Published in Blueline, 2001
THE HEYDAY OF THE ADIRONDACKS
I should tell you my name. Agnes Illingwood. I live here in town, on Main Street.
This picture here — this was taken, let’s see, maybe twenty years ago. I have no idea what happened to that hat. Anyway, it looks like me. Or like I used to look. I don’t look like that anymore, of course. And next to me, that’s my mother.
Still living. She’s 92. Still pretty sharp, now that she’s on the medication. She lives over at the Pines. Has a cat named Maurice, which is pretty much all she talks about, except for Oprah, which she calls Offra, because that’s kind of how it’s spelled. Like she says, “Did you watch Offra the other day, Aggie?” She calls me Aggie.
We never got along. I love her and she loves me, I guess, but nothing I ever did was good enough. I lived with her for, let’s see, over fifty year. But I guess a lot of mothers and daughters are like that. Now I’ve got the house on Main Street for myself. I still sell tee shirts, just on weekends, but it’s not the same. It’s kind of lonely, even when there are a lot of people around. Also, I work at the library
My Dad died about ten years ago. He was a real character. In a restaurant, he always got in an argument with the waiter. He’d say stuff like, “Listen, young man, when I was a waiter, blah, blah, blah,” and then he always had something wrong with his food, like it wasn’t made just right, the way he liked it, like the waiter and the cook could read his mind. Once, before he died, I was with him in Lake Placid, and he ordered a sandwich, “on white bread,” he’d always say. So they brought this sandwich on French Bread, sort of sliced on the diagonal. And he had a fit. He kept saying, “I said white bread, dammit, not fancy-schmanzy bread. Can’t you hear? Are you deaf?” When the waiter offered to take it back and fix it, he said oh no he wasn’t going to let them take it back to the kitchen so the cook could spit on it. But he didn’t eat it either, just paid for a perfectly good sandwich he wouldn’t eat because the bread was slanted.
When he was younger, around the time he met Mom, he worked at a hotel, that famous hotel on Big Moose where that murder happened a long time ago.
He was there when it happened. You know, workin’ at the hotel. Well, the story, the way he told it, just kept gettin’ better and better. Toward the end, he told that he served her her last meal at the hotel the night she was killed, and she talked to him. “She was real nice,” he’d say.
Mom said if he’d lived a couple more years he would have been in the rowboat when she was thrown overboard.
What I been doin’ a lot lately is working over at the church whenever I can. Last week we had a big Balsam Bee. That’s when we get together and make pillows and stuff ‘em with balsam needles. It’s all women. Last winter with all the money they made they hired a bus and they all went to the Indian Casino in Rome. I didn’t go because I don’t approve of gamblin’, but the Reverend Arnold never said anything against it. Midge Johnson called me an old stick-in-the-mud. “What makes you think you’re so holy,” she said. “I know some things you did, that’d turn old Reverend Arnold’s ears pink, red and inside out.”
But I’m not goin’ to go into that. What’s past is past.
Myself, I never got married, although I could have. Back in high school was when I went out with Davey Smith. That was when Mom and I became real enemies almost. It’s never been the same since.
I liked Davey and I think he liked me, and she kind of forced us apart.
That was the night I didn’t get home ‘til like two in the morning. We’d gone up to one of the camps on Racquette, and broke in and stole some liquor. Then we made a big fire in the sand pit and someone called the cops and we got drove home in the police car and our parents woken up. Davey’s parents didn’t do anything, they didn’t care, but Mom went crazy. She made me not go out with Davey anymore and I had to stay home every night for six months. And it would have been longer except Dad finally said that’s enough.
Really I think Mom just didn’t like Davey and just used that night as an excuse. I guess he wasn’t good enough, according to her.
I still see Davey. He’s still in town. Been married twice now. Works at the hardware store and does some caretaking. Had a drink with him at the Towbar the other night and he says, “How’s your Mom, the old bitch.” I had to laugh. I says, well you lost interest pretty fast, didn’t you. “Maybe I ain’t lost it,” he says, but he was drunk, I think.
See this locket I wear. My Dad won it for me at the Boonville Fair. Throwing baseballs at bottles. He used to play tennis at the hotel with the rich guests. He was a star athlete, at least to hear him tell it. Every year he took me to the fair. He’d say, “OK, pumpkin, let’s go up to Boonville and give those country boys a treat.” He always told me I was beautiful. Just me and him. Mom didn’t like to go. Said it was a bunch of farmers, which it was.
Toward the end, he got a little funny. He’s knees gave out and he wobbled and he’d walk around with his fly open. He wasn’t like that or anything, just forgetful.
Dad liked to say he was there during the heyday of the Adirondacks. But the heyday was before that. Gramma and Grampa Bittersworth were caretakers for the Hawthornes from New York who had a whole island on Racquette. It was called one of the great camps — buildings and buildings all made of giant logs — and that’s where Mom lived when she was born. The kitchen was a building and so was the dining room. The boathouse had two long mahogany motor launches with brass trim, and awnings and wicker chairs, a guide boat and about ten wooden canoes, and on top was a deck with a railing made out of logs and twigs real fancy like. Gramma said the Hawthornes and their guests would dress up in white suits and dressy dresses and drink martinis on the roof of the boathouse. That was the heyday.
