Authors: Nicholas Delbanco
OTHER WORKS BY NICHOLAS DELBANCO
The Count of Concord
Spring and Fall
In the Name of Mercy
The Writers’ Trade & Other Stories
About My Table and Other Stories
In the Middle Distance
Consider Sappho Burning
The Martlet’s Tale
Lastingness: The Art of Old Age
Anywhere Out of the World: Travel, Writing, Death
The Countess of Stanlein Restored: A History of the Countess
of Stanlein ex-Paganini Stradivarius Violoncello of 1707
The Lost Suitcase: Reflections on the Literary Life
Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France
The Beaux Arts Trio: A Portrait
Group Portrait: Conrad, Crane, Ford, James, & Wells
Literature: Craft and Voice (with A. Cheuse)
The Hopwood Lectures: Sixth Series
The Hopwood Awards: 75 Years of Prized Writing
The Sincerest Form: Writing Fiction by Imitation
The Writing Life: the Hopwood Lectures, Fifth Series
Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work (with A. Cheuse)
Speaking of Writing: Selected Hopwood Lectures
Writers and their Craft: Short Stories and Essays on the Narrative (with L. Goldstein)
Stillness and Shadows (two novels by John Gardner)
DALKEY ARCHIVE PRESS
CHAMPAIGN / DUBLIN / LONDON
Originally published by William Morrow and Co. as
, 1978; and
Copyright © 1977, 1978, 1980
Afterword was originally published, in slightly different form, as “My Old Young Books”
The Writer’s Chronicle
, February 2011
Dalkey Archive Press edition and afterword copyright © 2011 by Nicholas Delbanco
First edition, 2011
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Sherbrookes / Nicholas Delbanco. -- 1st ed.
ISBN 978-1-56478-587-9 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Vermont--Fiction. 2. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
Partially funded by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency,
and by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Cover: design and composition by Danielle Dutton, painting by Wolf Kahn
2010 (detail), oil on canvas, 52 x 60 inches
Ebook conversion by Erin Campbell,
TIPS Technical Publishing, Inc.
Printed on permanent/durable acid-free paper and bound in the United States of America
As ever, for Elena
It is cold where he sits. The Big House too is cold, but there at least they can set fires.
He has laid in forty cords, just having the fence-lines trimmed and thinning out the hardwood lot by Bailey’s. What with fourteen fireplaces, he figures on a cord each week. It has taken more than that—but not a bad season for snow, not as high as the window where he sits. Still, the winter has been dark and wet, with a March that set Harriet muttering: why not California, she said to him, why not North Carolina; why not anyplace but this place; what keeps us here this winter?—answer me that.
He made no answer, of course. She never in her life had left and would never leave. You can lie here, Hattie said, all right, I’ll grant you that; you can be buried here, we’ll all of us be buried here, but what’s the matter with a trip to Carolina in the winter?
Or maybe New Orleans; you said you loved New Orleans; remember how you said that once?
The cords line the front of the cow barn. He had had them stacked there in October, starting on the north wall, to keep at least that much wind back. It took ten cords to front the wall, and then they’d gone eighty feet east and eighty feet south and west. “Biggest log cabin around,” Judah joked. “Now all’s we need’s the roof.”
Yet it is a charmed enclosure, four foot high and four foot wide and trim. They took the deadwood first, from the south. He had walked in November through the space the ash logs left and stood in the center of his heat fort. “Lord, give me one more winter,” he prayed. “Lord, grant me one more spring.” Early on, he had had the habit of prayer and then, as he grew older, the habit of blasphemy. Now he mixed the two and wasn’t sure of the proportion. “God, let the sap in me run.”
“You’ve got no earthly reason,” his sister complained, “not to waste this time. Not to visit New Orleans instead of just lying up here.”
But lie here he would, or sit, or stand in his diminishing fort. From the window where he sits now, in April, the wood is a single squat line. There is sugar maple left to burn, and locust, and hickory wood. He’d not permitted sugaring this year. He’d lost his sweet tooth anyhow, and the profit wasn’t worth the trouble, and he wanted sap in the trees. There’d been bloodletting and leeching enough in his time.
So he cut a hole in the pond ice and took the thousand sugaring taps and funneled them down through the hole. Then he took an awl and pierced the thousand buckets three times through each bucket base. It had been slow work. The buckets stood in the sugarhouse, piled ten high and in one hundred piles. Judah spent the best part of an afternoon each afternoon for a week. He’d take a bucket and upend it and drive the awl through in irregular patterns, working it around so just a drop of solder wouldn’t fix the leak. Then, when he’d finished with a pile, he’d set it back in place; his right arm tired easily, even in methodical destruction, and he took his time.
