A perfectly bonny morning on the farm, and I’m just this side of plowed. Nobody likes a drunk farmer. Or, rather, farmeress. Nobody likes a drunk farmeress. Nobody likes a drunk, soon-to-be divorced, in debt, swollen-eyed, single-mother farmeress because she simply can’t get any work done this way. It is late July, the time of year work piles up like cordwood. I should be weeding; I should be watering; I should be mucking out stalls; I should be turning the compost pile.
Instead, I grab another beer. My physical safety behind the wheel of farm machinery is not in any jeopardy simply because I’m too broke to own a tractor. This place, at only six acres, is too small to justify one, anyway. A blessing, really, because right now I could harrow something. I could harrow something real good.
If I know anything, I know this: No two states of being entice the unsuspecting female bystander with more money-for-jam promise than marriage and farming. And I fell for both of them. Hard. Fell for them like Scarlett fell for Rhett and Tara, like Isak Dinesen fell for her big game hunter and Africa, like Eve fell for the snake and the garden.
“The serpent beguiled me,” Eve admitted, “and I did eat.”
I hear you, sister. I took a big old bite out of that very same apple, and look what it got me. Debt, heartbreak and perpetually ragged cuticles. The only thing growing here today is my livestock-sized thirst.
Through binoculars, I watch my new across-the-street neighbor, Mr. Wonderful, take out the trash. He lugs, jerks, drags and kicks the floppy bags down his dirt driveway. His slipper tears a hole in one of them, and a buffet of stink dribbles out.
My view of his activity is unobstructed for two reasons: 1) because my house has a wraparound front porch, the kind that invites a long pull on a mid-morning beer; and 2) because Mr.Wonderful’s driveway is dead ahead.
Only weeks ago, this man lived with me; now, he lives directly across the street. In this garden spot on a hill eight miles outside of town, where drivers are all going to or coming from somewhere else, he’s one of my only neighbors. He’s also the father of our three sons and my husband of 19 and 1/2 years. We won’t make it to 20. Which is why he’s now in binocular range.
Wonderful is not the name on his mailbox, of course, but it is the name my best friends have bestowed upon him. A name my high school English teacher taught us was a “euphemism.” A polite way to express something blunt or offensive. I have a euphemism living directly across the street. Walk to the end of my long driveway, turn right, sashay past the hedge of the apocalyptically named “Bridal Veil” bushes, turn and face the road, and there you are. Staring at his chipped cement doorstep.
Depending upon your viewpoint, it is either good luck or tough damn titty that the house across the street was available for rent when I finally found my voice and said the word divorce out loud.
“Easier for the kids,” he said.
“Won’t need a moving van,” he said.
“OK,” I said.
When you live out in the country and don’t know any of your other neighbors and find you have arrived, through great fault of your own, at a footing so precarious you can barely communicate without cuss words, is having your soon-to-be ex-husband and the father of your three sons living directly across the street from you a good thing? I’m still trying to figure that out. The beer may or may not be helping.
“Do you think it’s been easy for me?” he’d shouted, his body rigid and jutting forward in a way that seemed to defy gravity. “Waking up every goddamn morning next to Rebecca of Fucking Sunnybrook Farm?”
Perpetual good cheer, it turns out, can kill a marriage. Who knew.
What, I wondered, was there not to be cheerful about?
I’ve wanted to live on a farm ever since I was a little girl and my parents moved my brother and me from one apartment, duplex, bi-level suburban house to the next. Farms were where you had gardens. Farms were where you had space. And now, I finally had one of my own, a farm where my husband and I would raise our children, except that all Mr. Wonderful wanted to do here was mope and sleep.
I watch through my binoculars as he walks back to his garage and loads up with the last of his trash: a vacuum cleaner—the upright kind with a houndstooth bag; a burned-out barbecue grill teetering on rusted legs; Naugahyde kitchen chairs with symmetrical rips in the edges from years of swiveling up against their matching table. So that’s what happened to the dinette set. When he moved out, he must have taken it with him. And here I thought it was still safely stored in our garage. My garage.
His curb soon becomes home to all of our possessions that he took when he moved out but that, I imagine, his (rumored) Internet girlfriend cannot abide. Friends who are active online tell me he already has a dating “profile.” I don’t even know what that is.
On top of the kitchen chairs, he stacks a pile of waterlogged magazines. (Hustler or Organic Gardening? He kept both in his workshop.) Nearby, he drops something big and round and sparkly and unidentifiable, then sets down a floor lamp that looks, to my binocular vision, as if someone might have tried to fashion it into a giant bong. This last item is probably my own editorializing or the effect of drunken binocularizing because that can’t be right. If that’s what it is, there is no way in hell he would be getting rid of it. He’s a smoking man, not a drinking man. Even our vices are at odds with each other.
