When I was fifteen, when my hair was growing down past my collar and my face was fixed into a jaded smirk, Mom and Dad decided it was time to get out. Out of the city; out of sinful, glorious NYC. Out of “this whole rat race,” Dad said, over and over again, to innocent guests over dinner. Truth was, I learned years later, that he got laid off, but I don’t think that was the most important thing. Mostly, it was about me and my pitch-perfect apathy and the kid I hit in the face. Mom and Dad didn’t know the whole story, and I wasn’t going to be the one to tell them, but they knew there was Trouble At School. They were anxious people, and I think they were looking for an excuse to leave the city, anyway. So we got out.
Out meant someplace where a church and a corner store counted as downtown and beaver dams made up the majority of the real estate. Warrington, Vermont was as good a someplace as any, except that it also had a gas station and was frozen solid from October to May.
We showed up in late December with a truck full of things someone had decided were indispensable—a grandfather clock, a doghouse for the dog we never bought, a third television. The doghouse was Leah’s idea. My younger sister has lived her whole life on the verge of owning a dog.
It was alternately raining and sleeting on the day of the move. The ride up was quiet, seeing as the embargo on communication with Mom and Dad was still going strong. The embargo had been implemented by forces beyond my control, prohibiting me from conversing with my parents. It was upheld in the hope that they might suffer for their infringements. Moving to Warrington pissed me off enough, but what really got me was that I hadn’t been in on the joke. My parents had taken a trip in October to check out the house, leaving me and Leah in Aunt Theresa’s Queens living room, bored shitless and wondering when Mom and Dad had discovered a passion for hiking.
They finally came clean at the first and only family meeting we ever had. Mom began: “Your father and I have something to tell you both. We’ve both been thinking a lot recently, and we’ve decided that its time for a change of scenery. A change of pace.”
“We’re moving to Vermont,” Dad said abruptly, trying to sound firm but sounding more than anything like he had been holding his breath. I caught Leah’s eye across the table. Her eyebrows were in her hair but she did not lose her cool. I laughed nervously. Leah smiled a questioning, innocent smile at my father. “What?”
“We think it will be good for all of us,” my mother said quietly.
I spent a week on friends’ couches. I came back when I ran out of couches, and also because I missed hanging out with Leah a little bit. I decided that I would live under my parents’ roof; I would even let them cook for me, but conversation was out of the question.
Our new home was an old town meeting hall that had been refurbished by deft hippie hands in the ‘60s. From the outside, it did a fairly good impression of a house. I knew better, though. We had moved into a Viking stronghold, a dusty mahogany cavern complete with rafters and high windows. I waited for hungry Nords to march through the front door and proclaim victory.
The bedrooms and bathrooms were in a two-story addition tacked awkwardly onto the vast meeting hall. My parents claimed the top floor, a master bedroom that the earth children had graced with a skylight. Leah and I got adjacent rooms on the first floor. The two rooms were identical except that she, for reasons Mom and Dad never explained, got to have the third and final TV. The first thing Mom and Dad did when we arrived was marvel at the mud. I walked out around the back of the house, lit a cigarette, and felt sorry for myself.
Our backyard in New York had been a white pebble affair wedged between our building and the one next door. There had been a gazebo for dwarves and people who liked to bend over, and a couple old lawn chairs. Behind our new house, there was so much white I could only make out my cigarette by its burning tip, half a football field of white, sloping gently down to a small frozen brook. Here and there, rocks and stumps jutted out of the snow. Beyond the puny brook there was an evergreen forest. The place seemed appropriately sized for a Yankee game—or a Viking battle for the stronghold.
When I was nearly smoking the filter, someone hugged me from behind. “Hey,” said Leah.
I threw the cigarette into the snow, as though that would draw less attention to it. Leah knew I smoked; had tried it a couple times herself. All the same, I hated for her to see me doing it.
“It won’t be so bad up here,” she said, “When I get my dog and you get some friends. If that ever happens. It’ll be sweet to have all this space.” I stared at a big log that had fallen across the brook. That was where the Vikings would cross on their way back home. Leah let go of me, and a second later I felt something icy and wet on my neck, slipping down the back of my jacket. I whipped around. “What the fuck, Leah?”
“Moody, moody moody,” she laughed, sing-song, “that’s for being so moody. You’re no fun sometimes. Come on, this could be OK.”
