The house was a plain white clapboard, built in 1930 give or take, insulated with a layer of horsehair embedded in the plaster. At $250 per month, my studiolette was a cozy work/sleep room lined up with a smaller kitchen and smaller bathroom, all with tall narrow windows facing north. For bathing, there was a claw-foot tub with a convenience called a Danish — a yard of rubber tubing to hold overhead, fitted to a small outlet for bathwater. The floor had a metal spade-shaped door that could open in winter to let a burst of warm air whoosh through the house every 15 minutes. In summer, air conditioning came from hand-sewed muslin dipped in water and hung over the curtain rods.
This was summer, and no question. My new vegetable garden baked out no matter how much dishwater and tub water I carried outside to pour on the cracked ground; nothing would grow but devil’s claw and very toxic pokeweed. The candles melted. The freezer filled up with ice every day, which I chipped off with a wooden spoon to place inside the warm refrigerator. At least the heat was useful for drying food; I tacked a lot of strings across the kitchen windows, and wove in a carload of fiber-rich daikon radish greens brought from Arkansas upon request by a good pal on an agriculture internship. And at least my quarters didn’t spring the surprises that one charming stone farmhouse did just outside town; a fellow student came downstairs one morning to a wriggling living room floor, where many bitty rattlesnake hatchlings were exploring the brave new world.
We relied on the county bank with its big thermometer outside, and its recorded telephone line with an elated male voice proclaiming time and temperature. The radio gave us the Comfort Index, like a wind chill factor in reverse, calculating just how miserable we felt. It also broadcast Livestock Emergency Alerts, letting farmers know when to get the cows in the barn, or out of it, or whatever cows need to cool off. Storm warning time was late afternoon, when NPR ran an especially popular show (probably “All Things Considered,” but I’ll check and make sure). I switched on public radio only to get bulletins when the sky turned green, so to this day its perky theme music makes me edgy.
Still, the town had real summer charm. To the south we had a fire watch tower with room for conversation and lunch on top, and a view of fields for miles around. On the north, the broad sand river levee was perfect for strolling and picking watercress. On the west, the hilltop had a tiny historic cemetery, a good place to admire sunsets and watch clouds of fireflies and eat mulberries off some nearby trees. The wonderful downtown history museum was a cultured refuge with a gazebo garden and winding path of vintage bricks. The central playground had a vintage locomotive for the kids to climb and scream on, and a popular library. The campus carillon tower played chimes on a hillside blooming with clouds of redbud trees every spring. There were evening band concerts in the park for picnicking families and friends. Local artisans produced a tempting array of sprouts, fresh-baked sourdough breads, and tofu made the same day; one of them opened a popular micro-brewery in the fully restored historic opera house. The politically progressive food coop sold just-picked produce, some of it from their own garden. Their free giveaway box supplied many of my clothes and household goods; even their compost heap offered perfectly usable items for dinner.
The townspeople made the best of those arduous summers. The 4th of July parade included a tame llama, and food coop cashiers in an annual display of synchronized shopping-cart marching. A dear talented buddy had a fine time hanging half out his window to record severe thunder for his brilliant computerized music compositions. The ladies at the retirement home got in a friendly bet about whether it really was hot enough to “fry an egg on the sidewalk”; they made the front page of the city paper by cracking an egg on the pavement and then laughing at its behavior. The doughnut shop flashed a neon sign at 3:00 a.m., when the fresh batches were put on the racks, and students would throng in the door for a snack in the cool of the wee hours. The local Buddhist temple chose 3:00 a.m. too for their three-hour Sunday service; their little Zen Center house offered rides to anyone who called, and starting at 1:00 the monks in their feed caps would set out in a truck to pick up people for meditation. One afternoon some fellow students brought a truck inner tube to a pond and went swimming. To enjoy the breeze they sat on their towels just as they were for the drive back into town. Then at the drive-in burger stand they wished a little late that they’d put on a stitch or two before pulling up below the cute girl at the microphone.
One third of my income that year (the total annual gross was $6,700; I just checked the tax return) came from proofreading science journals. Each author submitted a typed manuscript, and the publishing house covered it with format markings, then reprinted it as a glossy galley proof. Proofreaders had to make sure that every marking was correctly carried out in the galleys, and complied with the detailed style sheet for that particular journal. For the sake of accuracy, we were not allowed to visually compare the two texts. Instead we had to read the author’s pages out loud into a tape recorder, describing every editing mark: “Capitalize this letter D in mid-word” or “end boldface Courier 10 point text here” or “add opening double curly braces.” Then we listened to our taped recital of editing instructions while reading and marking up the galley with soft red pencils. We were paid a base rate for the job, plus a 12 cent bonus every time we reported a mistake. (One astute proofreader realized that in an article of numeric tables, every last zero had been type-set as a capital letter O. That jackpot must have kept her in 3:00 a.m. doughnuts for a long time.)