A self-help book I checked out at the library about how to have a Zen-like divorce is spread open on my lap, making a nice flat place to set the binoculars down when they get too heavy. Chapter 1, Page 1, gives this advice: Harbor no opinion on Mr. Wonderful. An opinion means being attached, and being attached means suffering, and suffering means, well, more suffering.
In my Miller High Life glaze, this circular spiritual notion feels like real wisdom. So. Right. On.
Religiously, I am confused—a state that at any other time I would be OK with, but that during this crisis point would be nice to have clarified. Maybe I’ve been a Buddhist all along, trapped inside a Protestant’s body. I was adopted by my parents as a baby, so my spiritual DNA could contain anything. Genetically, maybe I’m a Baptist, a Unitarian, or a pagan. Or, yes, even a Buddhist, although I have a feeling that pregnant, teenaged Buddhists were in short supply in Michigan in the early 1960s when I was born and placed. Still, impending divorce has made me feel as if anything is possible. Even enlightenment, though the library book cautions not to get too optimistic about this possibility.
Rebecca-style good cheer can apparently kill not only one’s marriage, but also one’s chances for spiritual enlightenment. Dammit.
I crack open another beer, hoist the can in Mr. Wonderful’s direction and drink to this: I will not be attached. I will sever all outward and inward signs of attachment. I will detach, right now, from the houndstooth and the Naugahyde and the bong water. From the calluses on my estranged husband’s familiar hands and from the way he sometimes sings along with the wisest Neil Young songs, getting every word right. I will detach from the sound of my name in his mouth—“Mardi Jo!”—in happier times, when he couldn’t wait to tell me something good. I’ll detach from how hard I once loved not only him but my fantasy of forever with him and our sons. I’ll detach from the wonderment that a love like that can end.
I return to my library book. “Your understanding is not worth a laugh,” Zen Master Dogen tells me. “You are a totally ignorant fool, who has not yet seen the sun-face moon-face of the Buddha way. You are as hopeless as a 3-year-old child.”
From my fenced-in backyard, the dogs are howling. Which they sometimes do when he is out in his front yard. They can’t see him, but they can smell him; they remember him, and, I believe, they even love him. I once read that canines howl in unison for one of two reasons: Either the pack has just been reunited after an absence, or they are still separated and are longing for the moment when they will be together again. Right now, their howling sounds suspiciously like attachment.
“You two would never make it as Zen dogs,” I inform them.
My own attachment to the man across the street began to slip years ago. If court communications are to be believed, our marriage will officially be over in eight months, when, I pray, a judge will bestow upon me custody of our three sons (ages 15, 12 and 8), our debt (I mean the mortgage on the farmhouse), our other debt (I mean the second mortgage on the farmhouse), and the dogs.
The Zen library book advises that instead of focusing on attachment or enlightenment, I should inventory my immediate blessings, and I picture my sons. They are my best blessings. They are the fight in me; they are the chapped hands that plant the seeds; they are the caution that closes the gates, the determination that primes the well water pump. They are my pack. And I am, and will be, forever attached.
There are other immediate blessings here, too, of course. I have this fabulous Victorian-style front porch and these halfway decent name-brand binoculars and a view that’s damn entertaining. Plus, there are three more cold ones in the fridge. I can tell you unequivocally that the way to get your money’s worth from a six-pack is to drink it on an empty stomach. Before 10 a.m.
Not usually a stalker or a pre-noon boozer, I’m thinking both God and Buddha will give me a pass just this one time. It’s garbage day, and my soon-to-be ex-husband is getting settled into his newly rented digs directly across the street from me by hauling the rejects of our near 20-year marriage out to the curb. In my book of holidays and special occasions, that calls for a beer.
For once, I do not have to set a good example. The boys are with their grandparents, my parents, at the Link family cottage, ostensibly so their mother can “get some spring cleaning done” because it’s “spring cleaning time.” This is what their grandparents, my parents, tell my sons. They are country boys, but not dumb. They know this actually means that I need time alone to “simmer my shit down.” This is what I hear the boys say privately, amongst themselves, when they think I’m not listening.
“Mom needs to simmer her shit down,” I hear the oldest, Owen, say to his younger brothers, Luke and Will, as they pack their pajamas and swim trunks and Game Boys and jackknives into their backpacks. As if I am just a pot of soup heated to a rolling boil.
