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stoke the fires of lost and lonesome hearts
sideways in the light
stoke the fires

I picked it up carefully, lifting it off the nail with a stick. It just hung there, as limp as a drunk, and I gingerly pulled the zipper back to see if I could find a label. It said "London Fog" on the moldy patch, and there were a trio of hollow clay ribs running right up the armpit of the old windbreaker as if it were the most natural place in the world for mud dauber wasps to build their nest. The rest of the thing was turning green, with algae giving ground to the emerald tendrils of moss in the years since the porch caved in, leaving my father's old jacket out in the weather.

It so green up here, and so old.

We'd long abandoned the porch, anyway, watching the haphazard assemblage of scrap wood rafters starting to sag and split until the porch swing dropped to the floor. The old red crushed velvet lounge chair that my million year-old grandmother had once declared the most comfortable piece of furniture ever devised had been on its last whorish legs then, too, and fared little better when the roof came down.

I flung the jacket off the porch, then hurled down a cluster of broken beams before heading back through the cabin to carry the debris to the roaring bonfire I'd built in the ruins of the second fire pit I'd built up there.

The jacket went right on top, and I stood there and watched it start to color, going from green and yellow to tan and brown and then to flame. It spat and crackled in the fire and was gone faster than I'd have expected. I watched it disappear through the rippling heat waves of the air and thought of my father in that windbreaker and his stained bib overalls with a broken strap, struggling to keep it all going.

It's all so old here, and there's no time at all.

A train called in the distance, a coal train riding heavy from Beckley, and I turned back to my task, carting the wreckage of the doomed porch to a growing trash heap beside the fire pit.

I headed west with a burgeoning headache, the kind you get when you just can't seem to get your teeth to unclench without clenching some other part of your head, and the waves of cold, stinging rain didn't help the situation. My car's spectacularly ill-suited to long-haul trips through the mountains, running out its three gears at forty-five and just getting louder and more jittery as I make heroic charges up the steep grades and then sail down the descents like a roller coaster, but it's what I've got, so that's all there is.

The traffic's getting crazy in the parts of my state that used to be lonely rural roads, as overpaid D.C. nothingness experts work out that they can commute an extra hour from Frederick and have the sort of romanticized small-town home life that used to really exist out there before the crappy suburban tracts rolled over the rumpled hillsides like endless mats of unwelcome uniformity. It bogged down in the crazy sets of interchanges near where the old Solarex factory used to sit in splendid isolation, so I just turned up the music and wondered if it was too late to turn back.

I'd anticipated a group trip, with a coworker and her friends, but the rain and work schedule knocked them out of the line-up, but I wasn't going to let myself take the easy route to another wasted weekend spent watching the dumbest TV I could find.

Besides, I had a lot of measuring to do, and a roof to repair.

It's almost too obvious, how the geography changes, and how it changes us.

It's so green here, and so old.

On the roof, I have a terrific view of the river valley, or at least one that fills me with a certain kind of energy that seems to blow the cobwebs and frustrations out of my head, if only for moments at a time.

I walk gingerly in the soft rain, my perspective narrowly focused as I look for the spots where the roofing nails over the ruined second bedroom punched through and left two tiny holes that were enough to let in water for years and bring the ceiling down in there, then ruin the wall and the floor, too. I find them as an empty freight thunders by, and dab on enough black tar to hold them until I can figure out what to do next.

All over the place, the roll roofing is shedding its gravel and curling up at the edges, and I can't help but swear under my breath as I recall the project of replacing this roof in the first place. I'm a perfectionist, most often rigid in my love of accuracy and precision, in things done exactly right, and the roof is a sagging, sway-backed mule of a thing, with every angle determined more by decay and poor planning than with a builder's square.

How can it be as bad as this already? We just put this damn thing up!

Well…except we didn't just put it up.

It feels that way, and I can remember the weekend with perfect clarity, down to topics of discussion, the pants I ruined that Saturday, and the music I had playing on the radio.

"Son, I think that CD's stuck."

"It's minimalist."

"Hmmm. Sounds like it's stuck to me."


In the end, though, it was perfect. Not one drop of rain would get through. Nothing else would go wrong.

Sitting on the peak of the roof, watching the trains go by, I can see how I'd have believed that.

"Wow, there's no time up here," one of my friend's irritatingly young and energetic friends said. "There's just trains."

There was probably a quart of tattoo ink and a couple pounds of metal stuck through that group, but they got it.