“Speak for yourself,” I snapped, “At least they gave you the TV.”
I started at Warrington Regional High School in January. My class was made up of fifty Jacks and Janes who were bored and had a right to be. When I walked in, midway through the year, they met me with alienating stares across the spare classrooms and whispers behind hands. I relished their suspicion, and wasted no time in letting them get to know me. A chunky guy named Trevor, who was cultivating a neck beard and wore New England Patriots gear like nothing else could keep him warm, came over to my lunch table at some point during the first week. He stood above me for a few seconds, staring at me. Two of his friends, who were slightly smaller than him but much bigger than me, hovered behind him. I looked him right in the eye and tried not to blink. Things went on like this for at least a minute. “Where’d you come from,” he said at last.
Trevor processed this information and then found his bearings. “Oh,” he said slowly, “you some kind of Giants fan?”
I didn’t watch football. “I never miss a game. You like the Pats?”
His face brightened. “Hell, yeah.”
I’ve always been good at making the right enemies. Trevor was, it turned out, more of just a Big Man than a Big Man On Campus, and the bad reputation that I quickly earned among his limited and thickly muscled group of friends translated into a good reputation among the general population at Warrington. Trevor made sure with his loud, slow voice that everyone knew he thought I was an arrogant piece of shit. It helped, of course, that I actually was arrogant enough to stand up to him, and smart enough to do it in a way that made him look stupid without him ever realizing it. If it had worked out differently, I could have easily wound up with a broken nose and broken social value. This possibility never occurred to me at the time.
I made a lot of friends by becoming someone they could come to with their gripes and condescending opinions concerning people like Trevor. I lent an understanding ear, but I never complained myself. Trevor wasn’t even on my radar, and indifference won me a following. My new friends tried to impress me with stories about drinking in the woods; girls and cars and weekends. I listened to them, or did my best to pretend, but I rarely told any stories of my own. I knew by then that people see you as the sum of everything you don’t say. I just smirked.
I became bored with my new friends by the spring of my first year at Warrington. They had no sense of irony. They were nice, or they weren’t. In New York, I had attended a prep school with boys who could do anything and still go to college. I had not been as rich as most of my friends, but just by being around them, I had inherited a particular idea of fun. The only way to enjoy yourself when you already had everything was to find the irony in the world, and make it where it wasn’t. Everything had seemed a trick, a test, a game with no stakes. Life before Warrington had been Jovan smoking a blunt in algebra—he was one of the only ones who did manage to get kicked out; Sid and I painting the headmaster’s car before the first bell; the pretty girls who we treated, on alternating days, like queens and like dirt; life had been a mad quest for anything to make the time pass and make our world more absurd. In Warrington, even the fuck-ups were boring.
In April, Dad sat down to dinner and coughed loudly. “I’m starting a new job tomorrow, Leah,” he said. He didn’t look at me.
“What kind of job?” Leah asked through a mouthful of food.
“Fixing roofs for people in the neighborhood,” said Dad, who had been an investment banker until the (still, as-of-yet, undisclosed) layoff. It wasn’t only that he had spent the last twenty-odd years managing loans and debts. I liked to think of my father in the womb, already starting to keep track of the mounting debt he owed his mother.
“Your dad was a roofer when we first got out of college,” said Mom. She was also addressing only my sister. That was alright with me, but I hated the way she and Dad talked down to Leah. By the twelfth year of her life, my quiet little sister knew all about irony. As if to prove it, she looked at me with the corners of her mouth turned up slightly. She knew as well as I did that Dad didn’t need the money; he was trying to get in touch with a rugged side he did not have.
Dad coughed again and added, “Your brother will be helping me at work this week, during his break.”
My first instinct was to tell him to fuck off. Leah struggled hard not to laugh, but I knew she was not laughing at my misfortune. I knew exactly what she was thinking: Roofing with dad was too funny to pass up, and it was worth one wasted day. I said, “Pass the butter.”
* * *
The next day, at eight a.m. sharp, Dad and I became the first roofing team ever to show up for a job in a Mercedes-Benz. The house was a mile up the dirt road from our Viking abode, and it was more modest. Actually, it was a shitshow. The roof was the most pressing of a series of maladies ranging from peeling paint to broken windows. Fortunately, Dad had arrived in flannel and overalls. Together with his enthusiastic and energetic son, he would whip the house into shape in no time.
