Read Grist Mill Road Online

Authors: Christopher J. Yates

Grist Mill Road (12 page)

The upturn in our family's fortunes—which was also the upturn in sleepy Roseborn's fortunes—had come early in the nineteenth century when workers blasting out the bed of the Delaware
and Hudson Canal discovered the snout end of a thirty-square-mile belt of high-grade limestone near Roseborn, New York, a large portion of which turned out to be buried beneath land owned by a farmer and recent immigrant from Denmark named Jens Henrik Jensen.

Every time we ate dinner in my childhood home, I got spooked by the oil painting of Jens Henrik that hung at the end of our dining table, the great Dane leering at me, pale faced and sharp boned, a dark mop of hair falling over his brow, almost all the way down to his lurid blue eyes. Noticing the eyes of this long-dead forebear as they followed me around the dining room—eyes that were clearly my eyes as well—I was filled every time with a dread sense of doom.

Prior to the discovery of Roseborn's powdered gold, Jens Henrik Jensen had owned and operated a grist mill (hence the name of our road), but shrewdly converted this to a cement grinding mill soon after the limestone's unearthing. Thereafter, production of Roseborn cement would quickly become the bedrock of our family business, a company known to this day by anyone who works in the construction industry, The Jensen Royal Cement Company. (Jens Henrik inserted the
Royal
both for the sake of gravitas and to honor Denmark's King Frederik VI.)

Apparently this ultra-high-grade limestone was some seriously good blow, good enough that our humble town rapidly gave birth to fifteen cement companies and lent its name to a whole new breed of cement … drumroll … Roseborn cement! And who in the world
does not
know that Roseborn cement was used for the Grand Central Terminal, the piers of the Brooklyn Bridge, New York's earliest skyscrapers, and the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty?

Shame on you.

From its discovery to present day, Roseborn cement experienced many ups and downs—our natural cement is formidably strong once it sets, but frustratingly it takes an incredibly long time to do so. Yes, tough but stupidly slow, Roseborn cement is the Sylvester Stallone of the construction world.

OK, let's pause there for a moment while I admit to employing humor to hide the fact that I am, truth be told, an enormous cement nerd. I find all this stuff fascinating, and even as a young girl, cement intrigued me. The Society for the Preservation of Historical Cements (a real thing, I kid you not) would hold its meetings at our house, and I would sit at the back of the room trying to take it all in—my father was a high-ranking official in the society and anything my father did fascinated me. The gatherings were hosted by a man named Pete whose face must have been carved from a rock, with a beard that looked like it was dusted with cement powder. Pete worked for the Conservancy and seemed to be the local expert on anything and everything, coming to our school sometimes to give talks on glaciers or the flora and fauna of the Swangums, but while glaciers left me cold and pine needles didn't spike my interest, there was something about the topic of cement that lit me up like gunpowder.

Anyway, by the end of the nineteenth century, Roseborn's fifteen competing cement plants were producing 42 percent of the nation's cement. However, there was trouble in store for our heroic local product because a foreign interloper had entered the market as well, a vile and inferior slurry known as Portland cement.

An early-nineteenth-century concoction, Portland cement was a man-made product cooked up by a bricklayer in Leeds, England. Yes, that's right, Lady Liberty's patriotic foundation, Roseborn cement, was being threatened by nothing other than limey limestone.

King Kong v. Godzilla, pah! You ain't seen nothing until you've seen two cements facing off. The war was hard fought, but there could be only one winner. Unfortunately, the long curing time of Roseborn cement made it unpopular in the hurried post–World War One construction boom with its vast road- and bridge-building programs, and so the winner was, alas, Portland cement.

However, as it happened, this egregious injustice turned out to be hugely advantageous to our family, the reason for which we will come to mercifully soon.