There's no time up here.

I think maybe I've been more successful than I'd ever have thought possible in my attempts to become someone who belonged up there, out in the woods. I drive into town, into the increasingly busy town of Bath, or Berkeley Springs, as it's more commonly known, and I feel like I'm watching immigrants overtake the landscape.

Twenty years ago, the town was slow-moving, in a state of moribund suspension as one era faded and another waited to emerge. Back then, it seemed rural, and far removed from the wretched suburbs of my own world, and I didn't always understand or appreciate it, but there was something there, something raw and compelling.

We'd drive past the old Star Theater on our way to the hardware store on the main drag and it just seemed like a refugee, like something absurd in the modern age, but everything in town was a little absurd back then.

Driving into town for a quick run to the same hardware store, I watched a pair of identically-dressed gay men in noxious spandex fitness-wear jog by with one of those ridiculous three wheeled yuppie jogging strollers occupied by the obligatory asian gayby-boom adoptee, and I couldn't decide if I felt like that was progress or an invasion.

Of course it's progress. Rainbow flags where there used to be Klan rallies is progress.

Still, I don't feel included, but I rarely feel that way.

I picked out a few copper sleeve junctions out of a bin and paid cash, then crossed the street to a coffeehouse for a bagel and a cup of perfectly respectable coffee to ruin with eight packets of artificial sweetner and half a cup of half-and-half.

It goes without saying that every eating establishment in town is now a "coffeehouse and gallery" or "creamery and gallery" or "eatery and gallery" or some other combination of food and atrocious faux-hippie art of the exact variety produced by people who buy polished rocks engraved with carpe diem keywords from the backs of literary magazines. I took a seat in booth handpainted by an obsessive compulsive with too much time on his or her hands, ruined my coffee, and enjoyed a deliciously overbuttered toasted bagel, all the while watching the sun-damaged aging baby boomer semi-retirees and wondering why it was that virtually all of them had the exact same hairstyle as the rest of their gender.

It'd be pure pretense to consider myself a local, but I was sure none of them had a mouse in their bed at two in the morning, or woke up to chop wood at dawn.

It's pure pretense, but I feel like there's some of that land in me.

I'm not entirely sure I ever really find sympatico in anything but places.

I dumped my cup and napkins in the trash, squeezed past a noisy knot of men and women in matching Eddie Bauer country living wear, all talking about some nightmarish chakra therapy, dodged the table of rare surviving superannuated clones who gave me the three second look-down, and climbed into my car to head back to Orleans Crossroads and half a dozen split pipes.

"Wait—you have a cabin? Why haven't you ever invited me up there?"

Ahh, well…

Thing is, it's a dump, really, never more so than it's been lately. Things are falling off everywhere, water's finding ways to get in and ruin everything, the stove catches fire, the fridge leaks water, the pipes are broken, and roughly ten million mice live there and leave ample evidence of their wild lives over every surface.

"Well," I say, "it's kind of a mess, and the door fell off the outhouse and…" and it probably seems like an easy dodge, just one more excuse from a guy who's been made of excuses for most of his inexcusable existence.

"Umm, well I guess it is kinda shitty," said one candid observer, and I had to smile. I prefer honesty to the easy dodge. It's a pretty shitty place, and has been for twenty years now.

I do my best, but sometimes the weight of being there is almost too much.

"Did you see this?" Paul asked on our last trip, pointing out where my father had a nicely-pressed Brooks Brothers suit, a clean white shirt, and a pair of wing tips stowed away in the metal cabinet in the bedroom.

He reached over and pointed out that there was a miniature gin bottle tucked into one pocket.

Goddamned old fool.

The dirty secret of my own is why I've spent so little time here. It's hard to get people to make the trip up, and even harder to get them to do it again after spending a weekend in a cold, damp cabin covered with rat crap. There's a journal my father kept up here that lists his own trips up, all written out in the elegant and completely distinctive script he used, and he came up on his own all the time.

Me? I've got a problem.

Nearly forty years old, and I'm still scared of the dark. The dark up there is so absolute, so far beyond the dark you can find in any city or town, and the night fills with the sounds of a thousand animals. If you shine your flashlight into the woods, just past the outhouse, you illuminate a dozen pairs of eyes, all staring back at you.

Are they foxes, or bobcats, or deer?

