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Authors: Richard Ford

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The Lay of the Land

BOOK: The Lay of the Land
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KRISTINA

Are You Ready to Meet Your Maker?

Last week, I read in the
Asbury Press
a story that has come to sting me like a nettle. In one sense, it was the usual kind of news item we read every a.m., feel a deep, if not a wide, needle of shock, then horror about, stare off to the heavens for a long moment, until the eye shifts back to different matters—celebrity birthdays, sports briefs, obits, new realty offerings—which tug us on to other concerns, and by mid-morning we’ve forgotten.

But, under the stunted headline
TEX NURSING DEATHS
, the story detailed an otherwise-normal day in the nursing department at San Ysidro State Teachers College (Paloma Playa campus) in south Texas. A disgruntled nursing student (these people are always men) entered a building through the front door, proceeded to the classroom where he was supposed to be in attendance and where a test he was supposed to be taking was in progress—rows of student heads all bent to their business. The teacher, Professor Sandra McCurdy, was staring out the window, thinking about who knows what—a pedicure, a fishing trip she would be taking with her husband of twenty-one years, her health. The course, as flat-footed, unsubtle fate would have it, was called “Dying and Death: Ethics, Aesthetics, Proleptics”—something nurses need to know about.

Don-Houston Clevinger, the disgruntled student—a Navy vet and father of two—had already done poorly on the midterm and was probably headed for a bad grade and a ticket home to McAllen. This Clevinger entered the quiet, reverent classroom of test takers, walked among the desks and toward the front to where Ms. McCurdy stood, arms folded, musing out the window, possibly smiling. And he said to her, raising a Glock 9-mm to within six inches of the space just above the mid-point between her eyes, he said, “Are you ready to meet your Maker?” To which Ms. McCurdy, who was forty-six and a better than average teacher and canasta player, and who’d been a flight nurse in Desert Storm, replied, blinking her periwinkle eyes in curiosity only twice, “Yes. Yes, I think I am.” Whereupon this Clevinger shot her, turned around slowly to address the astonished nurses-to-be and shot himself in approximately the same place.

I was sitting down when I began to read this—in my glassed-in living room overlooking the grassy dune, the beach and the Atlantic’s somnolent shingle. I was actually feeling pretty good about things. It was seven o’clock on a Thursday morning, the week before Thanksgiving. I had a “happy client” closing at ten at the realty office here in Sea-Clift, after which the seller and I were going for a celebratory lunch at Bump’s Eat-It-Raw. My recent health concerns—sixty radioactive iodine seeds encased in titanium BBs and smart-bombed into my prostate at the Mayo Clinic—all seemed to be going well (systems up and running, locked and loaded). My Thanksgiving plans for a semi-family at-home occasion hadn’t yet started to make me fitful (stress is bad for the iodine seeds’ half-life). And I hadn’t heard from my wife in six months, which, under the circumstances of her new life and my old one, seemed unsurprising if not ideal. In other words, all the ways that life feels like life at age fifty-five were strewn around me like poppies.

My daughter, Clarissa Bascombe, was still asleep, the house quiet, empty but for the usual coffee aromas and the agreeable weft of dampness. But when I read Ms. McCurdy’s reply to her assassin’s question (I’m sure he had never contemplated an answer himself), I just stood right up out of my chair, my heart suddenly whonking, my hands, fingers, cold and atingle, my scalp tightened down against my cranium the way it does when a train goes by too close. And I said out loud, with no one to hear me, I said, “Holy shit! How in the world did she ever know that?”

All up and down this middle section of seaboard (the
Press
is the Jersey Shore’s paper of record), there must’ve been hundreds of similar rumblings and inaudible alarms ringing household to household upon Ms. McCurdy’s last words being taken in—like distant explosions, registering as wonder and then anxiety in the sensitive. Elephants feel the fatal footfalls of poachers a hundred miles off. Cats exit the room in a hurry when oysters are opened. On and on, and
on
and on. The unseen exists and has properties.

