I AM ON the porch of the local bar overlooking Main Street. It’s August and it’s Community Day. And though the sun hasn’t set yet, most people have been drinking since ten. The clever ones have taken midafternoon naps and returned. I, not being a local, didn’t arrive until three—after the watermelon- eating contest and the parade and the antique car show have all become beer-clouded memories. A few people complain about my lack of community spirit. For the first time since I arrived here in Andes in May, I am wearing a dress—a silken, hippie halter dress that though it hits my ankles does not spare cleavage. It is Community Day, after all, and I feel the need to appear festive—even if I have foregone most of the festivities.
Every summer (and it’s an oft-told joke in these parts to say “I hope summer falls on a weekend this year”) in commemoration of the Anti Rent War of 1845, when a gang of farmers assumed the garb of Calico Indians and shot the sheriff, Community Day falls in the middle of August. I suspect that’s because August is the only month when the Northern Catskills can be fairly sure that there won’t be snow.
Since I got here around Memorial Day, this town has appeared fairly placid to me. From the vantage point of the porch, people comment on how fast other people drive. And even on darts’ night and trivia night, the same few people occupy the same barstools week after week. The older ones, married and remarried to the point where the familial connections seem impossibly convoluted, settle in on one end and a cluster of young men play pool in the dimmer recesses on the other end of the bar. Rarely do the two intersect. Occasionally, a cloud of white-thighed girls in shorts float by, but for the most part the younger crowd consists of long-limbed boys in jeans and t-shirts making their shots in as athletic a fashion as possible. They are indistinguishable to me—this loose gang that a friend of mine refers to as “the pups.” The rest are older women and couples with the occasional single man intently filling out his instant-win lottery ticket and staring at the television screen as numbers roll by every two minutes.
But Community Day is the happening of the summer. Weeks beforehand people ask if I will be there. And I, in turn, ask them if they plan to attend. A pointless asking, since except for one guy, a man full of pride over his four home runs in a single game in the softball league, who complains, “If I know twenty people that’ll be it,” everyone goes to community day. As if to establish the curmudgeonly status of this guy, the bartender reminds him there hasn’t been a softball league since 1967.
By the time I take my seat on the porch, the first altercation of the night—a scuffle over some matter of local governance—arises and subsides. And typically the rift is between a local and someone who once lived in Brooklyn—between one of the “pups” and a flatlander with ideas (which is not to say the local doesn’t have ideas, but they are probably the same ones his grandpa had). Once the verbal back and forth results in no blows landed, no punches thrown, just a flurry of interceders and last words tossed, the Brooklynite disappears, and with nothing left to argue about, the kid happens to glance my way. He leans forward on his bench, looks at me with bleary eyes, and pronounces in a voice loud enough for everyone on the porch to hear:
“Grandma, I could fuck you to death.”
My first—and my second and third—reaction is to be a wiseacre and come back with: “That is the worst pickup line I have ever heard.” Witty rejoinders, however, are pearls cast before drunkards, and he continues his misguided and disturbing line of thinking—variations on the triad of “grandma” “death” and “fuck” spewed with enough volume that the J. Crew clad tourists hurriedly finish their sundaes and grab their kids and head back to their shabby chic lair. After more of his comments, all exploring minor variations on the same theme—suggesting I might have a heart condition, for instance, and implying that virility could be the death of me—it finally occurs to a few grownups to intervene and the kid is scuttled off, presumably for reprogramming, and then returns half an hour later with an apology. I am sitting on the steps and he towers above me as he says the words. And I, loathe to let it slide, have to respond, “They made you say that.” He seems blank and drained of venom (if not alcohol), and even if he isn’t sincere, there isn’t any point in going on, so I relent and forgive him.
It isn’t until the next morning that I even try to sort it out. Part of me doubts my sartorial choice. Like the celebrities who get blamed when their salacious selfies are exposed, I feel responsible for having attracted attention. I was asking for it, wasn’t I? Except sober reflection assures me that no one asks to be called Grandma in the first place, not to mention inviting the fate of being sexed to death. Even if I had stuck to my jeans and T-shirt uniform of my other forays to the porch, would I have been able to escape? The anger directed at me arose not because of what I wore or what I did, but simply because I was there and I was female, alone, and from someplace else.