The sugarhouse was empty but for the buckets and vats. The rafters had been charred. There were raccoon leavings at his feet. There was wood by the north wall, though not from this year’s cutting, and Judah remembered, fifteen years back, working with the men. The vats would bubble, boiling, and they cut the syrup down with fat. They’d string lard across the pans, maybe four inches over, and he never tired watching how the froth would bubble and accumulate and mount to the fatback, then fall. He tired of nothing, those years. He never tired from the heat or the twenty-four-hour work shifts or the taste of Scotch with syrup. “It sweetens the whiskey,” he said, “and sours the sugar water. Best of both possible worlds.”
Weak sun shines through the twelve-pane window to his left. He turns his face. He shuts one eye, then the other. With one eye shut, his nose appears, and he concentrates on his nose and shifts the closed eye and watches his nose-line shift. Harriet would want him in for lunch and, before that, for a drink.
“You mix,” she’d say. “I’ll have what you’re having.”
“I’ll have a whiskey.”
“Not that again,” she’d complain. “How about a whiskey sour? Or a sloe gin, maybe. Or a Manhattan; why don’t you offer me that?”
“I’m having whiskey,” he’d say. “You have whatever you want.”
“Make me a Manhattan, please,” she’d say. “I can’t abide whiskey straight. And one single maraschino cherry, for the taste.”
He would have started already, since he knew the game. He would select the bottles and glasses from the sideboard, measuring her cocktail with deliberation.
“Your health,” he’d offer.
There would be ice in the ice bucket, and maraschino cherries on the silver tray. Judah watches his nose, in the sun’s light, go incorporeal; he rearranges his scarf. He fills this space. It isn’t over-windy, but he’s brought his sheep rug and has some deciding to do. His sister can wait on her noontime maraschino cherries, and he can wait on his scotch. He thinks himself a hunter; his first quarry is his wife.
There are ways and ways, Judah says to himself.
All kinds of ways. There’s fifteen ways to skin a cat, and the whole town’s studying. I got to bait them with the prettiest. There’s lawcourts, come to that. I got to know what I’m about before I get untracked on it; I got to bait my traps.
This satisfies him, seemingly; he puts his hand on his belly, then thigh. The chair he rises from is a child’s settee. The Toy House had been designed for his grandfather’s children, and his children’s children and their friends. It is a replica of the Big House, scaled one to ten, but without the fireplaces, since there should be no risk of fire where young people play. His grandfather had caused equivalent gables and the clock tower to be erected; the Toy House, in faithful imitation, is built of white clapboard and slate. Four stories high, the Toy House is just tall enough for Judah to stand at his ease. He measures six foot two in socks; now he has boots on, and stretches. His right hand touches the upstairs landing, outside of what was Maggie’s room; he puts his middle finger on the place where she would sleep.
Past seventy, Judah Porteous Sherbrooke started counting. Numbers were a code he’d cracked when young: six is consistently six, and six times six is thirty-six even if you have to multiply it, in 1976, by six again before you get what six could buy when Judah had been born. He’d lived through the nation’s lean times. But there’d been food enough to eat, more than enough to go around, and they’d shipped apples and eggs and beef down in the club car to his cousins in New York. He wondered if his Wall Street cousins sold apples in Manhattan. And though he’s joked for years that what this country needs is a good five-cent cigar, it isn’t funny anymore; it makes him sad to think that nothing worth the buying costs a nickel now. They’ve wiped the silver, he would say, off of that buffalo’s ass.
Still, eighteen times eighteen is six times three times six times three; he can verify that. And a square has equal sides, though the sides can be eighty feet or eighteen inches, and the sides will enclose equivalent angles, each of them ninety degrees. He recollects license-plate numbers long past his memory for cars, or who was driving them, or why. He recollects telephone numbers long past the time when his wife and son relinquished those numbers and left. He has Social Security numbers and license plates and bank account numbers, and he knows them all by heart; they are the ciphers of integrity, so he ranks and musters digits with the certainty things fit.
Elvirah Hayes had been the daytime operator, and Lucy Gregory had been the nighttime operator. For their small town’s small switchboard, they needed no one else. He knew that they kept apple trees, so Judah sent them pears. Sometimes he’d ask Lucy to call up Elvirah for him and inquire how she was feeling that night.
“Who wants to know?” she would ask.
“Your devoted admirer,” Judah would say, courteous. “J. P. Sherbrooke calling.”
“Why, Mr. Sherbrooke,” she would say. “How very kind of you to ask. I might have known it was you. You and your consideration that would call.”
Her voice would flute and twitter, scaling octaves when not on the job. He imagined that the earphones kept her orderly; she raised Dalmatian dogs.
