Jul/Aug 2020  •   Nonfiction

The Abbots Lawrence

by Scudder Parker

Both Abbots lived in houses settling unevenly in stony ground, half a mile apart on the west slope of Hurlburt Hill in Waterford. The Abbot nicknamed "Stub" lived near Rte 2. His cousin Abbot retired from his job in Rutland as a maintenance worker and came back to the "old house" sitting abandoned in a clearing the woods had made a good start on reclaiming.

It used to take most of a day to visit both of them. Stub would ask: "You seen Abbot lately?" If I said yes, he'd grunt, "Don't know why you bother," then ask me, "What's he up to?"

Stub lived with Pearl, who had walked north from Arkansas in the '30s, answering an ad for "housekeeper" by a Concord man in a farm magazine. When the beatings finally made her leave, Stub found her walking a back road and took her in. They lived together 40 years.

Abbott lived alone and drank a lot.

Stub always took me to see the latest cull cows and disabled horses he'd gone and bought at some farm auction and hauled home in his truck.

Pearl said, "That's all we need; more cattle he can't take care of." She'd ask me in for lunch, "or at least a cup of coffee," and talk.

Winters the stove glowed red with heat. I learned to open my coat to the cold before I went in, then zip it up and keep it on for the duration of the visit so the heat wouldn't overcome me. Pearl always gave me something: cookies, winter squash or dahlia bulbs, and conversation. I'd listen and accept her gifts.

Both Abbots survived mostly by selling off their land. Stub bragged about getting $1,000 an acre for steep pastures and hayfields full of boulders he'd ruined equipment on all his life.

"Gonna have new neighbors," he'd announce. "Young couple; they'll build next spring. He works at Fairbanks, movin' up from New York."

Pearl would smile to think this land might finally grow companions.

Abbot refused to sell off little parcels; he didn't want a "goddam suburb." He finally made a deal with a doctor in St Johnsbury. Sold the whole 120 acres for $80,000; got a lifetime lease, the money over five years, and no more property taxes to pay.

One spring he said, "I hear you got a tiller. I want to put a garden in." I came and rototilled the plot he staked out over by the old horse barn.

"Got some hippies gonna work for me this summer... help me move the house. They'll sleep in the barn. Said they need a place to garden... guess I can afford to give 'em that."

Abbot had complained about his house for years. Not about the walls that were one-inch spruce on 2x4 studs exposed inside; or the wind that tore through the cracks; or the rotted sills and sagging corner. What angered him was the front door opened to the south—same way his roof pitched; and every time it rained or snow melted, it soaked him when he left or came inside.

His ambition was to give the house a quarter turn, put in a new door, still opening south, but now on the gable end.

Some of that $80,000 and free work from flower children might get the job done.

"Six of 'em, and two are women," he said. "They all go barefoot, and they ain't too picky about food."

He offered me a beer. "Don't know if you reverends drink. I know the priest in Rutland did."

I put the tiller on the truck and drank the beer as he boasted he'd teach those hippies how to work.

"I know Stub's madder'n hell about it, but what does he know? He prob'ly just wants the job, but I'll be damned if I'd ever hire him."

I used to leave mornings, call on people all day long. Just visit, listen, talk a little, help out when I could. Most of the people I visited never came to church. I had no expectation they would. It was okay if someone showed up one Sunday, but awkward in a way; I never wanted to be the one who got people doing things they didn't want to.

Once I got a call from Dr. Shultz, insisting: "You've got to tell my wife what her duty is."

He'd taught German in Boston and retired with his student wife to Vermont. I had called on him at the house just up the road from Stub that some damned fool built high in an old pasture (probably sold to him by Stub). It had a cinderblock basement and a steep muddy driveway. It must have looked great in the summer when he bought it.

I asked what he thought her duty was. He said, "To obey me and come back with the children."

"Why did she leave?"

"That's none of your business."

I said I wasn't sure it was her duty to come back, and it sure wasn't my duty to tell her to.

He asked what kind of a minister I was.

I often wondered.