One day Gramma and Grampa were opening the place in June, getting it ready and the Hawthorne’s son called and said to stop, they weren’t coming up anymore. And Grampa said what do you mean, where is Colonel Hawthorne and it turned out he was dead, and that was the end of it. They paid Gramma and Grampa for the whole summer, and let them live in their cabin there as long as they wanted, which was real nice, but that was the end of it. Grampa said what should I do with all the food and everything and the son said sell it or take it all for yourself, I don’t care, and leave the camp just the way it is.
It was real sad. They had such a beautiful, busy, rich life and it was over just like that.
Dad had a tough time, too, after the hotel closed up. He was older then and had to find work. He worked for a friend of his who was building houses for the rich folks from Utica and Syracuse ‘cause the people from New York stopped coming, but he wasn’t a very good worker and that’s when he started drinking more. But they never fired him. He also tried to sell real estate and maybe he sold a couple houses but he didn’t have the knack for it. He said he just couldn’t lie to people.
Mom was on him all the time. She was on me all the time too. Kept talking about college. Why didn’t I go to college. I could have too. But after the thing with Davey, and a lot of other stuff, well, I got so whatever she wanted me to do, I did the opposite. I kind of regret it a little now, but what can you do?
When Dad was drinking and not selling real estate, that’s when Mom opened the tee shirt shop, right in the house, right in the living room and dining room, the whole front of the house. And we all worked at it, and it was fun. I missed the living room and dining room. We had to put all the dishes in the kitchen and put piles of tee shirts on the buffet, but we got to see the tourists every weekend and talk to them and make fun of them. There were a lot of fat ones that bought the tee shirts. Dad said we had to have deer in town because these people were too lazy to walk a block into the woods. And the crap they would buy. Mom had a good sense of crap and we had the most successful tee shirt shop in Forgeville.
Now, every year we got the Symphony in the park up at Fern Lake. I hope they play the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky this year. It’s loud, but I think it’s real patriotic for some reason. He’s my favorite. Anything by him. I got a new dress for this year and I’ll get Mom one in Utica. She also likes the Symphony. Maybe we can get Davey to go. Probably not, but who knows?
Last year, just before she moved to the Pines, Mom started to get confused. Some days she would tell me the same thing twenty times. She’d forget to turn the stove off and couldn’t remember if she ate lunch. Some days, she started talking like I was a little girl.
One night when she told me for the fifteenth time that she liked brown eggs better than white eggs but that you couldn’t get brown eggs anymore I told her to stop repeating herself and she tried to send me to bed without any supper, so I just walked out of the house and slammed the door. I went to the Towbar and had too many, so Davey brought me home.
She was sitting in the living room, on a pile of tee shirts, her hair all wild and uncombed, just waiting for me. She recognized Davey, and screamed at me I told you never to see that boy again. He’s no good and neither is his parents. I was sort of drunk and I told her to shut up and she came at me and slapped me with the back of her hand, and her diamond raked my face and cut me pretty bad. So now I’m screaming too and holding my face which is bleeding all over.
Davey went into the kitchen and got me a wet towel and then he started saying Mrs. Illingwood, didn’t you know, I’m going to UCLA now. I got a scholarship and I’m studying to be an engineer. Well, she calms right down and starts smiling and everything and he goes on that he’s in town for a football game in Utica, and she buys this too. Then he cleans me all up and washes the cut and decides it’s not too serious and puts us both to bed.
Next morning I drag myself out of bed. I got a hangover and I look in the mirror and one side of my face is all swollen and purple. I can hear Mom banging around in the kitchen, so I put on my housecoat and go downstairs. I don’t know what to expect.
Anyway, there she is — all smiles and like nothing happened. She’s standing over the stove cooking me bacon and eggs and asks me did I know you can’t get brown eggs anymore, and then she looks up and sees my face. “My God, Aggie, your face! What happened? It’s cut! Oh, sweetheart.”
I look at her. I didn’t know what to do. I just felt stupid.
Just then, the doorbell rings and who walks in but Davey, and Doc Blanchard, and Reverend Arnold and my pal Midge and some guy named Masters who runs the Pines.
Well, Mom just rises to the occasion like she was expecting them or something and makes a pot of coffee and makes them all sit down around the kitchen table and there we are all squeezed together with our knees touching, looking at each other.
I notice Doc has sat down next to Mom and has taken hold of her hand. He asks her in a real concerned voice how is she feeling and is everything OK. We’ll, she gives him a funny look and then he asks her how did I cut my face and she doesn’t bat an eyelash and says, “I don’t know, Doc, she was just about to tell me when you came in.”
Everybody looks at each other and then Mom starts telling everybody about how Davey is going to UCLA and on the football team and everything and isn’t it exciting his parents must be so proud. Then she looks at Davey and gives him this big smile.
Davey gives me a wink.
I notice Midge is looking at my face kind of worried like, but Davey nudges her. She jumps a little and then starts joshing me and you know cheering me up. She says, “I hear you’re a cheerleader now, Aggie. Got one of those little short skirts and everything, I bet.”
Mom looks at Midge like what in hell are you talking about.
And Reverend Arnold is just smiling and being cheerful which is pretty much all he does anyway.
Anyway, then Doc goes and gets his medicine kit and cleans up my face and says it’s not a deep cut and it’s going to be OK, and this guy Masters gets out a bunch of papers and the next thing I know, Mom is on medication and all calmed down and living at the Pines.
That’s the way the people are in this town.
– end –