So, thanks to Portland cement, Roseborn cement fell on hard times, and I'm afraid it ain't pretty when a strain of natural cement lets itself go. Crapulent plants lay in disarray on the outskirts of Roseborn like broken men, their glory days behind them, until finally only one was left standing—Jensen Royal Cement. But although our family's business survived, it now ran unprofitably, staying open only because the cement business was so beloved by my grandfather, William Jensen, a shrewd operator who'd made money from investments in the 1920s and then, according to family legend, having been warned of the Wall Street crash in a dream by Jens Henrik Jensen, shifted all his profits away from shares and into movies and property just before the lower-rear hole was ripped from the stock market.

The Jensen Royal Cement Company returned slowly to profitability watched over by William Jensen and then, despite more hard times ahead, under the stewardship of my father, Walt Jensen.

Finally our family business flourished anew, and soon we did more than flourish—beginning with an inspirational act of diversification, we grew rich. A fact of which my mother was supremely proud.

Laura Jensen, n
é
e Snedecker, was a most august concrete baroness, and as a wife and mother she was much devoted to her husband, my father Walt Jensen, and her two sons, Bobby and Pauly. She was well known in Roseborn for her conspicuous wealth, her huge financial support of the Republican Party, and her jaw-dropping, eye-shutting bluntness. My mom had a mysterious ability to identify a person's weak points and proceed to ask the question that least wanted asking in any given social situation. For example—

My daughter says you're good with the boys. Not so much with the girls. Is there a reason for that, Mr. Bocelli? This question was asked right in front of me, to my teacher in tenth grade. Now, firstly, I had said no such thing, my mom had simply intuited it from several completely innocent statements. Secondly, and even worse, it was absolutely true. And finally, God help us all,
Mr. Bocelli was secretly, but quite obviously, gay—or
a fag,
as he would have been termed back then. Please don't judge me for my use of this word, or at the very least, hold fire for now, because we'll return to this later on. It's just a fact that, in the early 1980s, and in the place I grew up, for reasons I suppose I never thought about at the time, a faggot was one of the worst things you could be. Look, I'm a reporter, I am only reporting the facts.

Anyway, then there was the time after church when we were saying our goodbyes to the Snells, my best friend Jen's dad having just told us how his mother had recently died in a car accident resulting from a failure to stop at a set of rail crossing lights, at which point my mother said, Oh, that's too terrible for words, and not at all a nice way to go. (Always, immediately before one of my mom's gaffes, there came a pause, at which point my stomach would drop to my pelvic floor.)
Sooo,
she continued, a genuine note of curiosity in her voice, do they think it might have been because of the drinking?

As you might imagine, it was tact and sensitivity such as this that would turn the forthcoming monocular portion of my childhood into one never-ending party.

Only here's the thing about my mother's forensic ability to sniff out the awkward question and then go ahead and ask it. While in social situations such behavior is generally considered, at the very least, gauche, in the world of news reporting, awkward question–asking is something that's actually considered a skill. In fact, you might even say that awkward question–asking is the chief requirement of the job, which means that the very quality that made me squirm so often as a child, the quality in my mother that upset me the most as an adolescent, would in fact turn out to be her gift to me when, years later, I would discover that although my eyes and sense of humor had been passed down to me from the Jensen side of the family, my ability to perform in my job was 100 percent Snedecker. But despite my visible discomfort, my mother would continue until the day that she died to float through life blissfully unaware she was considered by the local populace to be the foot-in-mouth queen of Roseborn.

Besides, my mother occupied another position, and this was one of which she was both proud and very much aware, because according to family legend, Laura Snedecker had once saved the life of Jensen Royal Cement, and therefore was absolutely entitled to sit every day on the luxurious upholstery of the family throne. And how did my mother earn her crown? Well, despite the fact that Jensen Royal Cement had emerged as Roseborn's only survivor in its battle with Portland cement, the keeping of the business afloat remained a daily struggle. Roseborn cement was very much a niche product, and the prospect of financial ruin still loomed large. It's true that the business needed the kiss of life, and legend has it that one day, while they were courting, my mother heard that her beau Walter had come down with a bad case of the flu. Pulling on her boots double-quick, she then sped around to his house with a can of soup to find my father sweaty and delirious, but nursed him back to health with hand-fed spoonfuls of Campbell's Condensed Cream of Mushroom. As my father emerged from his fevered dreams, he saw the empty soup can and the word
mushroom
glowing as if lit up like a neon sign, and that's when the idea struck him.