Would I ever say that? was, of course, what my question meant in realspeak, and the question everybody from Highlands to Little Egg would’ve been darkly pondering. It’s not a question, let’s face it, that suburban life regularly poses to us. Suburban life, in fact, pretty much does the opposite.

And yet, it might.

Faced with Mr. Clevinger’s question and a little pushed for time, I’m sure I would’ve begun soundlessly inventorying all the things I hadn’t done yet—fucked a movie star, adopted Vietnamese orphan twins and sent them to Williams, hiked the Appalachian Trail, brought help to a benighted, drought-ravaged African nation, learned German, been appointed ambassador to a country nobody else wanted but I did. Voted Republican. I would’ve thought about whether my organ-donor card was signed, whether my list of pallbearers was updated, whether my obituary had the important new details added—whether, in other words, I’d gotten my message out properly. So in all likelihood, what I would’ve said to Mr. Clevinger as the autumn breezes twirled in through the windows off bright Paloma Playa and the nursing girls held their sweet bubble-gum breaths waiting to hear, would’ve been: “You know, not really. I guess not. Not quite yet.” Whereupon he would’ve shot me anyway, though conceivably not himself.

When I’d thought only this far through the sad and dreary conundrum, I realized I no longer had my usual interest in the routines of my morning—fifty sit-ups, forty push-ups, some neck stretches, a bowl of cereal and fruit, a manumitting interlude in the men’s room—and that what this story of Ms. McCurdy’s unhappy end had caused in me was a need for a harsh, invigorating, mind-clearing plunge in the briny. It was the sixteenth of November, a precise week before Thanksgiving, and the Atlantic was as nickel-polished, clean-surfaced and stilly cold as old Neptune’s heart. (When you first buy by the ocean, you’re positive you’ll take a morning dip every single day, and that life will be commensurately happier, last longer, you’ll be jollier—the old pump getting a fresh prime at about the hour many are noticing the first symptoms of their myocardial infarct. Only you don’t.)

Yet we can all be moved, if we’re lucky. And I was—by Ms. McCurdy. So that some contact with the sudden and the actual seemed demanded. And not, as I found my bathing suit in the drawer, got in it and headed barefoot out the side door and down the sandy steps into the brisk beach airishness—not that I was really frightened by the little saga. Death and its low-lying ambuscade don’t scare me much. Not anymore. This summer, in clean-lawned, regulation-size, by-the-numbers Rochester, Minnesota, I got over Big-D death in a swift, once-and-for-all and official way. Gave up on the Forever Concept. As things now stand, I won’t outlive my mortgage, my twenty-five-year roof, possibly not even my car. My mother’s so-so genes—breast-cancer genes giving percolating rise to prostate-cancer genes, giving rise to it’s anybody’s guess what next—had finally gained a lap on me. Thus the refugees’ sad plight in Gaza, the float on the Euro, the hole in the polar ice cap, the big one rumbling in on the Bay Area like a fleet of Harleys, the presence of heavy metals in mothers’ milk—all that
seemed
dire, it’s true, but was frankly tolerable from my end of the telescope.

It was simply that, moved as I was, and with the coming week full of surprises and the usual holiday morbidities, I wanted reminding in the most sensate of ways that I was alive. In the waning weeks of this millennial year, in which I promised myself as a New Year’s/New Century’s resolution to simplify some things (but haven’t quite yet), I needed to get right, to get to where Ms. McCurdy was at her ending song, or at least close enough to it that if I was faced with something like the question she was faced with, I would give something like the answer she gave.

