Authors: Richard Ford
The poured gray foundation is what's left intactâa surprisingly small rectangular pit with a partial set of wooden
steps going nowhere. The big Trane heat pump's in place in the dank water that's collected. But everything else in the “basement”âbicycles, hope chests, old uniforms, generations of shoes, wine racks, busted suitcases someone's father owned, boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff you should've gotten rid of decades agoâall that's been sucked up and blown away to some farmer's field in Lakehurst, to be found, possibly returned, or else put in a museum to commemorate the awesomeness of mother nature when she gets it in her head to fuck with you.
All four other houses down Poincinet are simply missing, leaving
vacant cellars like my old place. Though opening up the space these houses so recently occupied has reconfigured a new pretty vistaâocean and beach the way they used to be, time immemorial. A lone fisherman in hip waders is visible, casting for stripers with his long pole to the incoming tide. He's dressed in a bulky cable-knit, heavy gloves, and an orange watch cap, and doesn't seem to have caught anything. Out at sea, between the land and the fog bank, an unmeasurable distance from where I'm sitting behind the wheel, a great white cruise shipâa wallowing twelve-deckerâsits motionless against the gray. Carnival, Princess, Norwegianâone of those. I have a feeling passengers are at the rails, scoping out what used to be New Jersey, taking snaps with their phones and shooting them back to Ashtabula and Boise, as they ply
their way toward Great Abaco. I'm not so certain they're empathetic to our lives ashore.
I, though, am struck by something I've never thought beforeâeven in my role as residential specialist, seeking shelter for those in need. And it is .Â .Â . what little difference a house makes once it's gone. How effortlessly, almost sweetly, the world re-asserts its claim and becomes itself again. People wring their hands and cry bloody murder when a garish new structure rises and casts its ugly shadow; or when a parking lot behind the Pathway paves over the sacred midden of the lost Lenape or a wetland where herons nested and ducks stopped to rest. As if these evils last forever. They don't. All may not be vanity (though plenty is); but nothing's here to stay. There's something to be said for a good no-nonsense hurricane, to bully life back into perspective. It's always worthy of our notice when we don't feel precisely the way we thought we would. Easy to say, of course, since I don't live here anymore.
Up the beach, opened by the absence of what were people's houses, the sight line stretches all the way up to Ortley Beach and beyond, to where the old roller-coaster bones sit marooned in seawater. Two tiny, faraway figures are walking a dog along the surf's lap. A front loaderâI hear its distant beeping through my open windowâis slowly returning sand to the beach from the blanketed streets. I hearâover the berm, out of sightâthe clatter of hammers striking wood,
and the cheerful hum of Spanish. How strange life is. One day Reynoso, the next Sea-Clift. “Oh, jes,” one of them shouts (they're English speakers now). “It's cunt sniff.” At least I think that's what the words say. Frolicsome musical notes rise from their radio and over the berm top. They're gutting or hauling or de-molding someone's dream home, no doubt wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves against the spores. “
SÃ, sÃ, sÃ pero. Hees
a Navy SEAL.”
someone answers. “Sex can't be
” They all laugh. Good luck is infectious.
But where's Arnie? Am I stood up? About to be ambushed from a Lexus parked at a distance? People distrust realtors in a climate of disaster. We're wildcards in the human deck, always filling out a winning hand. Though not me. Not now.
My stomach, however, has begun skirling around and ker-clunking. I should've bought cashews back at the Hess. It's almost eleven. My All-Bran is barely recollectable. I put a stick of spearmint in my mouth and let it calm things. Whether you wear falsies or not (I don't), whether you've been eating garlic or onions or pizza or
and brush your teeth eight times a day, being “older” makes you worry that you reek like a monkey's closet. Sally assures me I don't, that she'd give me “the signal.” But if the machine's winding down, its parts start to fester. I've lately begun brushing my
tongue morning, noon, and night, since the tongue's the petri dish for every sort of rankness. In general, it's fair to say that as you get older you experience a complexer relationship with the ongoingâwhich seems at odds with how it should be.