You see, the extraction of vast quantities of limestone from the ground leaves behind dirty great holes, which means that on our land, a short trot behind the stables, we had ourselves a fine thirty-acre cave. (That's almost twenty-three football fields.)

Delirium, delirium, Laura, can, soup, mushroom, cave … wait …
mushroom cave
 …

Bingo!

Within a year my parents had wed and the thirty-acre cave beneath the Jensen estate was producing five tons of mushrooms every day. From 1955 to 1969, Jensen Royal Cement's cave was the almost sole supplier of mushrooms to the Campbell Soup Company, which means that, in 1962, when Andy Warhol exhibited his thirty-two cans of Campbell's soup, one of those cans would theoretically have been full of Jensen-cave-grown mushrooms. Which is why my mother hung a copy of the Warhol painting right next to the oil of the great Dane, Jens Henrik Jensen.

Meanwhile my dad, an intensely quiet man, never spoke up about his role in keeping the business afloat, and no one in our family ever publicly questioned the details of the story, although personally I have always wondered about the likelihood of my mother's choice of condensed cream of mushroom as medicine—because isn't there a reason why chicken noodle soup is known as Jewish penicillin? Who on earth would take a flu patient condensed cream of mushroom soup as opposed to chicken noodle? But enough of my awkward questions. However it came about, Jensen Royal Cement's slim profits were now being fattened up on sweet fungo-dollars, and although the Campbell Soup Company would eventually find itself an even cheaper source of mushrooms, our family business had had a good run and my father had never been one to tread water. In fact, it was time to further diversify. At the beginning of 1969, the Jensen Royal Cement Company started to produce … I can hardly bear to say it, but here it comes, the vile twist in the tale …
Portland cement
.

Back in the 1930s, it had been noticed that if you added just a little sip of Roseborn cement to its Portland nemesis, the result was a considerably stronger cement, and by the end of the 1960s, thanks to advancing technology, it became possible to create this construction dream team without having to manually combine the two products.

All of which means that, while it was mushrooms that had kept our family business afloat, it was the enemy cement that led to Jensen's 1970s boom, a dramatic rise in profits led by sales of a new miracle product, a mixture of Roseborn and Portland cements, King Kong
and
Godzilla, sold under the proprietary name, Roseport Cement.

The money was about to start rolling in. A new cement had been born to the world, and, some three months later, so was I.

*   *   *

AND NOW HERE I WAS,
teetering on the brink of adolescence, walking up our expensively paved driveway, between low walls of plowed snow, toward our large ancestral home, thinking about
Matthew Weaver (and yet not really thinking about the real Matthew Weaver), slowing down slightly when I noticed my dad's truck hurriedly parked close to the front door, two of its wheels buried in the snow just off the driveway, a half-grassed job.

Which meant that clearly something was wrong, because my father performed even the smallest of life's tasks with pinpoint precision. Right away I felt sick, my first thought being that maybe something terrible had happened to one of my brothers (who both lived out their lives neck-deep in dangerous vices), and I started to run to the front door.

In fact the worst thing in the world hadn't yet happened. The worst thing in the world was actually about to happen, and it was going to happen to me—or so it foolishly felt at the time.

Twelve years old, what did I know about anything? The world has taught me a lot since then.

*   *   *

OPENING THE FRONT DOOR AND
seeing my brothers in the front room, very much alive, I felt a surge of relief. There was Bobby feet-up in the recliner, TV remote in one hand, fresh vodka-tonic in the other (if you ever asked what he was drinking, his response was 7UP), and there was Pauly, the younger of my two brothers, who preferred hash to hooch, stretched out on the sofa with a forearm draped over his forehead, looking like a Victorian lady recovering from a bout of the vapors.

Hey, little sis, said Bobby.

What's going on? I said.

You'd better go see for yourself, said Bobby, making an upward gesture with his drink.

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