So, in my bare feet, with a cold breeze pricking my exposed back, chest, legs, I tender-footed it up and across the gritty berm, through the beach grass and off onto the surprisingly cold sand. A white lifeguard stand stood nobly but vacated on the beach. The tide was out, revealing a glistening, black, damp and sloping sand plain. Someone had broken off for firewood the beach sign, so that only
OWN RISK
was left in red block letters on its standard. Sea-Clift, midline-Jersey Shore, midline-November, can be the best of locales and days. Any one of the 2,300 of us who live here year-round will tell you. The feeling of people nearby enjoying life, whiling it away, out for a ramble, taking it in, is everywhere about. Only the people themselves are gone. Gone back to Williamsport and Sparta and Demopolis. Only the solitary-seeming winter residents, the slow joggers, the single-dog walkers, the skinny men with metal detectors—their wives in the van waiting, reading John Grisham—these are who’s here. And not even them at 7:00 a.m.

Up the beach and down was mostly empty. A container ship many miles offshore inched along the horizon’s flat line. A rain squall that would never reach land hung against the lightening eastern sky. I took a sampling glance back at my house—all mirrored windows, little belvederes, copper copings, a weather vane on the top-most gable. I didn’t want Clarissa to get up from her bed, have a stretch and a scratch, cast a welcoming eye toward the sea and suddenly believe that her dad was taking the deep-six plunge alone. Happily, though, I saw no one watching me—only the first sun warming the windows and turning them crimson and hot gold.

Of course, you’d know what I wondered. Who wouldn’t? You can’t go for a November morning’s rejuvenating, self-actualizing dip, craving a taste of the irrefutable, the un-nuanced, of nature’s necessity, and not be curious to know if you’re on a secret mission. Secret from yourself. Can you? Certainly
some,
I thought, as the languid and surprisingly frigid Atlantic inched up my thighs, the sand creamy and flat under my toes, my dangle parts beginning to retract in alarm, surely
some
slip peacefully over the transom of pleasure craft (as the poet supposedly did), or swim out far too far of an evening, until the land falls dreamily away. But they probably don’t say, “Ooops, uh-oh, damn, look-it here. I’m in a real mess now, am I truly not?” Frankly, I’d like to know what the hell they do say while they wait in death’s anteroom, the lights of the departing boat growing dim, the water colder, choppier than anticipated. Maybe they
are
a little surprised by themselves, by how
final
events can suddenly seem. Though by then, there’s not a whole hell of a lot they can do with the info.

But they’re not surprised
qua
surprised. And as I waded up to my waist and began vigorously shivering, a taste of salt on my lips, I recognized I was
not
here, just off the continent’s edge, to stage a hasty leave of it. No sir. I was here for the simple reason that I knew I would never have answered Don-Houston Clevinger’s fatal question the way Sandra McCurdy did, because there was still something I needed to know and didn’t, something which the shock of the ocean’s burly heft and draw made me feel was still there to be found out and that could make me happy. Academics will say that answering
yes
to death’s dire question is the same as answering
no,
and that all things that seem distinct are really identical—that only our need separates the wheat from the chaff. Though it’s, of course, their living death that makes them think that way.

But, feeling the ocean climb and lick my chest and my breath go short and shallow—my two arms beginning to resist the float away to nowhere—I knew that death was different, and that I needed to say
no
to it now. And with this certainty, and the shore behind me, the sun bringing glories to the world’s slow wakening, I took my plunge and swam a ways to feel my life, before turning back to land and whatever lay waiting for me there.

Part 1

1

Toms River, across the Barnegat Bay, teems out ahead of me in the blustery winds and under the high autumnal sun of an American Thanksgiving Tuesday. From the bridge over from Sea-Clift, sunlight diamonds the water below the girdering grid. The white-capped bay surface reveals, at a distance, only a single wet-suited jet-skier plowing and bucking along, clinging to his devil machine as it plunges, wave into steely wave. “Wet and chilly, bad for the willy,” we sang in Sigma Chi, “Dry and warm, big as a baby’s arm.” I take a backward look to see if the
NEW JERSEY’S BEST KEPT SECRET
sign has survived the tourist season—now over. Each summer, the barrier island on which Sea-Clift sits at almost the southern tip hosts six thousand visitors per linear mile, many geared up for sun ’n fun vandalism and pranksterish grand theft. The sign, which our Realty Roundtable paid for when I was chairman, has regularly ended up over the main entrance of the Rutgers University library, up in New Brunswick. Today, I’m happy to see it’s where it belongs.