There were no names for what I did that seemed to fit. Most people welcomed me, knowing I was a "preacher" but putting up with me if I didn't lecture or evangelize. They usually talked a lot and wanted me to come again. They'd hand their lives to me, and I'd give them attention without judgment (and a chance to talk about their neighbors, knowing it wouldn't get passed on.)

Ira Wark was an Orangeman from Canada who once set the record rolling steel at the Stanley plant in Bridgeport, CT. He and Elizabeth moved up in the '40s and learned the hard way how to farm.

He had sold cattle to my father when we moved up to Vermont in the early '50s and began to farm, so he could ignore my being a preacher. He always asked about Stub and Abbot, and told about the latest time he'd hauled "that damned Shultz" out of a ditch.

A month after tilling Abbot's garden, I stopped by Stub's and found Pearl knitting on the porch. "Where's Stub?"

"Up to Abbot's," she snorted. "You better go see for yourself."

I parked near one of several mountains of earth that had erupted in the middle of Abbot's field. Abbot was standing on a catwalk made of old doors lapped end-over-end and spiked together, leaning on a railing of 2 X 4s. He was barking instructions at three men mucking around shin-deep in liquid clay beneath his house.

It wasn't hard to see them.

The house was perched eight feet in the air like some artist's rendition of early European lake dwellers. It was stilted on spruce poles, old paired 2 X 4s, a couple rotting logs, in the midst of a crater 50 feet wide. The house was miraculously aloft, as though it had been filled with helium. Four long skinny cedar logs reached from the crater edge, one to each side of the house, looking as much like tethers as supports.

I realized it was a house getting ready for a quarter turn. Underneath were Gerry Bullock, Joe Bonnett, and, arm on shovel, Stub, grinning up at me.

Abbot turned around and said with complete disgust: "Damned hippies couldn't work for shit." (I never asked or learned how the crater got there.)

"Looks like you found a good water source... but what's the plan here, Abbot?"

"C'mon inside and have a beer; these guys ain't gettin' nothin' done anyway."

My mind reluctantly admitted that the catwalk was a gangplank to the house.

"Isn't this dangerous?" I asked.

"Naw, sometimes it starts to lean and I gotta go out and fiddle with the logs."

I shuddered at the image, but I walked the plank, had a beer with Captain Abbot in his quarters while the restless crew shoveled and muttered below deck.

That night he started the fire in his kitchen stove with gas instead of kerosene and the whole ship burned and sank into the crater. Abbot survived and managed to crawl to shore.

In the hospital next morning he looked frail against the white sheets, a bandage circling his head; "Hippies left the chainsaw gas where I always keep the kerosene... cut my head on the footing when I landed... guess I might as well build a real house now."

And he did: full basement and three stories—all but the first unfinished. For years he ordered things from Sears, then called in complaints so he'd have visits from the serviceman. He used to tell me with relish about each visit.

A couple years later Pearl got cancer. Home from the hospital after the first surgery, she sat, pinched and white by the roaring wood stove.

"He doesn't love me!" she shouted after a long silence, bursting into tears.

"Who doesn't love you?" I asked.

"Stub! He won't ever say he loves me. He never has, and now I'm dying, and he still won't say it."

"Do you love her, Stub?"

"Hell, she knows I love her, ya don't have to keep sayin' it all the time."

"But have you ever told her?"

"Naw, but she knows. Stop yer blubberin,' Pearl; Christ, yu'll make yerself sick."

I asked him if he'd try, and he sat silent for a while, looking away. "I guess I love you, Pearl. I hate to see you sick."

She started crying all over again, and then we talked about the latest storm.

And when she died, he staggered from the service by the grave crying with the shuddering ungainliness of an old barn coming down.

Dr. Shultz remarried and moved back to Boston. Ira Wark kept raising Charolais beef cattle and cutting a little hay long after he stopped really farming. He wrote long letters to his older sister, telling her everything about the land.

I kept on preaching and visiting for years as the farms got turned to house lots, and they improved the roads. Later the interstate came through and cut Stub's road off from Rte 2.

And then I left. I made changes in my own life. I don't know whether they are still there. I'm sure most of them aren't.

Things keep changing; my listening just stopped.

I never knew if they wanted anything from me, or just what I wanted from them, other than what we got.