We stopped at the Western Summit of the Mohawk Trail. Below Richland lay in the valley. I could see all the way to New York State and well into Vermont. Secretly exhilarated, I knew every turn of the road, and what to expect. I felt comfortable for the first time in months. My hangover was lifting.
The gray-green Hoosac River moves through the history of long-gone spinning mills, paper mills, the shoe factory that clacked and whirred and hammered at the river's edge. It runs south under the railroad bridge past the Boston Maine Railroad Station. I imagined the February swells churned over banks almost like they did in ‘52 when all the bridges wobbled and row boats floated down Eagle Street; when Columbia bicycles raced wheel-deep down Holden Street and the Pericles Construction Company smacked its lips and made plans for the Rip Rap, flood control killing of a lifetime.
Back then, spring, smelled like lilacs all the way to school. Yes! There's Jessie, her long beautiful thirteen-year-old body in wet May rain, her damp ponytail, her hot sweet breath on my face. Come June, we lie on the grass strip between Mr. Pinelli's gladiolus’s and Mr. Pinelli's Jack in the Pulpits. Hey July, hey Bobby, let's swim across the lake. Hey Bobby. Going to the State Line tonight to hear Rex Stewart play “We Gots Fish For Suppuh” ? Hey Bobby, bring your brother's draft card. Bobby, ya got that?
The James E. Strates carnival train pulled into the depot in the middle of the night and exploded on summer dawns with mysterious secrets designed to skin a kid's allowance five times over. Awesome red and yellow wagons rolled off the flatbeds and trucks. Horses pulled the winding extravaganzas through town in a clink-clunk parade of wallyoops and tootles that made my heart wang and bump and my fast feet dance inside themselves.
A carnival came from somewhere beyond the emptiness of Sunday summer streets; somewhere beyond the feeling life might be one long yawn; somewhere beyond dark attics and musty cellars, beyond church pews; It seemed bigger than Jesus, longer than Cheshire Lake and somewhere beyond the echoes of hunting rifles and the tinkly pinball machines in the back room of Zoomadakis 's Candy Store. For the extra quarter, I needed to see the side show, the upside-down cosmic bink, the man in the back tent with the baby growing out of his chest.
When all the quarters had been collected, all the tent flaps secured and guarded and the final hush dropped to din, what appeared to be a man of great sadness, a man of unspeakable torment, his head tilted, his skin stark and patchy in the halo of a carnival spotlight on a low wooden platform, opened his robe and unfolded the white cloth ever-so-slowly, so I could smell the warmth and wonder flowing into the dusty light. And I saw the little baby hanging down, back facing me, its head imbedded in the man's chest; its rubbery legs dangling stiffly in stillness along the cloth background that held me darkly white and mysteriously wanting. I clung to every second. I wanted to get closer. In the back of my mind, I knew even then, that for a quarter, time was short, and the horror, the very idea, the drama, the mystery of the twin baby stuck in the man's chest, had to be recreated every ninety minutes, even if it was true. I went back every year.
Then the Fall. Hems of the cheerleader’s skirts flap through cheering October. A gray squirrel sitting on a fallen oak blinks, blinks, blinks. The last gasp of Jimmy Gilbert, shot by a 22 short in a hunting accident bubbles beneath the bridges all the way to Lansing Hills. I hear his sweet breath stop. Oh sadness of winter turnips on grocery shelves, oh mad, mad silver-bladed ice skates and holding hands with mittens, oh thick January oil heaters and the stammering hiss of radiators. Oh February, when changing a tire is Blood Knuckle City.
I want to feel eight-penny nails rolling in my palm, the wonder of cross cut saws, the exquisite balance of a fine hammer. Oh ball peen, oh lime, oh mercury in a bottle, oh Wonder Beans, oh pumpkin, oh lettuce, oh corn, oh succulent August tomato, oh screen door hinges, oh rat traps and awls, auger bits and flanges, oh telephone poles and fence post diggers with whoopy jaws, barbed wire stretchers and teat dilators, oh Wild Root Cream Oil, oh panties in the night, oh bullhead dreams and sunfish realities. Oh rowboats on Cheshire Lake, oh linoleum tacks and Blue Blades, oh deep river memory, gurgling, gone blank, deep and cold, rolling softly past the ever and ongoing childhood of my heart.