There's been a lot of bear crap in the yard lately, and fresh claw marks on the doorframe. Nothing ever seems to get in, but I can't help but wonder what is that tall and has claws like that. On the eaves of the bathroom addition, a whole corner of soffit and siding has been clawed away.

In point of fact, it's the people, the unknown.

My father was afraid of them, and insisted that he have a gun to defend the family up there, even when my mother would roll her eyes at his description of "the bad people in the grey house" and "the bad man in the pickup with no windshield."

It's not all that unlikely that bored teenagers would rumble by on their ATVs and see the lights at night as an opportunity for mayhem and pound on the doors in the wee hours.

So I don't spend much time here on my own, not until today.

I talk to T as the sun's setting, turning the sky to golden fire and then oceanic blue, talking from the one magic spot in the front yard where a cell signal somehow ricochets through the gaps in the ridges, until the night calls start, the strange music of evolution.

It's all so old here, so much older and bigger than just one person.

It's all so green, so lush and wild that the tentative tendrils and roots of the woods could almost wrap you up if you stay too long in one spot.

I talk to T until he tells me what I need to hear to sleep a contented sleep, then close my phone, extinguishing the little pool of artificial radiance and finding myself swimming in the blue-black.

I lock the door, leave my machete hanging where I can get to it, just in case, and put book on tape on my portable stereo, so I'll have another voice to keep me company.

When nature calls, I pee in a jar, just until morning, just in case.

"Mister Cleve?"

I hear the voice when I'm tearing the old fake brick asphalt siding off a chunk of the old porch wall so I can pitch it into the fire pit, and I can't make out the source right away. A husky woman with a frizzy perm and a sweatshirt that spells out U-S-A in letters of blue, white stars, and red and white stripes steps out from behind the thicket of brambles that I've purposely left alone at the bottom of the front yard.

She looks up and laughs.

"Jesus, you had me thinkin' I seen a ghost up here! You Mister Cleve's boy?"


"From a distance, I could'a swore you was him. We don't see people at the Blue Moon anymore, so I figured I'd make sure it wasn't been fooled around with."

"I'm trying to get this place back into shape."

"Looks like the porch fell off."

"Yeah. Three years ago, I think. I'm just now clearing it out."

"Are you Will?"


"Ah, I don't think I met you but once or twice when your dad was bringin' microfilm work to us."

"Y'all used to do prep work for him, I think," I say. She nods.

We talk for a few minutes, just a brief interlude, then go back to our work.

I watch her walk back down the dirt road, then cross through the trees, climb across the tracks, and get into the passenger seat of a battered old truck. With a jet of blue smoke and a stir of gravel, they head off, rumbling down the gravel track of the service road.

There's no time here, just trains.

You drift in and out.

I get lost in the fire, in the haze and shimmer of the air, in the fluid dance of swiftly-oxidizing carbon. I stir up sparks with a stick, making room to pile on a few more broken beams from the old porch, and sit back to warm my feet at the edge of the fire pit. The time just fades, and soon you're in a trance, lost in that perfect, joyous emptiness.

It is so small, so quiet, so ancient.

With the door locked, I lit a few candles, turned on the stereo, and curled up on the couch with a beloved book from my childhood. It was barely eight o'clock, but time's different up here, so I read until my eyes started to droop, then curled into the back of the sofa, holding onto the cushions like a loved one. I woke again in the wee hours, some time near two, and read a while longer before deciding to just get up for a while.

Three in the morning is the most lonesome time, the part of the day when you're in your own one-man universe. I pulled up a chair, turned on a little quiet music, and started to write.

There was a time, not long ago, when I was preparing myself to come here for a longer stretch, when I'd exhausted all my options except for the very last one. I'd started to shut it all down, selling off my things and working out the details. Up here, I could get by on a few thousand dollars a year, just enough to cover my taxes and utilities and basics, and I could sit and write without distraction.

A moth fluttered around the one lamp still lit, and I tapped out a few paragraphs while listening to the little "thup, thup, thup" as it beat against the lampshade. I turned back, wondering where it came from, and watched it making little spirals in the air. So much evolution worked so long to make the little thing, to build in that deranged lust for light that sends them into the flames without the slightest regard for the future.

It's so easy to feel like we're any different, chasing after our own illusions.

I wrote for a little longer, pausing to listen to the heavily-laden overnight freights and the gentle hiss and crackle of the fire in the woodstove. Where there's no time, it's far easier not to worry about the future, or regret the past.

Instead, I just felt lonesome—not entirely lonely, not entirely solitary.

