The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: Slow Drift

The eternal winter of our discontent

By Louis Black, October 2, 2009, Columns

Southern Vermont, Winter 1973: It was the softest morning I'd ever experienced. I knew that I'd always remember it that way, and I always have. Rarely are the most significant, life-changing realizations so finite and contained as to be knowable to us when they are actually happening. Coming to a profound personal revelation, no matter how starkly dramatic, is usually a subconscious voyage that is obvious only in retrospect. Which doesn't mean that immediate awareness never happens. It's just that those moments of self-knowledge that rip through one like lightning – slicing you open, exploding your head, and searing your soul – are very rare.

Lying in bed, we looked out the window at the incessantly falling snow. The stillness of the morning inside the room belied the wind-whipping strength of the early winter storm outside that was blanketing almost all of New England white. She said that this was our storm (and only ours), because the flakes were falling so gently and with such grace.

We were visiting old friends of mine who lived in a modified A-frame. The house was far off a dirt road that wound down most of a mountain before connecting with a paved, though still rough, backcountry road. Although it continued to snow heavily through the day and well into the night, the weather was quite welcome. In New England, if you lived in a city – in Boston or Brattleboro, Vt. – getting around during a snowstorm could be a nightmare.

Winter in Boston was especially ugly during storms. After work, heading home, one could be sure that at least some, if not almost all, of the trolleys on the MTA aboveground lines would be running at ridiculously long intervals, if they were working at all. This meant long waits in the snow for a trolley that you weren't even sure was coming. If you lived in a rural area, however, plans for any kinds of travel were scrapped. No one, neither boss nor friend, anywhere in that part of the state would expect you to show up.

We stayed in the guest room off the living room; a huge, old bed filled most of the space. This was long before I paid any attention to mattresses, but I remember that the many comforters and old feather pillows made the bed magnificently expansive and embracing. All the heat in the house came from wood-burning stoves. There was a huge stove in the living room, while the kitchen housed a big, four-burner wood stove that served both cooking and heating needs. There was an ongoing effort to at least keep some embers always glowing, so the fire would never have to be started from scratch.

McColl, South Carolina, Autumn 1972: When we decided to spend a couple of months in South Carolina visiting friends, none of us had even a distant thought that it might get very cold in the South. As with many of our northern-born and -bred misconceptions, we immediately discovered that we were so wrong. It wasn't just the freezing-cold mornings, but that etiquette required the first one out of bed in the mornings to start a fire in one of the house's coal-burning stoves. This meant braving the cold as one dressed, then going right outside, where it was colder, to the coal pile about 50 feet behind the house. There you'd fill a bucket with coal, head back inside, and try to start a fire – but as the stoves were old and in bad condition, this wasn't easy. Consequently, after waking most mornings, we'd all lie as still as we could, hoping not to make too much noise so that someone else would get up first.

The house was an old cotton plantation mansion that had been abandoned and decaying for decades. Though the house had gone to ruin, a local farmer had long rented and cultivated the cotton fields surrounding it. Stretching out in every direction, the fields would be white with heavy, hanging cotton plants. After the plants were stripped by large harvesting machines, the fields would look war-torn and pathetic: acre after acre of battered brown bushes, with bits of cotton still hanging from each one. These bits would be stripped off the bushes by hand by small crews of black workers who put the cotton into long bags that they dragged behind them.

Our friends had moved in and were working on restoring the house, room by room. When we first visited, they had already finished with the kitchen and had made the adjoining dining room usable. On the first floor, they had added on a modern bathroom, with running water and a flush toilet. Porches surrounded the house on both the first and second stories. Mostly, we'd sleep in largely empty rooms on the second floor, wrapped tightly in our sleeping bags, set on top of two or three old mattresses stacked in bed frames. If the morning wasn't too cold, we'd go take our morning piss off the second-story balcony, right outside our room. Those days when the weather was good, toward evening we'd sit out on the front porch, all talking, sipping Southern Comfort while taking turns turning the handle of the hand-cranked ice-cream maker. If we got drunk enough, later in the evening we'd climb up on the cotton harvesters and try to start them.

Clearly we were in the South, quite a different world than the one we knew. Not only were grits an important part of every breakfast, but occasionally one of the people who lived in the house would go out, shoot a squirrel, and then cook it. I ate the grits most every morning but never even tasted any squirrel.

A friend of the folks there would sometimes visit, bringing salt pork that he would fry up. While cooking it, he would pour on more salt – which seemed a lot like bringing coals to Newcastle – thus doubling up his bet on having a heart attack at a young age, seemingly a near-sure thing anyway. He'd use big salt shakers made for movie-theatre popcorn because he said they put out a lot more salt than the regular store-bought salt containers.

Southern Vermont, Winter 1973: I had never been even close to feeling at home anywhere until I moved to Vermont in 1970. Loving the state was easy, but earning a living there wasn't. I'd regularly have to go back down to Boston to find work.

During one of those Boston stays, I got a job working in Boston University's administration offices. She was already working there, though in a different office. Noticing each other, we took to exchanging smiles during morning coffee in the break room. One day, I bumped into her in the hallway, and we started talking. After that we'd sit together for our morning coffee. A few weeks along, she'd asked me if I wanted to go with her to a poetry reading in Cambridge.

After that we began spending a lot of time together, so it was quite natural to ask her to join me on the Vermont trip, even though we still didn't know each other that well. On that first soft, snowy morning, we woke about the same time, but she soon got out of bed to go out to the kitchen to see if she could help with breakfast. I just lay there, closing my eyes as light tumbled into the room from the window.

My family has never done happiness or contentment – the feeling being that if we embrace such, immediately we will be punished for our audacity by having whatever generates those sweet feelings disappear. At our best, when everything is going right, we can work our way up to feeling only slightly haunted or experiencing just troubling discontent.

Lying there, enjoying the storm outside and her smell on the pillows, I should have felt fine – and for a second, I did. The welcoming bed, the snow coming down outside the window, our friends' affection, the always remarkable feeling of having just woken next to someone whom you care for, and that great morning smell of coffee combined all together. The morning was so soft, I felt myself sinking into it.

But to sink into it back then would have meant losing me first. Which wasn't going to happen – not in those days, not at that time. Suddenly, the good feelings of the morning fell away. Lying there, I began to shiver. Whatever it was, I knew it wasn't physical but mental. Getting too close to enjoyment, I found the whole range and weight of the terror of everyday living had whipped out of wherever it was hiding, taking advantage of the calm to overwhelm me.

I lay there shaken but not scared. Without my consciously realizing it, these feelings had always been and would continue to be at my life's core, not rare or even occasional but rather of every day and every night. There was a sweetly sick comfort in this, because, though depressing, I knew this was my way. And then I also knew that even though I had thought I was falling in love with her, I wasn't. In fact, as much as I had truly believed it was love I was looking for, in a way sad and certain that morning, I knew it wasn't – but that, whatever it was, now I had found it, and it wasn't going to be leaving me any time soon.

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