I wait in my car, chewing, beside the ruins of my house. There's no reading matter available. I've left the
at home. Here's only a pamphlet Dr. Zippee amusedly gave me, depicting the exercise routine for relieving movement-inhibiting neck pain. Cartoons show a little round-headed stick figure rotating his bubble head and smiling to exhibit the golden way to neck happiness. In other squares he's displaying a mouth-down frown to show the “wrong way”âthat leads to traction, invasive surgery-through-the-throat, painkillers, Betty Ford, if not all the way to Rahway. I do feel new Rice Krispies at shoulder level, which makes me wrangle my neck around. Tension's the culprit; the tension of Arnie Urquhart not goddamn being here like he said he would.
The only other reading material in my car is a copy of
We Salute You
, the publication we volunteers put into the hand of each Iraq and Afghanistan returnee the moment after we shake that hand and declare “Welcome home! Thank you for your service!”
We Salute You
is a useful cache of vital information pertaining to anything the home-leave soldier might need, want, or encounter in the first six hours stateside (assuming no one's meeting him or her, as surprisingly happens much of
We Salute You
is printed by a cabal of right-wing, freedom-forum loonies out in Ohio, who nonetheless manage to do a damn good job because they don't stuff
magazine with any of the gun-control-anti-abortion-back-to-the-stone-age bullshit they
put in their regular anti-Obama mailings. I know, because these publications came to my house, until I made a complaint with the Post Office, after which they still came, right through the electionâthough by now the crackpot Ohioans might've concluded their message didn't get through.
We Salute You
is printed for each U.S. port of troop entryâL.A., New YorkâNewark, Boston, Houston, Seattle, even Detroit. It's twenty gray newsprint pages (an online edition's in the works) full of important phone numbers, e-mail and postal addresses for whatever geographical area the trooper or marine or airman first puts a foot down on home soil. Panic attack, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse helpline numbers are included. Veteran-friendly taxi companies. Directions to transportation hubs. Numbers to purchase a phone card. Every church you can think of, including Muslims, atheists, and Agnostics Anonymous. All these numbers are, of course, obtainable by anyoneâthough not in such an easy, free-of-charge, depoliticized format. There's also plenty of less expectable info. Clean Vietnamese massage boutiques. Outfitters for mule pack-ins to the Sierras. A clearinghouse for
online sites to help you find a former girlfriend who's abandoned you. Chat-line numbers dealing with revenge issues. Private phone numbers of all U.S. congressmen and senators. Sites for how to buy Cuban cigars and condoms by the gross. There's an LGBT strength-in-numbers line. Even a number for a Socrates Death-With-Dignity support league, where psychologists with degrees from Oberlin and Macalester try to talk a soldier back from the brink while seeming to understand that death might seem the only option.
Our mission, of course, occasionally fails. One young sailor from Piscataway, three days out of Kandahar, stuffed the exhaust pipes of his Trans-Am with stolen copies of
We Salute You'
s and slipped the surly bonds in the Washington Crossing State Park parking lotâa note taped to the steering wheel saying “Here's the future. Get ready for it.” There's nothing you can do when someone's ready to go, though possibly a handshake didn't hurt.
Y CAR CLOCK NOW SAYS ELEVEN FIFTEEN
striper guy is stowing his gear in his bucket and notching his hook to his rod handle. The tide's come in. He's fished with his back to the mayhem ashore as if it wasn't there.
The tiny, distant beach figures with the trotting dog alongside have come clearly into view. They turn out to be
the Glucks, unsociable neighbors from when I lived here. Arthur's a defrocked Rutgers professor (plagiarismâthe usual “overlookings” and “carelessnesses”). He's trudgering along with his plump wife, Allie Ann, and an all-but-immobilized, low-riding fat brown dog I'd have sworn they had ten years ago, which would make it eighteen. “Poot.” The Glucks, who must be in their late eighties, are preserved not much better than their dog and are walking with old-age difficulty along the tide-narrowed beach, arms looped, chins lowered, dressed like Eskimos, leaning into each other so that they look like one lumpy human package. Are they here, I wonder, to survey the ruins? Their house has vanished. Or did they get away (like me) and buy into staged-retirement in Somerville that buses them to the Whole Foods, keeps Columbia-trained M.D.s onsite 24/7, and lets them keep their '95 Electra 'til the State takes the keys. I'd rather jump in my watery basement hole than talk to them. What rueful recognitions would glint in their beady eyes? “Oh, yes of course, Mr. Bascombe. Of course, of course, OF COURSE!” How many old acquaintances, neighbors, former teachers, fellow marines have we all caught a glimpse of in an unexpected place and dived in an alley rather than face for a second? All because: (1) We don't want to; (2) There's too much unsaid that doesn't need to be saidâa Chinese wall of words that would fall on top of us and we'd die; (3) We know others feel
the very same way about
. We're, most of us, the last persons anyone in his right mind wants to talk to on any given day, including Christmas.