Well, then. Bring on the High Life. This must be Rebecca’s weekend to bubble over.
Through the screen door, the phone rings. I ignore it because Rebecca doesn’t want
to talk to anyone right now on the off chance it might ruin her buzz. The voice of an acquaintance, a children’s librarian, begins speaking on the answering machine. She leaves a long message, but all I hear is, “I need a disco ball.”
A disco ball? I wonder if I have reached the point in my buzz where the beer has affected my hearing. Then it clicks. A disco ball is a big and round and sparkly thing. The big and round and sparkly thing Mr. Wonderful just set out with his trash. The man stole my soul, my youth, my dinette set and my disco ball.
I put the binoculars down and get up to go inside. The Zen book slides off my lap, but the sensation is like the flapping of butterfly wings or a light breeze wafting through a Tibetan monk’s silky orange robes, and I hardly notice. Inside, I listen to the librarian’s full message. She is planning a Dance Dance Revolution party for kids at the library. Dance Dance Revolution is a popular interactive video game, she explains, and she is using it as bait to lure kids into her lair, where she will hold them captive and force books into their unsuspecting hands. A real disco ball to hang in the lobby of the library will make her plan complete.
I think it would be accurate to say most people don’t know anyone who owns a regulation-size disco ball. Especially up here in northern Michigan. Mounted deer antlers we got. Ice shanties? No problem. Gun racks and trucker hats and bass boats by the butt-load, but disco balls? Those babies are in short supply.
But she is in luck, this librarian says in the message, because she knows me. And she knows I own a disco ball, purchased at a yard sale a year or so ago for the staggeringly low price of $5. There it was on that Saturday morning, resting on its side in the grass as if finally retiring to the tranquility of the Midwestern countryside after a storied career somewhere hip. Perhaps even Manhattan’s famed Studio 54. (Hey, I might be a hick, but I saw “The Last Days of Disco.”)
The sun shone on its mirrored squares. I squinted at the hypnotic rainbow reflections and thought, “I got plans for you, sweet thang.”
My idea for its use was similar to my acquaintance the librarian’s, though perhaps just a skosh more ambitious: This orb would be the focal point of a rec room that the man now and forevermore known as Mr. Wonderful would build, under my tutelage, in our basement for the enjoyment of our sons.
This new rec room would be so happening that the boys—the oldest of whom had recently taken to “chilling” and “hooking up” at the local shopping mall, which I am worried is teen code for scoring pot and slamming 40-ouncers of beer in the back seat of some older kid’s Buick—would want to stay home and invite over all their friends.
The vision I had of this mystical rec room was inspired by fondly recalled episodes of “The Brady Bunch” and “The Partridge Family.” In my mind, the “Rec Room” episode, when my sons would show off the space to their friends, unfolded thusly:
“Cool rec room, dude.”
“Dude, I know, right?”
“Is that a disco ball, dude?”
“My mom got that, dude.”
“Dude, your mom is cool.”
“No, seriously, dude. She rocks.”
“I know, dude.”
My sons would have a safe haven from peer pressure, drug deals, off-brand liquor, sexual predators, fatal drunk-driving accidents, girlfriends and teenage pregnancy. As a bonus, so would their friends, the ones they would invite over for board games and pop and disco music and cookies.
My house would go up in value because of the addition of the rec room. Mr. Wonderful, who was still living with us then, would be happy for a change, basking in his sense of accomplishment. Maybe we would go out on a date while the boys relaxed downstairs.
And I could stop cruising the mall parking lot in my minivan, looking for my son, and finally have some time to work out. Or drink beer on the porch. Or read. Or stare into space—an activity I treasure and have missed mightily in my childbearing years. All because of a $5 disco ball. Five dollars that, if I’m remembering correctly, Mr. Wonderful paid, but only grudgingly.
“Disco,” he said, quoting one of the most popular T-shirts of the 1980s, “sucks.”
But now, there it sits in all its pink spangly glory. Abandoned at the edge of the road in front of Mr. Wonderful’s house, its mirrored tiles cracked or missing, sharing its heartless rejection with the other detritus of our 19 and 1/2-year marriage.
Dude, this will not stand.
I brush my teeth to camouflage my beer breath and put on my sunglasses to camouflage my bloodshot eyes, then go back outside, stride to the barn and commandeer the wheelbarrow. I spread a tarp in its basin and bounce across the street. I park my one-wheeled vehicle at his curb in broad daylight. Righteous. A full-size disco ball is surprisingly heavy; this one has the girth of a beanbag chair but the weighty feel of a medicine ball. Or a bomb.