New rows of three-storey white-and-pink condos line the mainland shore north and south. Farther up toward Silver Bay and the state wetlands, where bald eagles perch, the low pale-green cinder-block human-cell laboratory owned by a supermarket chain sits alongside a white condom factory owned by Saudis. At this distance, each looks as benign as Sears. Each, in fact, is a good-neighbor clean-industry-partner whose employees and executives send their kids to the local schools and houses of worship, while management puts a stern financial foot down on drugs and pedophiles. Their campuses are well landscaped and policed. Both stabilize the tax base and provide locals a few good yuks.

From the bridge span I can make out the Toms River yacht basin, a forest of empty masts wagging in the breezes, and to the north, a smooth green water tower risen behind the husk of an old nuclear plant currently for sale and scheduled for shutdown in 2002. This is our westward land view across from the Boro of Sea-Clift, and frankly it is a positivist’s version of what landscape-seascape has mostly become in a multi-use society.

This morning, I’m driving from Sea-Clift, where I’ve lived the last eight years, across the sixty-five-mile inland passage over to Haddam, New Jersey, where I once lived for twenty, for a day of diverse duties—some sobering, some fearsome, one purely hopeful. At 12:30, I’m paying a funeral-home visitation to my friend Ernie McAuliffe, who died on Saturday. Later, at four, my former wife, Ann Dykstra, has asked to “meet” me at the school where she works, the prospect of which has ignited piano-wire anxiety as to the possible subjects—my health, her health, our two grown and worrisome children, the surprise announcement of a new cavalier in her life (an event ex-wives feel the need to share). I also mean to make a quick stop by my dentist’s for an on-the-fly adjustment to my night guard (which I’ve brought). And I have a Sponsor appointment at two—which is the hopeful part.

Sponsors is a network of mostly central New Jersey citizens—men and women—whose goal is nothing more than to help people (female Sponsors claim to come at everything from a more humanistic/ nurturing angle, but I haven’t noticed that in my own life). The idea of Sponsoring is that many people with problems need nothing more than a little sound advice from time to time. These are not problems you’d visit a shrink for, or take drugs to cure, or that require a program Blue Cross would co-pay, but just something you can’t quite figure out by yourself, and that won’t exactly go away, but that if you could just have a common-sense conversation about, you’d feel a helluva lot better. A good example would be that you own a sailboat but aren’t sure how to sail it very well. And after a while you realize you’re reluctant even to get in the damn thing for fear of sailing it into some rocks, endangering your life, losing your investment and embittering yourself with embarrassment. Meantime it’s sitting in gaspingly expensive dry dock at Brad’s Marina in Shark River, suffering subtle structural damage from being out of the water too long, and you’re becoming the butt of whispered dumb-ass-novice cracks and slurs by the boatyard staff. You end up never driving down there even when you want to, and instead find yourself trying to avoid ever thinking about your sailboat, like a murder you committed decades ago and have escaped prosecution for by moving to another state and adopting a new identity, but that makes you feel ghastly every morning at four o’clock when you wake up covered with sweat.

Sponsor conversations address just such problems, often focusing on the debilitating effects of ill-advised impulse purchases or bad decisions regarding property or personal services. As a realtor, I know a lot about these things. Another example would be how do you approach your Dutch housekeeper, Bettina, who’s stopped cleaning altogether and begun sitting in the kitchen all day drinking coffee, smoking, watching TV and talking on the telephone long-distance, but you can’t figure out how to get her on track, or worst case, send her packing. Sponsor advice would be what a friend would say: Get rid of the boat, or else take some private lessons at the yacht club next spring; probably nothing’s all that wrong with it for the time being—these things are built to last. Or I’ll write out a brief speech for the Sponsoree to deliver to Bettina or leave in the kitchen, which, along with a healthy check, will send her on her way without fuss. She’s probably illegal and unhappy herself.