I ease down in my seat and raise my window in case the Glucks see me. But they don't so much as glance at my car, parked fifty meters from where their house once staunchly stood. They plod along the empty beach like specters, their dog at their knees. Where would they be going but back into the fog?
And then all of a sudden, I don't want to be here anymoreâat all. Whatever inland protections I've come armed with have worn away and rendered meâa target. Of loss. Of sadness. The thing I didn't want to be and explicitly why I haven't ventured down here in these last weeks, and shouldn't have now. I have these sensations more than I like to admit, since they make me feel that something bad is closing inâlike the advance of a shadow across a square of playground grass where I happen to be standing. When the shadow covers the last grass blade, the air goes suddenly chill and still, and all is up for me. Which will ultimately be only true. So who'd blame me for feeling it now, and here?
But I'm ready to cease and desist. Being here makes me feel guilty-without-context. Like being present when someone you know, but don't know well, all at once falls into a pit of despair and starts blubbering, and you can't do anything
except wish the hell he or she would stop. I feel not a straw of blame for anything hereabouts, yet somehow feel implicated by everything's dilapidation and sad future. This is more than I bargained forâmuch moreâyet doesn't seem actually to
anything. Just stupid, stupid, stupid. I am. Again.
Though should I just sitâmotor thrumming, hoping the continental edge will re-buoy me? Should I turn on the
again (Obama used it for his Lincoln Memorial speech, where it worked)? Should I climb out into the foggy chill and have a poke round my old edifice, possibly spy something I left a decade back? A plastic laundry hamper? A bicycle pump with Bascombe painted on in red nail polish? What the fuck
I supposed to do? Anyone else would drive off. I'm worried, of course, about picking up a roof tack in my radials.
UTSIDE MY CAR WINDOW
RQUHART, OR A
man I take to be him, stands, talking, silenced by my closed glass. (Where's the Lexus hidden?) He's pointing beyond the berm and the ruin of my old houseâhis old houseâa stack of sticks rained down from the sky. Conceivably I've fallen into a carbon monoxide fugue. Has he been here long? Have we had our meeting already? Have I made everything right by him, the way I once did?
Arnie seems to me to be talking about the Twin Towers,
which is possibly why he's pointing north. I used to believe I could see them from my deck, though it was only clouds and light playing tricks. “It must've taken some real nuts to do that,” Arnie's saying, as I lower my window. We're suddenly very close to each other. “That huge skyscraper just coming right at you, three hundred miles a fuckin' hour. Fascinating, really.” I can't open my door because Arnie's in the way. A current of damp, foggy ocean air sifts around me where I've been warm in here. When I was in college in Ann Arbor, I loved the cold. But no more. “We bring our disasters down to our own level, don't we, Frank,” Arnie's saying. “But those poor people really couldn't. So we're lucky down here in a way. You know?” Arnie turns toward the wrecked corpse of his house. “Remember that place? Boy, oh boy.” Out of the ocean's hiss, a foghorn moans. Surprising it would be working when nothing else is.
“Nature always has another thing to do to us, I guess, Arnie.” It's my best go-to Roethke line and fits most human situations. Arnie and I traded stories about poor old Ted when I sold him the house.
“Take the lively air, Frank.” Arnie says and begins walking toward the uprooted house, as if he's abandoned all thought of me. “Climb the hell out and tell me what I'm supposed to do with this wreck.” He's talking into the breeze. “I'd say I have a problem here, wouldn't you?”