I look toward the Wonderful residence and think I see my estranged husband’s pasty, big-nosed face of death in the window, but I will not be denied. I feel his eyes on me as I lift the glittery globe off the chair with both my arms stretched around it as wide as they will go and then set it gently into the wheelbarrow.
A small patch of the mirrored tiles detaches, clinking off the lamp/bong and dropping into the dirt. Groovy. The tiles break into pink shards, but I don’t care. Glass can be replaced. Or fixed. Or just left broken. And so can everything else. Who even cares? Not Rebecca, no sir.
Disco will not die. Not on my watch anyway. No way, no how. I’ve got a revolution to think about.
Two beers later, this episode with Mr. Wonderful’s trash has me thinking about what I need to get rid of. The boys will be coming home from the cottage tomorrow afternoon. Time to purge.
Mr. Wonderful took a lot with him when he moved out, but he left a lot more behind. A pathological accumulator of other people’s discards, or of anything free, or of anything that reminded him of his childhood, he was almost giddy when we moved to the farm.
“Look,” he said, “at all this space.”
I looked, but I was too busy unloading boxes of his junior high track uniforms to really take adequate stock. Being seven months pregnant and all, I found the prospect of filling it all with his mementos and trash-day finds unwieldy.
Now, I pitch reams of stationery from his father’s years as a social worker. In the 1960s. I pitch his moldy-smelling books with faded photographs of (just my opinion) bad art.
A standard complaint is that old houses lack storage, but it isn’t true. Not in my case, anyway. Old houses might not have a lot of standard storage space, like closets and cupboards, but they do have lots of nooks and crannies.
For example, take the garage. In the 1950s, some budget-minded farmer who owned my place moved a decommissioned Army Quonset hut onto the property and turned it into a two-car garage with a storage loft and a workshop. It is now filled with things that belong to Mr. Wonderful and that harbor, for lack of a more accurate term, bad karma.
I walk around inside the garage and shop, and climb up the ladder to the dark, cobwebbed loft. I peer into boxes, lift the corners of tarps and open drawers. For two supposedly simple people, who are/were both supposedly trying to live simple lives, we’ve sure managed to acquire our fair share of useless crap.
“What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris?” asks the Buddha, in one of my library books. No answer is forthcoming, of course. Wisdom is supposed to be found in the questioning, I know that much.
I pitch psychedelic posters, rusty saw blades, dried-up paintbrushes solid as clubs, a sour-smelling plastic picnic cooler, a stove pipe with an abandoned squirrel nest inside, a pair of rusty ski poles and a few jazz record albums. According to Zen Master Dogen, all phenomena are in motion all of the time. I see his point and fling several of Mr. Wonderful’s record albums across the valley, as if I am Bruce Lee with a cache of Frisbees.
“Inner PEACE,” I grunt with each act of removal. “Inner PEACE.”
I pitch a box of Mr. Wonderful’s old business cards, a framed photo-montage of him, the printer’s overrun of our wedding invitations and an impressive, well-thumbed and chronologically organized collection of Hustler. Must be the back issues of Organic Gardening out on his trash pile. Inner. Piece. Of. Ass.
My selection of cathartic refuse is growing quickly when something even better than the curb occurs to me. Why wait? Trash day seems so far off. Instead, a pile begins to take shape in my front yard, made up of everything that isn’t plastic. Everyone burns their trash around here. Wood, papers, magazines and photographs are all acceptable bonfire fuel, but there are limits: only the real humps burn plastic.
Once everything is sorted, there is the gasoline gently siphoned out of the lawn mower. Then a match. The flames immediately grow up past my height, then up past my height plus the height of my fists punching the air. I pull up a lawn chair, get the last beer from the fridge, plug the CD player into an outlet inside the workshop and drag the dominatrix of disco, Donna Summer, out to this party for one.
“I love to love you, baby,” she sings, breathless.
The flames grow so large that the cars, which normally just whiz on by at ridiculous speeds, slow. The drivers stare. Some cars even have to swerve occasionally. Apparently, those drivers have never seen a woman on a beer buzz, discoing to the surprisingly heavy bass of Donna Summer around an 8-foot blaze in her front yard, with flames reflecting off the steel of a Quonset hut in the background.
After a half-hour, the fire burns down to a safe level, the traffic pattern returns to normal, the saw blades and the ski poles drop down into the ashes, and I leave my fire smoldering and head to the basement for more fuel.
I find a few books and photos and even a pair of Birkenstock sandals, but mostly clothes. They’ll burn, right inside their cardboard boxes. After a little encouragement from the last of the lawn mower’s gasoline, they do.
