Monday, October 15, 2007

Maude's Tavern I.1


It's interesting how one's life can be changed forever by events that could easily have been otherwise. Not the big events: birth, death and marriage - you expect those to change your world. Rather, it's the little chance encounter, the brief conversation along the roadside that, years later, seems to have changed everything. The sort of thing that, looking back in one's old age, might cause a pleasant shiver, if one's not a fool.

So, while the main part of this book doesn't start until I left the Island with Sue and Joe to help them with the running of Maude's Tavern, there needs to be this long introduction going back to November 1972 when I was caretaking for the Convoluted Rock Point. Yes, quite a name for a beach place - probably ran off most of the few potential renters who heard of it. Belonging to a curmudgeonly maths professor I met at Cambridge, who understood and took pity on my mood at that time, it was a wonderful place to recover from the loss of Maria.

Back in those days, my favorite song was that old blues tune:

Old Joe Slow don't drive anymore
Old Joe Slow don't drive anymore
Don't plow thru the Beartooth at quarter to four
Old Joe Slow don't drive anymore

Old Joe Slow don't drive anymore
No oranges from Florida, no spruce from the North
West avacado don't come to your door
Old Joe Slow don't drive anymore

Old Joe Slow don't drive anymore
Old Joe Slow don't drive anymore
Just shufflin' around with eyes on th' floor
Old Joe Slow don't drive anymore

Of course, back then, and still now, I didn't sing the verse with "With the death of Maria at the wheel by his door." Still, singing those blues helped work out the sorrow and anger back then, not being able to pray.

The caretaker's shake at RockPoint was two rooms: a kitchen/bedroom/living room combo with a tiny bath run off the cistern on the roof and the garage that also held the few tools I used along with the Willys. And the lean-to off the garage for the goats. I call it a shack since it was pretty run down but it was very sturdy and would stand through several more hurricanes. The view was wonderful even if not as picturesque as at the beachhouse. As I'd scratch in the rocks for the tomatoes, squash and peas, I could look out over the ocean or over at the woody brambles where the goat (Mabel at that time, as I recall) foraged with her kid. When there were no folks staying at Convoluted [named for the coral rock with which it was partly built], I'd spear grouper and other fish in the rocks off the bay. The beachhouse having been built recently, and well, there was not much caretaking needed really - mostly just piddling around with landscaping here and there. All very idyllic and certain to work healing over time.

However, I'd only been there five years when Joe and Sue came there, in November, on their honeymoon. I generally stayed away, or at least out of the way, when there were folks renting the beachhouse and what with my shack being on the other side of the ridge from Convoluted, sometimes folks would stay there weeks and I'd never see them. Over the twenty years that I stayed there, almost all the renters wanted to think of themselves as being on a deserted Caribbean island, albeit a well-appointed one with a caretaker within calling distance should there be any problem.

I'd met the Turners at the airport when I gave them the keys and the car that they'd also rented. But that was all; as Professor Kerns had instructed, "Don't show folks the beachhouse. Just give them the keys, the car and a map and let them find it on their own. As they explore the house and the bay and find out where stuff is and how things work, Voila! the house stops being a rental and becomes their own. And they become regular customers." There are some who don't enjoy such adventure but we're all glad to terminate as soon as possible in that case.

It had been three weeks since the Turners arrived and I'd not even seen them drive by when they pulled up alongside the squash patch where I was scratching out some new plots.

"Hi, Tom. Not much soil there!"

"Well, good morning, Joe. No, just enough to hold some moisture so the plants can feed off the rocks themselves.
And the sunlight too, of course. So, you'll enjoying yourselves?"

"Oh, yes! It is, um, just what Joe and I had imagined. The bay is lovely and the house is so cozy. We'd not even be driving today except we're starving and all out of sodas. Can we get you anything?"

"No thanks, ma'am. Glad you like it here. A bottle of dark rum, maybe?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, we're too young, we'll only 17."

"Today's Sue's birthday!"

