... a sad story that causes looking at myself
Russell Banks has written one of the most spectacular yet saddest stories I ever read. It is a story in a book, “The Angel on the Roof: the stories of Russell Banks.” It’s titled "Firewood" and the words tingle in my arms and back as I read.
“Nelson Painter is a man who is old, but doesn’t know it yet.” That’s the line that opens the story and immediately sets foreboding. You know no good is going to come of this. "Firewood" is about a pile of firewood that has been left on his property for his son to claim, given at Christmas time as a present. It is in the deep woods of New Hampshire, “… on a Sunday in midwinter when it is still dark as night and snow is falling and the temperature is stuck at fifteen…” He has “… a seven year old great Dane with one yellow and one brown eye.”
“The dog clatters its nails on the linoleum floor…” Nelson imagines his first wife, Adele, and his second wife, who lives with him in this house, “In the dream, it doesn’t seem to matter, Adele or Allie: they behave the same way -- they scream at him, a roar, high and windy, a frightening mix of rage and revulsion that blames him for everything in general and nothing in particular.”
This should give a feeling of how this story will be spun out. The focus of the story is about the firewood that has been left by his son who has rejected his present. He phones Earl, his son, to be told he will be by for the wood. Earl doesn’t show up so he calls again. Earl says he has company and will be by later in the week. We learn from this exchange that Nelson has alienated just about everybody including his first wife and his present wife who is disgruntled most of the time. Georgie, another son, refuses to have anything to do with Nelson.
We are only a few pages into the story when we get a very vivid picture of Nelson with this very disturbing, long sentence: “He sips at the vodka steadily, as if nibbling at it, and his gratitude for it is nearly boundless, and though he appears to be studying the darkness out the window, he’s seeing only as far as the glass in his hand and is thinking only about the vodka as it fits like a tiny, pellucid pouch into his mouth, breaks into a thin stream, and rolls down his throat, warming his chest as it passes and descends into his stomach, where the alcohol enters his blood and then his heart and brain, enlarging him and bringing him to heated life, filling the stony, cold man with light and feeling and sentiment, blessing him with an exact nostalgia for the very seconds of his life as they pass, which in this man is as close to love as he has been able to come for years, maybe since childhood.”
Toward the end of this story, Nelson decides to work at the pile of firewood. It is snowing now, up to about eight inches and still coming down in earnest so it is hard to see. He tries to break the wood free and falls down. “Slowly, on his hands and knees, puffing laboriously now, he gathers up the three logs and stands, his left hip burning in pain where he fell against it, and starts back to the barn.” Allie waves to him but he can’t hear with the snow howling. He knows what she will say, “Come inside, for God’s sake, Nelson! You’re drunk! You’re going to hurt yourself!” Nelson ignores his wife and keeps going back to the barn. “Nelson reaches into his pocket, pulls out the bottle, works the cap off, and takes a long drink. Recapping the bottle, he places it in his pocket and looks back toward the door, but it is closed. He’s alone again. Good.”
I found myself dwelling on this story, fascinated with the clear, lyrical language alongside the desolation. It got me to thinking about myself in relation to how I might stack up with my family. Just yesterday my number one son called me to see if I would like to watch the Patriots' game with him and his friends. Though I don’t like to go out in the dark anymore, I was glad to be asked so I accepted. Mike was just fifty in March last year. He gave me his favorite chair in front of the TV, gave me a couple of scotches, and served me dinner where I sat. It felt like royalty as I was surrounded with affection. Mike drove me home at half-time so I wouldn’t fall asleep in my chair.
A week before Christmas, all of the family went to Peter Boyd’s house, the number two son of our seven kids and nine grand kids. We exchanged gifts with the family on this occasion so that the children would all be home for Christmas. Ellen, our oldest, Jeff and Molly (11) gave me a heavy Irish wool sweater that I am now wearing as I write this. I feel the warmth and affection that goes with the sweater. I’m not going to give a list of the gifts that I received as all express deep affection for us. I do want to mention the Salt Rock Lamp that Peter, Cathy, Emily and Sarah gave us. Peter has a special talent for thinking of and giving gifts like a tool kit we got from him when we moved to this condo.
The Salt Rock Lamp now sits on the pine dry-sink wood bench that serves as our liquor cabinet. It is about ten inches tall and about five inches in the beam. There is a bulb to put into it that when lit gives off a kind of rosy glow. I want to imagine that it does all that it says it does: relieves migraine headaches; speeds recovery in burn patients; improves sleep; reduces stress; reduces asthma attacks; boosts Serotonin levels; relieves sinus problems; enhances the immune system; increases concentration; helps with colds and flu; improves learning and alertness. Each night when the sun goes down at about 5PM, I switch the light and watch the glow it gives off. I’m a believer!
On November 21, 2006 I passed into my 76th year. Our family has grown beyond us. The daughters call frequently, the daughters-in-law less frequently, as might be expected. It is very hard work caring for each family as we should well know. If every now and then, Christmas or the Fourth of July, our family recognize us for what we intended for them. This is all we might expect and we are grateful.
March 2, 2007