This town lies on the far edge of the Catskills in New York, but lacks the craggy wildness of the real mountains. Here the hills roll one after another to the horizon and are populated by cheerfully munching sheep and goats and beef and horses. Fields close shorn and gleaming emerald touch against the sky in keeping with the motto of the town that it is a land in the clouds. The air is so thin that it is like living inside a pastoral 3-D movie—extract the car chases and speeding bullets and just leave yourself with the scenery piercingly beautiful with a soundtrack of perpetual cud-chewing. By August, the sunlight penetrates even the deepest of pines on the hillside. The last vestiges of brutal winter at 2,500 feet above sea level melt away just at the moment when you realize it’s almost time for it to start up all over again. All roads lead to dirt, tributary after tributary finding their way past pasture into rock, into forest.
Tourists here peruse antique stores that far outnumber bars or restaurants. They go to the galleries looking exactly like rustic versions of their Williamsburg selves—beautiful people sporting flowing beards and flowing dresses. You can buy kale brownies and a vintage butter churn in Andes, but you can’t get cigarettes, beer, energy drinks, or gas. The inconvenience store closed before Fourth of July with a sign on the door complaining of lack of community support, but that store hadn’t stocked much of anything but Cheerios and cat food for months.
The City (New York City, home of flatlanders and evil) owns a good portion of the land and seems always greedily intent on buying more. There are five towns sunk under the reservoir that supplies the city with its water. And New York City guzzles up all the water so the flatlanders can satisfy their unquenchable thirst for more and more. The luminous cascades of Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain or the less impressive, but more essential, iconic hydrants that New York children spend their summers running through, both depend upon something that doesn’t come from New York at all. It has been taken—stolen according to some—from the Catskills, where a good many of the residents have never even been to New York City.
But that doesn’t stop the flatlanders from visiting the Catskills and then buying a pretty place on a hillside with a pond with a view that costs about the same as a parking space in the city. And plenty of prosperous looking farms aren’t owned by people who lived around here a generation ago. The jobs now come from the city and the state or at the behest of the second home owners who will need plowing and mowing, roofing and painting.
To be a true local your grandfather had to have lived in a house that is under the Rez. And you have to have graduated from the high school, a difficult feat since the high school only graduates a handful of students every year—fourteen I think this year.
My main way into towns like this is to hang around the bar. I’m past the age when my presence should be of any interest to anyone. While I might have a regret or two that I am unnoticed, I enjoy the ease with which I can become an embedded correspondent. There is something invigorating about coming to a place as a stranger without a clue and leaving several months later with a vast knowledge of the ongoing feuds about things like the placement of fence posts or the dump tax of $1 that was instituted under an obviously repressive regime. In a small town things that seem dull to the rest of us become dramatic and exciting. If it is still scandalous that thirty years ago a guy who now runs a successful business took too much of some hallucinogen and did cartwheels down Main Street, then even the entrance of a decrepit woman well past her prime can spark interest.
For the kid who is looking at either leaving or working for the city or city people, I am probably the only woman in the bar who hadn’t seen him in diapers or coached him in Little League or dated his dad. Everyone says he is a good boy and they don’t know what came over him. They shrug and say, “Community Day.”
So the next day, doing my play by play, I wonder about my dress and I wonder about why he had conflated anger and sex and age. Perhaps he was angry that the only single woman around could have almost—but only if both my daughter and I had been extremely efficient—been his grandmother. And perhaps because of the fact that I am also emblematic of economic difficulties and the manifesting of a destiny that does not include him, he wanted the sex to end in death. I don’t know.
I want to make it all about these things and nothing about lust. But I suppose there was something in it between Grandma and Death that had to do with actual desire. And that part makes me pretty uncomfortable in the same way it made me uncomfortable when I was nineteen at a summer job and a man twice my age suggested I go back to the darkroom with him. There is no pleasure in it. Nothing in me wants to high five and crow that I still got it.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. I go back to the porch. A few weeks later I return to my real life. And as far as I know he is at this minute working on banking the eight ball into a corner pocket while simultaneously chugging a PBR.