It's a lonesome world, and we're all lost in it, sometimes.

At three in the morning on a West Virginia hillside, I might as well be on the moon.

I flipped open my cell phone, but I'm nowhere near that magic spot where I get signal.

I'm all alone here.

That's really not that unusual. We're all alone, almost all the time. It's an electronically mediated world these days. My friends are in New York and Chicago and Georgia and North Carolina and Europe and California and everywhere, friends I've never really met, friends made of electron streams richocheting from satellite to satellite to trunk link to DSL to me. Lost in all the haze, separated by distance, we flutter around the ether, chasing after those lonely sparks of light.

Is it possible to really know anyone else?

Sometimes I wonder.

I spend the morning stoking the fire, putting on one last log that I estimate will burn for three hours if I leave the door to the stove propped open just right. The gentle overnight rain put out the fire in the fire pit, and I smooth the ashes with a stick, finding a few burnt nails and unidentifiable bits in the grey. The zipper pull from my father's old windbreaker is there, the lone survivor of the zipper, and I wonder if I should have maybe just hung it on a branch up in the woods somewhere to let it go back to nature in it's own picturesque way.

There's more debris to drag to the place I've designated as my trash pile, and I lug giant pieces of wood with rusty nails jaggedly sticking from every surface across the ground until I tire of it. I'll be back soon enough, and these things will still be waiting for me. In a rush of concentrated organization, I assemble tools and supplies and salvaged pieces in the ruined second bedroom, carefully laying the two double-paned window sashes dad found somewhere in there, too, wondering where I'll cut holes in the wall to install them.

There's so much to do.

In my real life, back home and back at work, that's the bane of my existence, the constant nagging circus of incoming calls and email piling up. There's just too much to do, too many things to attend to, too many people to please, or at least to apologize to as I let things drag and drag. I just can't seem to get on top, not yet, though I get closer every day.

Up here, way out in the middle of nowhere, it's different.

There's a frustration to the fact that the decay is so far ahead of me, and that the sagging foundation posts and rotting siding and failing roof will eventually beat me, and I'll come up one weekend and find the whole place in a heap a dozen yards down the hillside.

I rescued the Blue Moon, way back when my father was still around, taking over the taxes and utilities and other minutia when he started to drown in the real world. I rescued the place, and paid the back bills and covered the bases, but it's been sliding ever since, and I'm not the kind of person who properly equipped, financially-speaking, for a second home, or whatever you'd call it.

In my heart, sometimes I've wished I'd find that heap, or find a pile of ashes as I rounded the bend on the rutted dirt road. Sometimes it's easiest when things just die.

Still, there's life left, and maybe it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to spend a little money I can't entirely afford to make sure that there's somewhere to go, somewhere where there's quiet and where there's no time—just trains, rumbling endlessly through the night.

I clean up the last of the mess I've made, then seal up the stove with the last embers glowing orange, closing the front and side vents to suffocate the fire.

The stove will cool slowly, losing its last residual heat over the day, and then the dampness will come creeping back into the cabin, and the mice will run wild again, exploring the new geography of the second bedroom and sniffing out the tiniest crumbs of my dinner.

It gets so still there, but things change. I return, and they've changed.

Curious bears will claw at the door frame, flickers will dig in the eaves, carpenter bees will dig there little burrows in the wood, and the rain will drip, drip, drip, one drop at a time for a million hours where the slight opportunity exists. The foundation will continue to settle, continuing inexorably down the slope, and yet, the place will probably be standing when I come up again next weekend.

The trains will run on time.

Up there, they are time.

I opened the steel cabinet where the Brooks Brothers suit hung, wondering if maybe, just maybe, I could wear it to my upcoming high school reunion and save myself the expense of buying a damn suit. I slipped the jacket off the hanger and pulled it down one arm before realizing that there was no chance in hell I'd get into it.

Funny, how you always think your parents are bigger than you are.

I check my watch and I'm way ahead of my reservations at the baths, so I stroll up Washington Street, taking in the weather that's turned glorious since I finished working outside. I'm the only one on the street in grimy overalls, the only one without that aimless suburban white breadiness that I can see, and I feel oddly disconnected as I step into RAG, a junky store of cool old things and crappy old things and in-between old things that's usually good for a browse.