A man with a white beard to rival my hair answered the door and introduced himself as Abraham. Abe hobbled around with the two of us in tow, pointing out the spots where winter had done the most damage, and then drove off to his work, leaving us to get started on ours.
The house was on a hill, and from the roof I could see down into the valley and back up the other side. Vermont in spring was a mess. Evergreens, still dusted white, stood next to trees that were growing fresh buds. There was water everywhere. It was nice to look at, really, but to me it was only a nagging reminder of just how fucked my adolescence was.
My father walked me through the basics of the job with a surprisingly steady hand. The first day’s work was to strip away all the shingles that had leaked during the winter, and to cover the plywood beneath them with a new layer of tar paper. Necessity and time had loosened the rules of the embargo, so I said “yes” and “no” when it was necessary, and even asked one question.
“You think we’ll get some lunch?”
“We’re here to work,” Dad pointed out. “That’s our responsibility. Tomorrow, if you want, pack some sandwiches.” The work was tedious, but easy. By noon we had ripped up the whole front side of the roof.
Abe’s green truck pulled into the driveway in the early afternoon. He gingerly lowered himself down from the cab and waved to us. The passenger door opened. A girl with mud all over her bluejeans hopped nimbly out. I watched the two of them walk into the house while Dad asked me a question: wasn’t it great to be out here working, instead of cooped up at home? I grunted and dug the shovel under a shingle.
Abe came out a few minutes later and said, “You fellas want something to eat?” Before my father could refuse, I yelled down, “Absolutely.”
Inside, the shitshack felt more like a home than our Nordic war-cavern ever had. The cramped kitchen was full of little statuettes and souvenirs. Hallmark poems about family were tacked to the walls, and the fridge was covered with magnets. Dad and I slid in around the kitchen table, which was nestled in the corner of the kitchen with all the windows, and Abe brought over four turkey sandwiches and sat down. The girl from the truck sat down in front of the unclaimed sandwich next to me. Abe put a hand on her shoulder and said, “This is my granddaughter Jill.” I told her my name. Her handshake was surprisingly strong.
Jill had short black hair that was tousled like a boy’s, and red lips that barely moved when she spoke. She was seventeen or eighteen. I had dated a girl who liked other girls more than she liked me, and one day she had explained her preference in terms I had been able to understand. “Girls just take much better care of themselves, of the way they look,” she said, “You’d have to be blind not to think they’re better looking.” I thought she had a point, but when I saw Jill, still wearing her muddy bluejeans, with her guy’s hair plastered all over her face, I figured that my friend from home had missed something: some girls don’t have to try.
Dad asked Abe about his job. Abe made maple syrup for a living. All morning, he and Jill had been out in the woods sucking it out of the trees. “She’s a good worker. Quicker than I was when I could still move,” he said.
“You on break?” Jill asked me.
“I’m out of school.”
“You’re out of college?”
“No,” she smiled. “I’m not going to college.”
The deep lines of Abe’s face tightened. “Jill’s helping me out around here,” he said.
“Besides,” said Jill, “I don’t want to go to college.”
“Yeah, college is a joke,” I asserted, as though I were an expert.
“Well,” said Dad.
“I don’t know if it’s a joke or not. I like it here, anyhow. I don’t feel too anxious to go anywhere else,” said Jill. I looked at her smooth face and her muddy jeans again, and she caught my eye. I turned my gaze out the window, towards the thawing valley.
When Dad and I had pulled the tarp over the newly tar-papered roof, Abe came out to say goodbye, and while he was talking to Dad about the next day’s work, I went into the house to use the bathroom. Jill was sitting in the living room with headphones on and a book unopened on her lap.
“What you listening to?” I asked.
“Public Enemy,” she said.
“It’s a rap group.”
“No, no, I know Public Enemy.” I paused. “I just didn’t peg you as the type.”
Jill smiled. “What type did you peg me as?”
“Did you really mean what you said about never wanting to leave this place?” I asked.
“Yeah, I did,” she sounded indignant, but playfully so, “I don’t know, it’s home. I’ve never been anywhere half as beautiful.”
“Where you been?”
“I went to Boston once. That’s the farthest.”
I laughed, but Jill didn’t join in. “What do you know about it, anyways?” she said.
