gates, but whatever their faults, they are settled. There's a harmony in their lives. They don't need, we assume, machines and careers and displays of difference to be happy.
We don't know that he's a physician (it's just another assumption about the folk who live on Ash Point Drive). We do know this: that he loves to garden, from the lovely flower beds extending hundreds of feet along a stone wall; that he's retired, from the New Jersey plates recently changed to Maine; that he's definitely not from Maine, with his brown skin and white hair and neat small stature, probably India or Pakistan. Ergo, an immigrant in the 50s when the country was desperate for foreign medical graduates, who went into anesthesiology because Americans didn't want to, who built the American dream of working in New York and living across the river in suburban New Jersey and taking every available vacation as far away as possible from the masses of Calcutta and Manhattan and settling at last in a simple Cape with a large deck overlooking Penobscot Bay in Owls Head, Maine.
His neighbors are determinedly white, locals and from-aways, middle-class and rich. We imagine he keeps to himself but is friendly with the Sillettis across the road. People from out-of-state (his children?) seem to visit frequently, his wife, if there is one, does not seem to care for the out-of-doors.
I for one can't decide what example he's setting. I'm positive he worked like a slave to set his children on the right paths. I'm sure he loves his new life on the coast of Maine. But is it a full life or a retreat? Did he work so hard to overcome adversity that he merely wants his daffodils and chrysanthemums, his iced teas on the deck, his view of the Muscle Ridge Islands? Or does he have something to occupy his brain as well as his gut? In the two years since the license plates changed, is he feeling there are holes in his afternoons?
Since September 11 these questions have only increased in intensity. On the one hand, the need to escape is even stronger: to cast off all care and responsibility and retreat to figure it out, to write it down, to try to make some kind of sense of this senseless life, where at present the only thing making sense is just to keep on going and working until we have enough to retire and then the only thing assumed to make sense is to have the time to write it down. But is escape enough, on the other hand, will it be sufficient to find peace?
A physician (even an anesthesiologist!) healed others, had a social obligation, deserves his rest. Perhaps he's a Muslim, or originally from a Muslim family, and bore that burden as well. How do people like us justify our need for solitude?
A mockery, I've thought, or at the very least a sentimental cliché, those little Gothic letters, reflective in headlights but not in the head, hanging just above the basket of plastic pansies on the mailbox. And the house, a raised ranch twisted and stuck into the hillside so that its side is decked out facing the ocean and half of its first floor is hidden in sod. And the enormous boat marooned for a couple of years in the graveled and circular driveway. It was clever in the eighties to play off the TV show, to dignify or endow a place with St. Something, even to hallow it in a knowing kind of way: "We've worked through the religion thing, and really at the end of the day, all that's left is the place you find yourself in." It all fit, except the magnificent view from that exposed deck that couldn't belong to such narrow thinking.
Then the house must have changed hands, or fortunes, for the boat disappeared and a new bath or Jacuzzi or gourmet kitchen was dug into the hill. Other changes were subtle: new flowers around the foundation, fresh crushed stone on the driveway. The sign remained. But something has changed.
Or I'm getting wiser.
Or maybe I look at everything differently now. Maybe St. Ours is the right and natural way to react to a year that boasted more wars than any in history. Maybe the terrorists were right to strike the American way of life, as the richest nation in the world burrows even deeper into its hillside, as the gap between the jihad and the Jacuzzis grows cavernous. Why judge anyone in the face of such harrowing and hallowed instruction?
The End of the Road
There used to be two lawn chairs set up, in the great Maine tradition of garage-sitting. We saw the old couple once or twice sitting there, eschewing the grand picture window with the big dollhouse displayed, resting instead just inside the garage and under the overhang, out of the sun and wind. The garage was attached to a large, single-story ranch, and it could have been transplanted out of suburban New Jersey for all its charm except for the crashing surf just below the lawn and the unspoiled beauty of Ash Island and the pristine conservation land just down the shore.
They have no conflict about how to spend one's last days. This is a retirement home, with lawn service and a visiting nurse and TV dinners in front of the early evening news. There are actually two houses at the end of the road, this one and the one across the street, a Victorian that says Trails End in a large sign over the door, but the ranch is truly trails end, a petering out, the withering of expectations, a mockery of nature.
The old couple isn't seen anymore. The house is fading, paint and trim. The elaborate, four-story Victorian dollhouse still molders in the window. They are bed-ridden, or taken away, or dead. Heaven help us if the end of us means nursing our souls inside New Jersey, out of the sun and the fierce Eastern winds.
Superficially the walk is the same. No house was blown up; in fact, a new one went up on the hillside overlooking the bay, in the middle years of this decade, when the times were still good. The trailers fall deeper into their sleep. The view from the top of the hill is still breath-taking, Ash Island and the islands of Muscle Ridge are still empty and gorgeous, not colonized by refugees from stricken cities. Even the ship house has a tasteful skin of new beige paint. Ash Point is still Ours.
Yet in the wake of another disaster, this one indisputably of our own making, the signs of stress seep out. Everything looks buttoned up. There are no dogs out anywhere. I saw on the news that Arlene Siletti's house had a chimney fire, called in by its renters, no mention of Charley. "Antoniou" has been painted out on the mailbox; has he been driven away, by market crashes or racial prejudice? The renovation of the house behind the Silettis has stopped. At the end of Ash Point, both Trails End and the New Jersey ranch are for sale, much reduced, I'm sure.
I read too much into things, I know. It's November, people are in Florida, they still have money. I still have money, and health, and time now to make sense of a life of obligations and ambition. But the nagging feeling of a future uncertain, attenuated, meaningless, remains.
On the shore, below the pile of broken concrete blocks that marks the end of the road, lies a bed of perfect skipping stones. It's nearly low tide; they will be uncovered now, and I can get some therapy. Then I see the signs newly planted, one to the right in front of the ranch, one to the left in front of Trails End, each identical:
END OF TOWN PROPERTY|
PRIVATE PROPERTY, deeded to low tide
Picking of beach rocks PROHIBITED
Please be respectful
Thus we fold into ourselves, kindly asking the assassins and greed-mongers to leave us to our devalued shores.
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