There's appalling furniture in jaundiced yellow varnish and lamps that remind me why I don't particularly care for lamps, but I'm headed for the used books and then the tools, roughly in that order. I pick up a cheap copy of a silly seventies passive solar house design book and a copy of Asimov's Foundation trilogy, which I've never been able to read, then pick through the forties editions of the Hardy Boys. I'm not much of a collector, having my own small set of the blue hardbacks from the seventies, but there was a copy of my favorite volume of the series in nice condition for six and a half dollars, so I picked it up, too.

I came away from the used tools with a nice whetstone and a pair of socket racks, which they don't seem to sell anywhere, and a little buzzing seed of lust for a decent small band saw for forty bucks.

Maybe next time, if it's still there.

I paid, dropped it all off at my car, got my gym bag out of the trunk, checked my watch again, and headed for the old roman bathhouse.

"I lost my cell signal in mid-call, but you should have me down for noon," I said, standing there in the humid air of the old place. The bored looking teen at the desk found my name and set me up in room 3.

"There's no one here today, so I'll let you have twenty minutes extra," he said.

I locked the door behind me, stripped down, and stepped into the tiled oasis of the roman bath.

You wonder, sometimes, about where you fit in all this, and what it all means.

Maybe it doesn't mean a damn thing.

Maybe it's just like that old cabin, just part of the landscape, and you're just one more animal, clawing your way towards any source of sustenance, fluttering hopelessly in search of light.

The water laps gently at my shoulders and I settle into the corner of the huge bath, breathing deeply in the warm, humid air. After a weekend of hard work, it's the perfect ending.

I try to settle back and float, but I've lost enough buoyancy this past year that my legs pull me down, so I just sort of paddle around, sitting in the corner, dipping my head under, moving to the steps, climbing out to sit on the cool tile rim of the bath. This bathhouse, the cheap one, is the oldest one in Berkeley Springs, in constant use since 1815, and a lot of people have come through here, and wallowed in the warm mineral springs in search of some kind of peace.

I stretch my legs underwater and splay my toes. It's so clear, and so big, a bathtub that's five feet wide and fifteen feet long, filled with seven hundred fifty gallons of pure fluid succor. I've got a book and an ipod along for the ride, but they're just too focused, so I crank open the window and let the cool autumn air and the sounds of a small town drift in.

George Washington surveyed this place back in 1748, when he was just sixteen, for Lord Fairfax of Cameron, and it grew in popularity as the people came for the warm springs. Lord Fairfax built the town into a thriving medicinal tourist trap, and set aside seven acres downtown for what he called "suffering humanity."

That part's the park now, and the setting for my bath.

Mencken came here, and artists and politicians and military leaders, geniuses and madmen, wild women and refined ones, too, all to bathe right here, maybe in this very tub. All walks, all sorts, they all get nekkid in here and float, hiding out from the rest of their lives.

Now it's just me.

The trip home was bracing and lightning quick, just one more race through the hills. I ate at Dairy Queen, listened to good music, and was home again, mostly.

A year ago, it was my last resort, a refuge.

Now I'm not sure what it is.

The stove is cool by now, but there's still a fire burning somewhere.

Burn the old, fuel the new.

It's all the same.

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i dream of having a place like that near there someday.

You've got beautiful land up there, Joe. Never give it up, and never stop working on the cabin. It's a magnificent escape hatch.

Joe, you have pretty well described the cabin that my mother lived in for 25 years before she was carried out by ambulance one last time a few weeks ago. One of my jobs is to go up there this week and gut it out. At the end of my day, I intend to get the woodstove going and hunker down under a coal oil lamp on her lumpy old sofa and read myself to sleep and try not to be afraid to be alone in that place. Not because of the bears, because of the memoryghosts. I will sit in 'her' chair, the only piece of furniture that didn't cause her as much pain as sitting anywhere else, and stare about her place and wish that things could have gone differently for my mother. Here is her wood stove, it's a Sweetheart. Literally, that's the brand name, and her sweetheart bought it for her. I wish I knew how to do a better job of lighting it (it's all about the dampers, I know) although after all the months of looking after her this year, I am quite proficient at cooking on it.

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My great Aunt Belle had such a chair for the same reason and she slept in it every night for 20 years.

I'm sorry you lost your mom, but I'm glad you have somewhere to go to be with her for a while longer. These places really do hold onto their occupants in the aftermath.

The stove is a sweetheart.

I always read your posts twice; one of the times I pretend I don't know you, which is almost impossible to do, and the other time I'm so aware that I do know you. This way it's almost two different stories, both indescribable.

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