Anybody with a feet-on-the-ground idea of what makes sense in the world can offer advice like this. Yet it’s surprising the number of people who have no friends they can ask sound advice from, and no capacity to trust themselves. Things go on driving them crazy even though the solution’s usually as easy as tightening a lug nut.

The Sponsor theory is: We offer other humans the chance to be human; to seek and also to find. No donations (or questions) asked.

         

A
drive across the coastal incline back to Haddam is not at all unusual for me. Despite my last near decade spent happily on the Shore, despite a new wife, new house, a new professional address—Realty-Wise Associates—despite a wholly reframed life, I’ve kept my Haddam affiliations alive and relatively thriving. A town you used to live in signifies something—possibly interesting—about you: what you were once. And what you
were
always has its private allures and comforts. I still, for instance, keep my Haddam Realty license current and do some referrals and appraisals for United Jersey, where I know most of the officers. For a time, I owned (and expensively maintained) two rental houses, though I sold them in the late-nineties gentrification boom. And for several years, I sat on the Governor’s Board of the Theological Institute—that is, until fanatical Fresh Light Koreans bought the whole damn school, changed the name to the Fresh Light Seminary (salvation through studied acts of discipline) and I was invited to retire. I’ve also kept my human infrastructure (medical-dental) centered in Haddam, where professional standards are indexed to the tax base. And quite frankly, I often just find solace along the leaf-shaded streets, making note of this change or that improvement, what’s been turned into condos, what’s on the market at what astronomical price, where historical streets have been revectored, buildings torn down, dressed up, revisaged, as well as silently viewing (mostly from my car window) the familiar pale faces of neighbors I’ve known since the seventies, grown softened now and re-charactered by time’s passage.

Of course, at some unpredictable but certain moment, I can also experience a heavy curtain-closing sensation all around me; the air grows thin and dense at once, the ground hardens under my feet, the streets yawn wide, the houses all seem too new, and I get the williwaws. At which instant I turn tail, switch on my warning blinkers and beat it back to Sea-Clift, the ocean, the continent’s end and my chosen new life—happy not to think about Haddam for another six months.

What is home then, you might wonder? The place you first see daylight, or the place you choose for yourself? Or is it the someplace you just can’t keep from going back to, though the air there’s grown less breathable, the future’s over, where they really don’t want you back, and where you once left on a breeze without a rearward glance? Home? Home’s a musable concept if you’re born to one place, as I was (the syrup-aired southern coast), educated to another (the glaciated mid-continent), come full stop in a third—then spend years finding suitable “homes” for others. Home may only be where you’ve memorized the grid pattern, where you can pay with a check, where someone you’ve already met takes your blood pressure, palpates your liver, slips a digit here and there, measures the angstroms gone off your molars bit by bit—in other words, where your primary care-givers await, their pale gloves already pulled on and snugged.

         

M
y other duty for the morning is to act as ad hoc business adviser and confidant to my realty associate Mike Mahoney, about whom some personal data is noteworthy.