The topics included mathematical calculations of crystal structures, prolific chemical equations with calculus symbols and Greek letters, and one about a type of bird which hatches chicks and then carries the chick droppings long distances in its beak, so that prowling predators would follow these little clues away from the nest. (Researchers followed the parents on many housecleaning trips, graphing the time of day, distance, and direction of all droppings dropped.) Another expedition team found that genetic distinctions within one species of spider could be ascertained easily by measuring the thickness of the individual hairs on the spider’s legs.
To save time and to stay awake through all those formulas and equations and literature citations, I devised representational sound effects as shorthand. High falsetto meant italic, growl was boldface, Donald Duck voice was underline. I worked out punctuation taps, yips, beeps, tongue clicks, glottal stops, whistles, and trills. I should have kept the tapes; they sounded like Science Hour with Spike Jones.
In the noonday sun, that horsehair plaster could do only so much insulating and no more. I’d have to take breaks to wet the muslin curtains, sip some roasted brown-rice tea, and take a nap on the wood floor wrapped in a wet towel with both feet in a bowl of water. When the heat was too much for working, I’d recreate the Russian sauna effect. I’d ride my bicycle hard up the main hill, come home, draw a hot hip bath of daikon radish greens (said to help expel toxins, but who knows?), then get out and wrap up in a sheet and blanket and pass out on the floor for a good sweat. Twenty minutes later I’d wake up refreshed, rinse off the sweat under The Danish, throw the water and greens on the garden, wash the blanket and sheet to hang at the window, and pour some more rice tea. (Note: I would never try a wacky extreme stunt like this in a heat wave now, and neither should you.)
Did we mention the neighbors?
They moved in as tenants of the stately Victorian house next door. That summer there were 6 or so students, strapping he-men with optional shirts and shoes. Regularly I gave a friendly nod or wave while passing the house, and tried saying hello a few times, just in the capacity of a neighbor using the same neighborhood. But it was like a squirrel trying to hail the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales; they never responded or seemed to know I was there. Instead their gusto level ran to drinking wagers, stereo parties, auto revving, sports on TV, sunbathing on the roof with the radio, and visitors day and night who tended to drive or walk by, shouting long complex messages instead of knocking on the door and going inside.
All my windows faced their south windows 20 feet away, offering the full gamut of personal sound effects. At one 3:00 a.m. party, someone turned the stereo to the repeat setting for a couple of hours of a new Janet Jackson hit. The decibel level was actually enough to ricochet distortion against the houses across the street. I thought of calling the police, but couldn’t hear my own dial tone and figured the precinct dispatcher wouldn’t hear anything but “Nasty! Ugh. Nasty boys. Deet! Deet! Doodley-Doot & Dee Dee.”
To be fair, the fellas might have a blog today about their stress living next door to an arachnophile who talked, chirped, and beeped all day long in various voices all to herself about leg hair on spiders. Maybe it drove them to drink. Except, their windows faced four sides, and mine faced one. Besides, they were bigger and more loud.
You already see where this is going.
In following their bliss, the boys and their sports cheers, peppery language, and other visceral sound bites were drowning out my recorded hours of painstaking falsetto, tongue clicks, and whistle editing code. One especially hot night while testing a folk remedy for fever (= place green-leaf compresses on the sufferer’s brow), I found that a 60 minute recording of numerals was unusable because of ambient racket. Soon I was weeping hopelessly over my lost numeric tables, pacing the room with a lot of dripping cabbage on my head.
I prayed steadily over this all along, remembering to “Give thanks in all things.” After all, Corrie and Betsy ten Boom did just that in The Hiding Place. They offered praise even for the fleas in the concentration camp barrack, and later learned it was the fleas that had repelled the guards away from their Bible study. So, I began raising every candid noise as an offering, every time. That meant prayer while tape-recording with my head and upper body and tape deck under the futon for soundproofing; prayer during a rare quiet stroll one Sunday morning after a keg party, through hundreds of styrofoam cups rotating all over the street, bouncing pok-pok-pok in the breeze; and, prayer while chopping carrots at suppertime one day.
