Houses

The rain that night was the sort that made you wonder if some kind of celestial floodgate had been opened because there were not so much raindrops, but bucket loads of warm water being dumped from the sky, so much so that everyone to whom I spoke felt obliged to remark on the good fortune of Jon’s parents’ foresight in having this wedding-size tent delivered, without which we would’ve all been forced to cram into the living room, all over the carpet of which Jack had somehow already vomited. It soon became known that Jack had been transported upstairs, where Joey was giving him a comprehensive bath. 

My mother had always made it clear that there was absolutely no chance that our family would ever play host to one of these graduation parties, despite the fact that our property would prove nothing short of the perfect venue. Letting my siblings and I attend these parties at all was a trying process in and of itself, involving intricate negotiations and pleas along the lines of, “But Manila isn’t even that dangerous anymore!” 

I suppose it was difficult to blame my mother for her anxiety. After all, my brother Mikko’s grad week ended on the first night, after most of his classmates were arrested and temporarily incarcerated by the Weare, New Hampshire Police Department. Mikko, the only passably sober attendee of this event, was deputized by the sheriff, and crowned with a khaki sombrero to denote his authority. There’s also the legendary tale of Jamie MacDougall, a mysterious character known for sneaking out of his dormitory in the dead of a New England winter night to go skinny dipping by himself, only to be caught by campus security, whom he subsequently engaged in an on-foot pursuit through the forest, which ended in him climbing to the top of a tree and yelling, “you’ll never catch me alive!” Supposedly, Jamie was last seen jumping out of a second story window into a larch tree as the police broke into the room, descending the tree and escaping across the lake in a canoe. His whereabouts remain unknown. 

The closest anyone at Jon’s party came to Jamie’s level of infamy was Lou, who, after taking some exotic hallucinogen, began reciting what I can only assume was a climactic scene from Beowulf, which he accompanied with an interpretive dance. I suppose that it’s also possible that Lou was not under the influence of anything but his own volition, which was equally capable of producing such behavior.  Before long, even he grew weary of the charade, and it was late and we all went inside. 

Jon’s house was old and white, the jewel of Blooming Grove, Pennsylvania, an aristocratic hunting ground established in the mid-nineteenth century. Earlier that day, Jon and I waded out to an island in the middle of a river to fly fish. Jon, skilled in these arts, caught a fish almost immediately, but, with the air of misfortune that seems to follow Jon on all his travels, his pole snapped in half as soon as he pulled back. Our friends laughed on shore, though barely audible over the river’s static. When his anger had simmered, we went swimming in a large pond somewhere else in Blooming Grove, which Jon boasted had the cleanest water in North America. We lay on the dock until we got bored and then went to shoot clay pigeons. 

The first time I spoke to Jon was out of intrigue over his hat, which had “Bernardsville, New Jersey” stitched over the leather backstrap—the town where I was born and partly raised. He had purchased the hat at Griffin & Howe, a firearms store on Claremont Road that my brothers and I once pestered our father into letting us explore one Sunday on the way home from church. “It’s a very fine establishment,” I can remember Jon saying. 

Griffin & Howe’s presence in Bernardsville is a glaring anachronism, an emblem of a mostly bygone area, when the Raritan River Valley was essentially no different from Blooming Grove. There are other such emblems: the Hunt Club, a saddlery, and some relatively old houses, such as mine, which was built in the 1930s as a country estate by Bernard Shanley, deputy chief-of-staff to Eisenhower. Brigid, his daughter and my godmother, has described her weekends there to me, looking upwards with glossy eyes as if the dining room ceiling would reveal some Sistine-esque mural of feral, rifle-bearing children chasing foxes and mink over streams and down to the river, which one can still walk to from my house without crossing a road. She remarked begrudgingly about how it was impossible to drive anywhere without her parents receiving an admonishing telephone call from Mrs. Bliss, the widow who lived up the road and had been there since the beginning of time. There was an incident where a motorcycle somehow ended up in the pool, which made Bern very cross because poolside afternoons were a preferred pleasure of his. 

Bern’s grandfather built the Pennsylvania railroad, but his father squandered the fortune on god knows what, leaving the family impoverished and in Newark, which was problematic for several reasons, though none greater than the fact that in those days being from New Jersey meant that wooing a young and beautiful Upper East Side heiress was a near impossible task. In the years before this became the focus of his life, however, he spent his summers in the hills of Pennsylvania, at a place called Blooming Grove, as the apprentice of Rattlesnake Jack, a racist local known for catching rattlesnakes with his bare hands and releasing sacks full of them into the chambers of the African-American servants who cooked and cared for the weekend hunting lodges that wealthy bankers and lawyers from Manhattan built and frequented. Rattlesnake Jack was only kept around because, without him, the ever aging and enlarging aristocrats would have been completely incompetent hunters. Apparently, in the hours stalking deer and fox, Bern took more leaves from the bankers’ books than Jack’s, and he ended up becoming very rich, which enabled him to marry the heiress and build not only what later became my house, but Jon’s, too, where this story began. 

Waking up, the morning after the party, Jon’s mother had made a miraculous amount of breakfast treats for the scores of teenagers whom she was haggled into hosting. The morning was glorious, and we all sat and ate on the porch. What stillness that was there, the last, lingering, moment of what Jon would later declare to have been, “the greatest week of our lives.” Time lurches ever outward, forcing us into the unknown. For most of it, we are compliant, even excited. But in that instant, we wanted to be left behind, even if it meant we would have to spend the rest of our days eating squirrel meat cooked over a smoky fire, even if in one hundred years we would be nearly forgotten, like Rattlesnake Jack, whose case for remembrance is questionable at best. But, powerless as we were, like infants in ocean waves, we all boarded the bus, and I went back to my home between two creeks.