Like any good metaphysician, Carlton the midlevel manager is a little paranoid. He’s moved on from his vision of the world as a stage with not enough props to go around. He thought if he turned a corner quickly he might catch the scenery askew because cosmic minions wouldn't have had a chance to put the shrubbery in place. (He had this vision long before The Truman Show.) He’s also thought that maybe everyone but him is a meat robot. (He stole that one from Vonnegut.) Maybe these are the same fantasy. It’s hard to keep up.
In any case, we’re drawn to those who support our delusions, and it’s Carlton I call when there’s an… idea floating around in my head that others might recoil from. One semester, I’d been teaching Emerson and Thoreau, and had embarked on Melville, whom I’d decided was an anti-Transcendental, finding existential horror, not ecstasy, in the sublime. From Moby-Dick:
Now, in calm weather, to swim in the open ocean is as easy to the practised swimmer as to ride in a spring-carriage ashore. But the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it? Mark, how when sailors in a dead calm bathe in the open sea—mark how closely they hug their ship and only coast along her sides.
I’ve had that moment, in two oceans, a gulf, a couple of lakes, and, once, in a very large bowl of chicken soup in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, and I called Carlton to fill him in on my new cosmology, which I called Gaia. It wasn’t the physical universe of the easily spiritual, as with Thoreau, nor Melville’s blank face of the deep to be feared or raged at for its refusal to speak. It wasn’t Stephen Crane’s naturalistic clockwork universe, impassive or malevolent. If it seemed animistic, that was merely our impression from watching infinite forms emerge from its play and experimentation. Carlton was mouthbreathing loudly on the other end of the connection by now, and I pressed on.
Gaia didn’t want our attentions, or even take any particular interest in what we said or did. It wanted us to play nicely in our own rooms. Until, that is, we began to draw too much attention to ourselves by our ambitions, at which point it resisted us through its physical, social, or psychological agents. This might be the closest it got to having personality. The critical and commercial response to Melville, after he stopped writing South Sea yarns and began to display high artistic consciousness, is a good example.
So are friends who criticize us for taking small necessary steps toward big accomplishment, by saying we could have done better. Dissertators everywhere know the wrath of Gaia, as do marathoners, around mile 18. Think also of the last time you neared the speed of light—the closer you got to it, the bigger your thighs grew, which made it impossible to exceed Gaia’s speed limit. The best, most creative goals are attained only by monstrous energy, most of it used near the end.
Apply all this to running a small inn. As we neared our opening, Gaia knew we were about to accomplish something worthwhile and stymied us at every turn. The house itself began to resist—a splinter under a fingernail, a bad scrape from hardware on a lazy susan that has never in six years offended. E-mails we sent never arrived, cell phones began to drop every call, a check disappeared from the pile of mail it had definitely been in.
When I wouldn’t let those annoyances deter me, the weather got involved. We had a long heat wave made worse by tropical humidity. Cutting the lawn meant dizziness and exhaustion; putting garbage in the cans outside meant hacking through an Amazon of sagging overgrown bushes and vines, hungry mosquitoes thick as gnats, spiders like dinner plates, a plague of black flies roosting on the house like fruit bats. Everything I touched was wet, and the yard reeked of rotting vegetation and excreta from our dogs, the Tolstoys.
“God, this place is gross,” Mrs. Churm said, clawing wildly at a spider web caught in her hair.
We had our jobs at the university, our jobs as parents, our jobs readying the house for the business that would be another job, and I was on the job as a blogger. I began to feel like Job.
Then the temperature dropped 30 degrees in two hours, and dew settled inside the house. The moisture in the air mixed with dust, grape juice droplets, and dog hair in the carpets and turned them gray and sticky. Wolfie slid along the wooden floor in our library to get a ball under a chair and came up looking like Pigpen from Peanuts.
Mrs. Churm felt sick and said she had to lie down. “We’ll never make it, we never should have tried to do all this,” she groaned. “Come on, have a seat.”
“Have a seat? I don’t need to sit. I’m Superman,” I said and kept going, sure that Gaia could be overcome with greater will, or at least the pretense of it. You can’t let Gaia bluff you. By the end of the week we were tired in places that sleep couldn't reach, as Lincoln said.