“Maybe you should give me a tour.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“To convince me there’s something in this state worth looking twice at,” I said.
* * *
Much to Leah’s disappointment, roofing with Dad hadn’t provided me with anything worthy of blackmail, or even a decent joke. “We met a guy named Abe who looks just like an Abe should, straight out of the Old Testament.”
Leah gave an appreciative giggle, but we both knew that my material was weak.
“It sucked, to tell you the truth,” I told her.
I went back the next day. We saw Abe head off in the morning again, but when he came back that afternoon he was alone. Up on the roof, we hadn’t been able to keep up the previous day’s brisk pace. Specifically, I had been unwilling to keep up the previous day’s brisk pace. As the sun was sinking, Dad asked what was slowing me down.
“You should be glad I’m working at all,” I answered.
“Don’t talk to me like that.”
“You should be glad I’m talking at all.”
When it was getting too dark to see, we packed up and left.
* * *
The next morning, Jill was there, drowsy and gorgeous, pushing her hair gently out of her eyes. I said “Hey,” she said “Hey,” and then she got in the truck and drove off. We started the re-shingling part of the job. I carried loads of shingles up onto the roof, and Dad nailed them in. We did that until both of us were sweating profusely. In the afternoon, Jill and Abe came back. I asked her when she was going to take me hiking.
“Does your father want to come?” she asked.
“I don’t care what he wants, really,” I said.
“But he’s new to the area as well,” she protested.
“Yeah, but he’s an asshole.”
“You’ve really got everyone figured out, don’t you.”
“Yeah, I do.” I said. “So, when?”
“I’ll see how I’m feeling tomorrow.” I turned around to go, but I had been in this position before. I turned around and kissed her.
“I don’t really care how you’re feeling tomorrow,” I said, “How about right now?”
Her thin lips parted into a smile. It meant maybe, and on Jill’s face it was the sexiest thing I had ever seen. I leaned in again, but she put a finger to my lips and said, “Your father’s calling you.”
“See you tomorrow,” I conceded.
* * *
The next day was uncharacteristically warm for Vermont in April. On the ride over, Dad and I actually held a conversation. He asked again if I enjoyed the work, and I told him it wasn’t so bad. He told me it was the last day we’d be working at Abe’s house.
Abe and Jill had already left when we arrived. We only had the back half of the roof to shingle, and we worked slowly. I couldn’t have worked with any urgency if I had wanted to. I thought about Jill, thinking about me; wondering who I was and what I’d done. I thought about that look on her face that said “we’ll see,” and it drove me crazy. I dropped a load of shingles on the way up the ladder, and my dad shouted a sentence with fuck as the verb, noun, adverb, and adjective.
Noon came and went. I pounded nails to pass the time. She was probably on her way by now, feeling just like I was. I thought the landscape less forsaken than it had looked the first day, and the silence seemed less oppressive.
Around five o’clock, Dad announced that we were finished.
“Where’s Abe?” I ventured.
“I don’t know,” said Dad, “but he needs to pay me.”
We sat on the front porch and waited while the sun went down. Without work to keep it busy, my mind waxed morbid. I saw, all at once and in horrible detail, their truck at the bottom of a ravine, smudged tire tracks trailing off the side of the road, bears in the maple forest. I felt sick.
Long past the point when I couldn’t stand it anymore, the truck swung around the bend and pulled up in front of the house. Abe eased himself out. “Phew,” he said. “Long day out there. Real sorry to be so late, I hope you fellas have been keeping yourselves entertained. Let me get you your money so you can get on home.” He walked into the house. I sat on the porch, staring at the truck. I could see through the twilight that there was nobody inside. At one point, Dad said, “Your first job’s finished, huh? Satisfying, isn’t it?”
Abe came out with the cash. Trying to make my voice sound as casual as possible, I asked, “Hey, where’s Jill?”
“Oh,” said Abe, “I just dropped her off at her friend Trevor’s house. That’s actually why I was so late getting back; Trevor lives on the other side of town.”
On the way home, Dad tried to talk, but each time he started, I turned up the classic rock station. Eventually, he killed the radio and we drove to the humming of cicadas. At the only stop light in Warrington, Dad took his hand off the steering wheel and put it on my shoulder. I looked at him. He nodded, and I nodded back.