One last trip downstairs, though, and I see it. White cotton candy on a hanger. My wedding dress. A big-haired frenzy of lace and beads and hope and polyester blend. I press it to my body, against my tank top and ragged jeans. It may smell like mildew, but it would still fit. One honeymoon and two apartments and two houses and three breastfed babies and an impending divorce later, and it would still fit. There’s so little for me to be proud of anymore that I let myself savor this.
I hear dance music and taste wedding cake and even smile at the memory of accidentally leaving behind my expensive slip at the bed and breakfast where we spent our wedding night. I picture the owner passing the slippery garment back to me over his antique check-in desk when we stopped back after the honeymoon, and I can almost feel that long-ago blush of modesty and love. My husband looked so handsome then, in his new gray suit.
Then I picture the next two decades, with Mr. Wonderful sleeping while I got up with our babies, sleeping while I made their lunches and got them to school, sleeping while I mowed the grass and hung the Christmas lights and cooked the dinners. Sleeping through extended family gatherings, his own family’s and mine; sleeping through lakeside vacations; sleeping through the night while I lay awake next to him and cried, quietly, so I wouldn’t wake him up.
I think of our family photo album, with a picture of the boys making sand castles pasted next to one of their father asleep on a beach towel. A picture of the boys eating pancakes in the morning at the Link family cottage with their father prone on the couch in the background. I think of the week-long trips to a woodsy family camp on the shore of Lake Michigan that he earned for us in trade, by working, gratis, several weekends for the camp’s owners. Then, when his reward finally came, he disappeared into the dark cabin to sleep the days away while the boys and I kayaked, fell off windsurfers, and body surfed in the waves.
I think of him sleeping through my 40th birthday party, sleeping on Sunday mornings while I took the boys to church and, finally, sleeping through the sound of a car tire running over our dog just minutes after he drowsily forgot to shut the backyard gate.
Holding my wedding dress away from me now, I am wide awake. All I want is to burn this thing I spent hours and hours making by hand. Am I the last woman on the planet who knows how to sew? All my best skills are out of touch with modern life.
I want to hear this lace crackle in the glowing coals of my bonfire, but melting five yards of polyester would cause an environmental incident, and so the dress will have to be disposed of off the premises. It can’t stay here, and I can’t think of a soul who might want it.
I don’t have any daughters to save it for. I wasn’t raised with any sisters, either. No eligible girl cousins; not even any female half- or step-relatives. When it comes to girls in the growth rings of my family tree, I’m pretty much it.
And so with the light smell of Birkenstock sandal smoke wafting in through the car window, I drive to Goodwill, waving toward the Wonderful residence as I pass. Some pie-in-the-sky woman on a budget can probably put a handmade, cap-sleeved, wafer-white wedding dress that fastens up the back with antique glass buttons, to good use. It is a beautiful day in July, and someone must be wanting to get married.
When I arrive at Goodwill, there is a lineup. I have brought my Donna Summer CD along with me for the drive, and I pull into line.
“Bad girls,” Donna chides. “Talkin’ ’bout bad girls.”
There are two Goodwill helpers in bright orange jumpsuits, unloading the cars. One of them, the taller one, stares right through my windshield at me and smiles. The sort of smile a shark might give to a seal.
I get out and open up the sliding door on my minivan. The tall shark puts his hands on his hips, and I can feel him watching me bend over.
“Mmm,” he says too loud, sampling the seal meat.
His sidekick laughs like a scavenger and rubs his palms together.
I scoop my wedding dress up into my outstretched arms as if I am bringing it out into the light for someone to try on, and then I turn around. Time for this dress to face its new destiny.
I will not be anyone’s wife again. Not ever. I look into their faces and give both of these orange-clad men my very best “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” smile. Shark is looking me in the eye, ignoring the dress in my arms. On his chest is stamped the word inmate in big block letters. I don’t know if he realizes it, but this is one hell of a community service he’s standing here providing.
Disco is blasting out my car door, and Shark grins, showing a chipped front tooth, then does a little shimmy to the music. Squint just right, and he could be wearing a disco dancing jumpsuit instead of prisoner garb.
“You look like you could use this,” I tell him brightly.
I place the dress in his hands, get back into my minivan and drive for the exit like a woman on fire. Which is not too big a stretch since I reek of smoke from the trash pile surely still smoldering in my front yard.
In the rearview mirror, I see Shark ponder my donation. His head snaps up, his come-on smile fades, and first surprise, then contempt, register on his face instead.
I don’t feel one bit of sympathy for him though. Because you know what? He looks guilty enough to me.