“Yes. I’m fine. It’s a lovely summer breeze this evening. It’s kind of you to ask.”
But telephone operators now are long-distance, or information operators out of Burlington, and their voices are not voices he can trust. Sometimes he calls to verify his memory of numbers, and they are bored or rude.
“If you knew the number, why’d you ask it?” one of them complained. “We don’t have all that much time.”
Numbers segment the visible world; he knows each fraction of his thousand acres, and the way the fields and woodlots edge up against each other. He remembers Maggie’s legs by the lilt of her last four telephone numbers in Manhattan; six-eight-two-three was the rhythm she beat out when walking:
rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
. Once, at the Rutland State Fair, he had guessed the quantity of pickles collected in a pickle barrel to the nearest dozen; once, at a Bulova Watch Display, he guessed the grains of sand in an hourglass to the nearest hundred and won the Bulova Watch. “Them that’s got shall get,” he said. “And them that’s not shall lose”—and handed the trinket to Maggie and told her to hoard time.
Harriet sounds the gong. The gong is electric but she can set the frequency of beats; a bronze fist beats on the shield. The gong hangs on the porch in summer, and Judah remembers hearing it from the far pastures, summoning him. “The sun is past the yardarm,” his father used to say. “Time to wet the decks.” His father had booked passage on the Titanic’s maiden voyage, but had had to cancel three days previous. He liked to talk thereafter about his brush with death; he had, his wife complained, a sailor’s tongue.
They say a baby whale’s six foot by fourteen foot. And when it feeds it swallows waves entirely, then spits the salt part back.
The pasture where he lay would swarm with bees, there would be timothy grass and butterflies above him, and the gong’s call would sound, in the windy distance, like the call of mourning doves. Sometimes he packed a picnic lunch (his first horse was an Appaloosa and stood fourteen hands; he remembers that, and the Morgan’s height, but not the horses’ names) and rode to Shaftsbury Hollow or followed the Walloomsack six miles down to Eagle’s Bridge.
The whole damn town’s a salt lick,
he pronounces to himself.
An edifying sight, my Lord, all those tongues in that one groove. The central declivity, yes my Lord, and envy up the shaft. They’ve salted down the crops and laid the region waste and are proud of it into the bargain; they plant mothballs now and concrete. They print brochures.
He shuffles to the Toy House door. It opens out; he opens it and finds the April noontime warm; he locks and padlocks the door. There are lilac bushes to his right, and a tamarack tree; the tamarack is starting to go green. Judah crosses the gravel driveway and makes for the Big House porch, stepping on the flagstones, sidestepping mud. He brings both feet together on a single stone, gathering himself. He uses his left foot first. His boots are Dunham boots, with enough tread on them still to pick up all the mud he’d need to bank a ditch, or enough mud anyway to set Harriet screaming. They are eyelet boots and trouble to unlace, and he hopes to keep them on and therefore takes care with the path. His familiar chorus starts on the seventh step; he rests and waits it out.
All things begin again, young woman. Maggie. Except this one thing, since it never stops. She’s coming back to you. There’s venality abounding on your chosen plot.
He holds his hand up, imperious. There is wind in the lilac branches, and the gong has worked itself to equanimity. He mounts the Big House porch.
“Finney”—he had used the phone in the garage—“I need advice.”
“Shoot. What can I do you for, Jude?”
“Advice,” he said. “The sort that takes some thinking out. Not just off the top of your head.”
“I’m with you,” Lawyer Finney said. “I’m listening.”
He leaned against the pony cart. There were swallow’s nests above him; the floor was cement.
“Let’s say about snowing,” he said. “Let’s say it doesn’t snow by night and there’s no snow on the ground. Then you wake up in the morning and it still ain’t snowing but there’s snow two inches deep. Well,” he rested his left hand on the black telephone. He coiled the cord. “It’s circumstantial, ain’t it, that it snowed? I mean that’s circumstantial evidence, correct?”
“Correct,” Finney said. “That’s a valid inference.”
“How valid?” Judah asked.
“About as good,” said Finney, “as the one that says the sun will rise. No law to prove it, I suppose, but nothing likely to disprove it, and the inference is sound enough to argue on.”
“In front of any judge?”
Finney ruminated. “In front of any I know.”
“So no one’s got to see the snow to prove that it’s been snowing?”
“They got to see the
snow. They don’t have to witness the act.”
“And what if they was in another county when it snowed?”
There was noise on the line between them. “You’re losing me, Jude. I don’t exactly follow.”
The cord was split. He saw the wires through the rubber casing. He put his finger on the rubber’s oval separation. “What if they arrive too late, I mean, to witness it? What if the ground’s gone muddy again, and there’s no snow left excepting only that I tell them it’s been snowing?”