Shake Down Your Ashes, releasing June 24, 2014, is wildly different from my other work. It is told in the first person from two different perspectives. To give you an idea of what the story is like, I will share two excerpts on the blog. This week, we start with the perspective of the hero, James Abernathy.
Friday, 25 May 1900
If you spit on one side of the hill, it will end up in the Mississippi. If you spit on the other, it will go north to the St. Lawrence. So Uncle Perry told me twenty years ago when I first came down to Bear Lake from Buffalo.
I’ve spit on both sides of the hill and never made a ripple. Maybe I just didn’t spit hard enough.
The hills watch the lake as the lake watches back. A battalion of wetland trees stand guard around the perimeter, their exposed, rotting limbs prodding the sky. They watch me. I once tried to ask my wife, Meredith, if she felt it, too, felt the trees turn to see what it was you were doing there. She told me not to be odd.
The water laps steadily against the shore, in no hurry to either arrive or depart. Smaller rocks follow the drag back into the lake’s womb, disappearing from sight.
Some Canada geese have flown in to use the Utzes’ waterfront as a depository. Joachim sometimes runs down the slope to yell at them in German. I wonder if the geese understand him. They fly away, so maybe they do.
The daffodils have already popped up along the road like a trail of breadcrumbs, but the trail only leads down to the swamp at the west end of the lake.
And the smell of sweet rolls from Mabel’s kitchen mixes with the odor of motor oil from Thomas’ new motorcar. I can see him toying with it over by the carriage house with Joachim. Whether they know what they’re doing with it or not, I have no idea. But watching them is all I’m doing anyway.
Mabel is in the kitchen. She does not want to make Joachim mad.
Memorial Day marks the beginning of the summer season. There will be a parade on Wednesday in the towns around Bear Lake. Brocton, Stockton, Cassadaga. There are not enough people in Bear Lake for it to have its own parade even though there are more people here now than when Meredith and I first came down from Buffalo. As I stand on the porch of the inn, I look at the scattering of cottages spread to the left and right of me that were not there the first time we came but have sprung up like the daffodils along the road. But the cottages do not lead somewhere better than the swamp. They just follow the quiet road.
The sound of clattering metal draws my gaze back to the carriage house and Thomas Bryant. He has driven his motorcar across the state this year simply because he could. He is what you might call a political manager in the City. His grandfather’s name used to be O’Bryan. His wife, Mercedes, will be following shortly. She made a stop in Rochester to meet with Susan Anthony. The other two rooms in the inn have been rented as well, but I did not recognize the names Mabel gave me. Another family from the City and a young woman from Pittsburgh. I wonder why she is traveling alone.
The road is empty, but the sound of voices carry along the water, deposits of nouns and adverbs, whispers and shouts. At the cottage to the left and up the hill a ways from the Utzes’ inn, Mrs. Coachman’s bridge club is meeting on her porch again. Mr. Coachman is conveniently missing again. Up there, just along the bank, is the top of Mr. Dobbins’s hat. His wife needs her flowerbeds mulched. I am not sure what this process entails, but it has ignited a sudden urge in Mr. Dobbins to go find Mr. Coachman. The young ladies of the girls’ camp across the lake are splashes of water mixed with bursts of giggles. It sounds as if they are standing on the porch with me. The water likes to carry their voices best.
“Get inside now and have a sweet roll, Mr. Abernathy. Stop staring at everyone and everything.”
I turn to look at the dark shape that is Mabel in the screen door. The one side of her hair has come undone from the bun and hangs like a drape, covering her forehead to her eyebrow. There is a white spot of flour on the bump in her nose, and her yellowed teeth bite her lower lip as she stares at me with her sunken eyes. Mabel was beautiful once. I’ve seen the photograph. It was taken before she met Joachim.
“I was not staring, Mabel,” I tell her, “I was watching.”
“Why don’t you come inside for a spill and watch something else then?”
“I believe you mean come inside for a spell.”
“Yes, that’s what I said.” She frowns at me through the mesh of the door, the movement drawing her ears up.
“Yes, ma’am.” I pull myself out of the chair, letting the linen of my trousers slide down, catching along my garters. I take off my straw as I come in the door, letting the screen smack behind me. The hallway is darker than the outside, and I have to let my eyes adjust. A suitcase rests at the foot of the stairs with a pelisse draped across it. It wasn’t there when I went out for a walk that morning. The young lady must have arrived from Pittsburgh.
I stand for a moment listening to the tick of the clock in the front parlor. I turn my head slightly in that direction, but the billowing curtains from the front windows pull my attention. The wind is picking up.
I move to the windows on the east side of the house where wind isn’t blowing inside to see the trees again. The leaves are still turned down, relaxing in layers around the trunk and branches. The rain will be a while.
By the time I reach the kitchen, Mabel is already adding sugar to a bowl with some yeast to start it rising. Two pans of finished sweet rolls rest on the table by the open window through which I see Thomas and Joachim still tinkering with the engine of the new motorcar. Joachim is speaking in German. I move toward the window, but Mabel snaps the curtains closed.
“You want ice tea?”
“Iced tea would be lovely. Thank you, Mabel.”
There is a leftover speck of sawdust floating on top of the tea. I pick it out while Mabel measures flour for the dough. A floorboard creaks overhead. I wipe my hand on my trousers and look upward.
“It’s a real young ‘un, Mr. Abernathy.”
“Oh yes, of course, Mabel.”
“Fresh in from Pittsburgh.” Mabel leans across the table at me. “Wearing very odd pants.”
She says the last word as if it was a bullet and will only be effective if she puts some air behind it.
Mabel looks at the door to the hallway and makes the sign of the cross. She nods and picks up a pan of sweet rolls to put in the oven of the wood stove. Snatching the hook off the wall, she picks up the plates on the stovetop checking the fire inside. Sweat drips from the spot between her thinning gray eyebrows, and her flat, colorless hair dampens along her brow. The Utzes cannot afford one of those summer kerosene cook stoves. The woods behind the house provide free fuel, where as kerosene would have to be purchased. Mabel cannot even get Joachim to build an outside kitchen. He says summer doesn’t last long in Western New York anyway, and Mabel can tolerate the heat, store it up to last all winter long.
Overhead there is a small thud as something lands on the floor.