"Oh..well, happy birthday, Sue, have fun."

And I went back to scratching on the rocks and cutting brush to make soil. I slashed and burned through more than I'd ever done in a day that day, all the while thinking fitfully about building soil.

Build Soil! That's the founding endeavor of the farmer, building soil. And it takes time. Oh, you can compost and fertilize but it still takes time and patience. Especially on top of the jagged coral rocks of this Island. Folks often just burn it off and take the quick returns from planting in the ashes. That works, and has sustained the small population for many years; however, for the civilization on the Island to really flourish, you've got to turn plants to soil, not just ashes. The more succulent the plants, the better. Chopping up the woody shrubs, after the first time, doesn't give enough nitrogen for the carbon. Of course, you need to keep some of those scrub shrubs anyway, for windbreaks; otherwise, the wind and storms will take away what little soil you've gained.

I sorta enjoy working slowly, by hand, working on little pockets of soil nestled among the rock, plots not much bigger than my hand and growing slowly into one another, there being lots of them. Now that place I was at when you and Sue stopped by this morning, I've been working on it for five years now and the pockets have so grown together that it looks much like a regular garden. However, I know every inch of it, this for squash, that for tomatoes and beans over there. Over the years, folks would occasionally come by and they'd always say, "Tom, when you gonna plant something! Why, even the grass no more than gets to look like something and you cut it down and go back to scratching in the rock." And then newcomers like you'll see the garden and haven't a clue what's underneath it.

You can see the process along the edges, tho. See, over there, it looks like just scrub thicket but as we get closer, see, that chopped out place. Yes, that's a burn pile that I'll use to fertilize here and there. Here's some little grass pockets that i've turned over a couple of times. You can't be in any hurry to get results. For that matter, probably best not to aim on getting results at all, ever; rather, just work for the exercise, for the discipline, for the pleasure of the sea breeze cooling the sweat from the sun as you work. Lots of folks work themselves out in this world for stuff that sours even before they get it, got their eyes down so, they can't see the ditch they're headed for nor the glorious sunset above.

At first, when it's just bare rock it is easy to get discouraged or to fall to daydreaming unless you have patience and take a long view. There is also the other extreme, though not so much here on the Island, of soil so rich and deep that you get complacent and full of pride and have to fight off others for what's not really yours anyway.


Why death and destruction? I don't know; I asked that myself years ago and sorta concluded that wasn't the question I really wanted to ask. Why is often just a way of asking 'What must I do?' And that is a question which can be answered although, being personal, each one must pretty much answer it for themselves. However, in my own life Joe and Sue certainly helped to find the answer.

For some reason, I'd been anticipating their return ever since last November. And they certainly did burst back onto the scene: Joe bouncing out of the plane and into the airport with that strikingly sparse set of luggage and Sue alongside with a baby on her hip who waved back to the other travelers with one hand while his right hand pulled her halter top even lower. Her face lit up so on seeing me that I burst out with 'Mama, you sure look fine!'

"Hi Tom. Meet our son, Christopher."

"Howdy, young man. Ah, what eyebrows you have!" Whereupon I wiggled my eyebrows in his face but, at that point, all he could do was reply with a sort of giggle. I'd never seen a baby with such eyebrows: full and dark, darker that the little bit of hair on the top of his head. Very striking. Peculiar, in fact, and so I wasn't really surprised when Joe and Sue pretty much spent the entire month in Christopher's face, exercising their own muscles and teaching Christopher to speak, after a fashion. And, oh, can he talk pictures with those eyebrows; of course, he was just getting started back then. As was Sue, with her earnest 'I'm serious' devotion to her vocation as mother. Joe too, but for Sue it was pretty much all in all, back then at least. Injustice? Evil? Destruction? World Poverty? Sue's consistent answer to all the world's problems was for her and Joe to have another child.

Passion and good health don't generally predict a large family nowadays; however, if one's as interested in how people change slowly as Sue and as uninterested in modern fads as Joe, then a large and extended family is to be expected.

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