Our first paying guests, Dr. Dave and his wife, Mrs. Dave, showed up Friday night, during a downpour. I’d been checking the basement for water and heard Mrs. Churm call me. The front porch light had burned out with a pop when she flicked the switch, so it was impossible to make out the strange figures looming on the steps, and she and the boys were huddled on the couch. It took me a while to understand who these people were and what they wanted with us. They claimed to have gotten our address from an office at the university and wanted to stay with us while the man interviewed with the Department of Anthropology at Hinterland. I reluctantly lay down the volume of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary I was brandishing as a weapon and opened the door to let them in.
Dr. Dave was about 27 years old. He had a shaved head and glower that made him look younger. He said, by way of greeting, that he had a black belt in Isshinryu karate, then he clammed up. His wife chattered nervously while we checked them in. She had many reservations about moving to the hinterlands—she used the word—and said her husband, being an ethnographer, was all about “cultures with diversity and large footprints.” When I asked where they were from, she said Omaha. “Nebraska,” she added.
He glared at us, as if daring us to comment on that, and after more silence reminisced about riding with his father around the least-populated parts of the state, winching hogs that had died untimely deaths from disease onto a flatbed truck for disposal. “So we don’t mind moving to a place like Inner Station,” his wife said, explicating his text. She looked at him for approval.
Their room had been ready for visitors for two weeks, but we had one last hurdle to clear: Dr. Dave wanted to eat. It was late, but we’d never written down anywhere that dinner service ended at bedtime. We’d also thought we would have time to get groceries in before guests arrived, and there was nothing in the house. I glanced at Starbuck and Wolfie’s leftover Spaghetti-Os but discounted them. (You can always add salt, but they’ll never see al dente again.)
Luckily, long experience with Gaia’s tricks has made me a master of field expediency, and I cheered up when I saw we had half a dozen eggs left. A knob of cheddar was useable after the white mold had been scraped off. Ham came from sandwiches already made for the next day’s lunch. A tomato on the sill looked good, but after I’d diced it, I tasted it and gagged. The atmosphere of our little House of Usher had turned it to rotten mush without visible sign.
In my hurry, I threw too much butter in the pan, which took too long to foam and so over-browned—the resistance of psychology we inflict on ourselves when success hinges on some last, small, easy detail. As it cooked, the omelet broke open and oozed cheese and luncheon meat, like some abomination waiting for Dr. Dave’s dad under the sun. I managed to flip it over with a desperate, practiced movement—it was heavy and wouldn’t take the spatula—and found it nicely browned and intact enough to serve in sections; it was fine. The plates needed garnish, but the bag of Italian parsley from the fridge dripped brown liquid.
I stared blankly out the back window at the Tolstoys frolicking in the mud and few blades of grass. I hate that yard, I thought. I hate those dogs; I hate this house. The yard was spotted with dog poop melting in the rain and tufts of hair left from the most recent death-struggle between Countess Tolstoy and a neighborhood possum. Still….
I held the dogs off me with one hand and grabbed a fistful of grassy wild onion and wrenched it out of the ground. Back inside, I rinsed it, cut it like chives, sprinkled it around the plates, and added orange wedges I found in Styrofoam boxes of Chinese takeout.
Dr. and Mrs. Dave ate in silence at one of three café tables we’d set for guests. There were candles, and Django Reinhardt turned low. I’ve never been a waiter and didn’t know whether I should engage them or leave them be, and in the end said nothing to them and did nothing for them. I hid in the next room. “We’re ruined,” I whispered to Mrs. Churm, holding my head. Her bottom lip quavered.
“Mr. Churm?” Dr. Dave called from the library— my library, which I’d desecrated in hopes of financial gain, and for naught. I’d treated it as nothing but a room full of books, and now I had strangers masticating in there. I deserved whatever humiliation was about to come, but when that was over, I was going to toss these two out in the rain in celebration of Gaia’s victory….
I went in to them. Mrs. Dave was pushing food around on her plate with her fork. Dr. Dave had a mouthful going, and I heard the crunch between his teeth of some bit of eggshell I’d failed to notice when I broke the eggs.
“Mm,” he said, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. He leaned over and speared the remainder of his wife’s egg and shoved it in his mouth. “Are there seconds?” he said and held up his plate to me in supplication.
Mrs. Churm stood at my side. She lay her hand on my shoulder. I smiled.
“Anything you like,” I said. “Please, make yourself at home.”
To be continued....
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