Mike hails from faraway Gyangze, Tibet (the real Tibet, not the one in Ohio), and is a five-foot-three-inch, forty-three-year-old realty dynamo with the standard Tibetan’s flat, bony-cheeked, beamy Chinaman’s face, gun-slit eyes, abbreviated arm length and, in his case, skint black hair through which his beige scalp glistens. “Mike Mahoney” was the “American” name hung on him by coworkers at his first U.S. job at an industrial-linen company in Carteret—his native name, Lobsang Dhargey, being thought by them to be too much of a word sandwich. I’ve told him that one or the other—Mike Lobsang or Mike Dhargey—could be an interesting fillip for business. But Mike’s view is that after fifteen years in this country he’s adjusted to Mike Mahoney and likes being “Irish.” He has, in fact, become a full-blooded, naturalized American—at the courthouse in Newark with four hundred others. Yet, it’s easy to picture him in a magenta robe and sandals, sporting a yellow horn hat and blowing a ceremonial trumpet off the craggy side of Mount Qomolangma—which is often how I think of him, though he never did it. You’d be right to say I never in a hundred years expected to have a Tibetan as my realty associate, and that New Jersey homebuyers might turn skittish at the idea. But at least about the second of these, what might be true is not. In the year and a half he’s worked for me, since walking through my Realty-Wise door and asking for a job, Mike has turned out to be a virtual lion of revenue generation and business savvy: unceasingly farming listings, showing properties, exhibiting cold-call tenacity while proving artful at coaxing balky offers, wheedling acceptances, schmoozing with buyers, keeping negotiating parties in the dark, fast-tracking loan applications and getting money into our bank account where it belongs.

Which isn’t to say he’s a usual person to sell real estate alongside of, even though he’s not so different from the real estate seller I’ve become over the years and for some of the same reasons—neither of us minds being around strangers dawn to dusk, and nothing else seems very suitable. Still, I’m aware some of my competitors smirk behind both our backs when they see Mike out planting Realty-Wise signs in front yards. And though occasionally potential buyers may experience a perplexed moment when a voice inside them shouts, “Wait. I’m being shown a beach bungalow by a fucking Tibetan!”—most clients come around soon enough to think of Mike as someone special who’s theirs, and get over his unexpected Asian-ness as I have, to the point they can treat him like any other biped.

Looked at from a satellite circling the earth, Mike is not very different from most real estate agents, who often turn out to be exotics in their own right: ex-Concorde pilots, ex-NFL linebackers, ex-Jack Kerouac scholars, ex-wives whose husbands ran off with Vietnamese au pairs, then wish to God they could come back, but aren’t allowed to. The real estate seller’s role is, after all, never one you fully
occupy,
no matter how long you do it. You somehow always think of yourself as “really” something else. Mike started his strange life’s odyssey in the mid-eighties as a telemarketer for a U.S. company in Calcutta, where he learned to talk American by taking orders for digital thermocators and moleskin pants from housewives in Pompton Plaines and Bridgeton. And yet with his short gesturing arms, smiley demeanor and aggressively cheerful outlook, he can seem and act just like a bespectacled little Adam’s-appled math professor at Iowa State. And indeed, in his duties as a residential specialist, he’s comprehended his role as being a “metaphor” for the assimilating, stateless immigrant who’ll always be what he is (particularly if he’s from Tibet) yet who develops into a useful, purposeful citizen who helps strangers like himself find safe haven under a roof (he told me he’s read around in Camus).

Over the last year and a half, Mike has embraced his new calling with gusto by turning himself into a strangely sharp dresser, by fine-tuning a flat, accentless news-anchor delivery (his voice sometimes seems to come from offstage and not out of him), by sending his two kids to a pricey private school in Rumson, by mortgaging himself to the gizzard, by separating from his nice Tibetan wife, driving a fancy silver Infiniti, never speaking Tibetan (easy enough) and by frequenting—and probably supporting—a girlfriend he hasn’t told me about. All of which is fine. My only real complaint with him is that he’s a Republican. (Officially, he’s a registered Libertarian—fiscal conservative, social moderate, which makes you nothing at all.) But he voted for numbskull Bush and, like many prosperous newcomers, stakes his pennant on the plutocrat’s principle that what’s good for him is probably good for all others—which as a world-view and in spite of his infectious enthusiasm, seems to rob him of a measure of inner animation, a human deficit I usually associate with citizens of the Bay Area, but that he would say is because he’s a Buddhist.

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