The carrot greens were washed and ready to strip from their stems and mince for the skillet. The carrots were lined up on the wood cutting board. During some TV match of the century next door, with goals scored and heated suggestions that the referee be given what-for and heave-ho, I was murmuring a prayer while dragging my tired dispirited mind through one even angled knife stroke, then the next even stroke, then the next.
And then, to the rhythm of the prayer, the strokes added up to some kind of rhythm and symmetry and rightness. The knife cuts took no effort at all. It felt as if there were no I, exerting my own force on the knife. Instead, the energy of the sunlight in the window flashed through the knife and then flowed through the carrot pieces. All the elements — light, metal, vegetable, wood — expressed their essences in freedom and balance. For an instant my mind let go of the havoc next door. And then a whole new prayer came to mind: “Thank you for letting me hear my neighbors. Because some day, one of those boys will say something that I need to know.”
Right then, two things happened.
One, the light from the window took on a striking soft gold glow on the maple cutting board, the beautiful saffron tones of the carrots, and the sparkling water drops in the feathery emerald greens.
Two, next door everything fell absolutely silent.
“HEY! Hey they interrupted the –” a voice protested, then instantly fell to a thoughtful mumble. “Whuzzat? ‘Tor-na-do warn-ing, seek shelter immediately.’ Huh.”
I gasped, flicking on the radio in my dash to the front porch. Outside, there was no breath of wind. The birds fell silent. That fond gold light took on a brass jaundice tint while the clouds sagged in darkening quilted patches. Sure enough: the local weather broadcast announced a tornado in air, heading toward town.
I turned off the gas stove and radio, yanked the plug from the tape recorder, and bolted to the dark storm cellar. There I perched with pounding heart on a broken wheelbarrow. We had a bit of hail, then a soft rain. Then the sun came out and the birds began to sing in a fresh breeze, so I tiptoed upstairs and looked around, wiping cobwebs off my face. The storm front was already racing away. My spike of fright melted in an endorphin rush of elation. I kicked off my sandals and drew in the energy of the melting hailstones through my feet, breathing deeply, marveling at the delicate clearing sunset.
My neighbors had taken the safety warning seriously by seeking shelter on their roof, with binoculars and a couple of six packs. The gold light flowing through my carrots was the same gold as the clearing sky, pouring itself over the boys and their flaxen rumpled hair, their tan skin, even the frosty beers in their hands.
Then, it all seemed so simple. Their candid noises, wakeful nights, raised glasses, pounding stereo, girls shrieking with hilarity — in this fallen post-Eden world, it was just one more human striving toward a paradise birthright of celebration, communion, and pleasure. We were all going to the Kingdom.
“Thank you,” I called up to them, putting down my sandals. “You could have saved my life.”
They stared down at me.
“What?” said one of them. “I’ve never even seen you before.”
“The special bulletin. ‘Tornado warning, seek shelter.'”
“What were you doing inside our house?” said one, curling his lip. (How drunk was I last night?)
I pointed to my room. “I’ve never been in your house. But those are my windows, there; I was fixing supper.”
“You heard me say that? Through the window?”
Their jaws dropped. So did the beer cans, nearly.
I just stood there, rapt in how beautiful they were. All that life force! How glorious!
Folding my hands I bowed to them and took my sandals inside.
Right after that, a letter came in the mail. My department on campus awarded me a summer scholarship for Polish Language. It paid more money than proofreading. But, there was one condition: to study full time, I had to give up all outside employment. So I finished the spider leg hair article, and the Press was very kind about giving me a two-month break. That meant leaving the studiolette behind each day for an air conditioned library and language lab, and edifying chats with kindly faculty in their pleasant shady offices.
And after that evening, noise from next door just made me think “Oh, they sound in good health, God love ’em.” Something shifted on their side too. It’s not like they started bringing me pie and Awake! Magazine. But the guys moved the TV room to the other side of the house. When the young ladies came over, they went up to the gable rooms and started closing the windows and even pulling down the shades. The parties ended. One of the guys came out one day and clipped the hedge. Even their outbursts were different: “Oh, sugar!” “What the Fritz are you trying to do?” “Well, ferrr — Christmas sakes!” or my favorite, a roar of “GAAAAAAAAAAAAA Jack, that keg fell right on my shoe, I wish you would be more careful!”
It was raining the last day of my summer term. I came home and saw that the stately Victorian was empty. It was purchased by two earnest women investing in a fixer-upper. For their fixing-upping they rose early each day, and we exchanged waves as I headed to my new additional campus job teaching English as a Second Language.
“But what about the carrots?” someone will ask. They turned out fine. Bit of sesame oil, garlic, shake of tamari & ginger. Not bad.