Conditions were becoming unpleasant at my unheated Hannibal building, what with night-time temperatures in the mid-teens. With the aid of my back-porch bucket fire and a down sleeping bag I could keep myself warm, but I had little energy or inclination for much of anything else. On Thursday evening last week, after a phone call which must have sounded a bit desperate, my friend and band-mate Dale and his daughter Maddie picked me up and took me to their rural place several miles south of Hannibal. To say that I appreciated the gesture would be an understatement!
I spent four days there, playing music with Dale and his wife Sarah, splitting wood, and tending the woodstove. This was a pleasant interlude, but I felt that I had to take some sort of decisive action — I needed to figure out a plan for the future. A job, a place to live with at least the basic civilized amenities… that sort of thing.
Tuesday morning I got a ride back to Hannibal with Dale and Sarah. They both had appointments at an optometrist’s establishment, so I packed up my mandolin and backpack and before long I was once again ascending the steep stairs to my bleak and chill domicile. I started a fire in the bucket and read for a while that afternoon, my feet at an appropriate distance from the cheering warmth of the yellow-pine fire. As the afternoon sun sank and the shadows began to gather I gathered up some dirty laundry, stuffed it into a pillowcase, and headed for the Wedge Wash, a laundromat about three blocks away. Into the pillowcase with my clothes I inserted a paperback edition of Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, good laundromat reading material. The end result, after about an hour and a half, was that I had clean clothes, I was thoroughly warmed up, and my mind was awash with images of Chile and Tierra del Fuego during the 1830s.
Once I was back at my building I unpacked my clothes and rekindled the fire. Supper was a sardine sandwich and some canned spinach. The night was chill, but I was snugly wrapped in a cocoon of blankets and the down sleeping bag; I fell asleep listening to a BBC news broadcast emanating from my battery-powered radio.
The next morning I lingered in bed, reluctant to confront the cold. I forced myself to get up, dress, and make coffee. My coffee-making method is crude, but produces surprisingly good results if a modicum of care is taken. I put three cups of water and a small handful of canned coffee into a small saucepan and just barely bring it to a boil on my propane camp-stove. I pour the coffee through a strainer directly into a cup, then cool and flavor it with some cold milk. I’ve had no trouble keeping milk cold recently!
Earlier, in an e-mail, my father had suggested that I might come up to Quincy for a few days and stay with him and my mother. I know that members of my family have been worried about me — hell, I’ve been worried about me! I set off walking down Broadway to the Broadway Bar, as my cell phone had died due to lack of financial input (that’s the real fuel upon which they run). That bar has an inside pay phone. My father agreed to drive down to Hannibal and pick me up.
So here I am, sitting in front of an IBM ThinkPad laptop, just pecking away. My folks live in a condominium near Maine St., just a few blocks from what used to be the high school from which I graduated many years ago. It’s now a middle school. The slope of the hill upon which the school sits is still shaded by ancient catalpa trees. I surmise that these relic trees date from the early part of the twentieth century, when the hill was most likely a pasture on a farm outside of town.
I lived in Quincy from the age of twelve until I was about twenty-two, although I was in Vermont for one of those years. I know the town fairly well, but not as thoroughly as the life-long residents I’ve talked with. Quincy is a quiet river town perched atop a high and flat limestone bluff. There is some impressive architecture here but the quietness I mentioned leads to the departure of most young residents for livelier pastures.
This morning I walked up Knollwood towards the south, away from the traffic on Maine St. Knollwood ended at a cul-de-sac, but I noticed a circle drive without any houses bordered by what looked to be a small creek surrounded by trees and brush. To get there I had to walk through someone’s yard. I doubt anyone saw me — most of the people living in this neighborhood are old, blinds and curtains tend to be drawn, and rarely (especially at this time of year) do you see anyone outside.
Perhaps here I should explain my approach to such minor trespasses. I walk as if I’m going somewhere for a good and legitimate purpose, and if I see someone out in their yard, I’ll approach the person and strike up a conversation, no matter how mundane the subject might turn out to be. The weather, etc.
I’m reminded of another trespassing writer, Henry David Thoreau. I’ll paraphrase something he once wrote in his journal:
“I try to keep a tree between myself and the window I’m passing.”
I walked across a stretch of grass which probably belongs to someone, passing a grove of white pine trees which might be forty or fifty years old. The grove has been neglected and brush grows around the trunks — but the trees have overshaded the competition and seem to be thriving.
I found a path which led to the creek’s bank. Sandbars abounded as well as slabs of waste concrete which in places bounded the sheet of flowing water. This was a quiet and neglected place and traffic noises could scarcely be heard. I guessed that not many people come down to that place — my evidence for this surmise was the lack of trash.
I walked along a clear trail which bordered the rill. Did deer create this path? The winter sun filtered through the bare branches of sycamore and cottonwood trees, typical denizens of creek-banks in this part of the world. I walked through a matted groundcover of alien English ivy.
I noticed a peculiar noise coming from farther up the creek — I thought, “Is that a duck quacking?” Then I saw the source of the noise, a dark-colored lone duck wading in the shallow current. It had long legs and a spatulate but narrow bill. The bird idly probed the water with its bill, every now and then uttering a muted quack. It didn’t seem to me that the duck was trying to call in its flock-mates; I got the impression that the solitary bird was vocalizing from force of habit, in effect just talking to itself.
Normally you see ducks in flocks rather than alone. Perhaps this one had become separated, or perhaps the flock had fanned out over the city looking for those little wet fragments of wildness which can be found in any town or city.
[Later... after looking at numerous duck photos I'm reasonably certain that the duck I saw was a female mallard (Anas platyrhynchos).
I found this unexpected encounter cheering, suggesting that no matter how forcefully the seemingly inexorable forces of development exert themselves, certain adaptable creatures will find such hidden niches. I just hope I’m not around to see the day when only the really adaptable fellow inhabitants of this planet remain, such as cockroaches, mice, and a degraded strain of humans who have forgotten what this world was once like!
Larry, ramblin’ on…