Last week I nearly lost my life for the sake of New England.
I was visiting friends in Virginia. This is a state where the local folk don’t actually pronounce the name of their state correctly. They typically say “Vuh-ginia.” It’s outrageous. Any New Englander can tell you it’s “Virginier.”
My hosts are not Southerners. One of their employers made them move there. It was not technically a demotion, but draw your own conclusions.
They invited a number of their neighbors for a cocktail party, and I tried to be friendly. As each one arrived, I shook hands and introduced myself. It was clear that my hosts had previewed them about my visit. Their responses were quite uniform: “Oh,” they invariably said, “you’re the one from Baw, Stun.”
“Well, uh, not exactly Boston,” I invariably replied. “I live outside Boston.”
“Uh huh,” they invariably answered, looking me over for a long moment before heading toward the bar.
They were nice, mostly. I found myself in a number of conversations, and I understood most of what I heard. I think I understand now why life tends to be somewhat slower in the South. It’s not the heat. It’s not the humidity. It’s the speech patterns. People often employ two syllables where the rest of the country only needs one.
“Way-ull,” they might explain, “thay-ut’s just how we taw-uck.”
See how long this takes? Nine syllables, when six would do.
I also observed that Virginians are not in any hurry when it comes to names. I don’t believe there is anyone called Tom in the state of Virginia. You must announce your middle name. You can be Thomas Lester, or Tommy Lee, or at the very least, Tom Bob. There is no such thing as abbreviation. There is no Charleston, Virginia. It’s Charles City. And if you live outside the line, you’re in Charles City County. Maybe you’ll find a condo for rent in Charles City County Heights. No? Try over yonder, in Lower Charles City County Heights. (Sure, I can give you directions. Head down along the Lower Charles City County Heights Creek, and cross over the Lower Charles City County Heights Creek Bridge. Just on the other side you’ll see a sign pointing toward Lower Charles City County Heights Creek Bridge Hollow. Don’t go that way. You’ll just wind up at Southwest Little Lower Charles City County Heights Creek Bridge Hollow Village Valley Center Rock Flats Gulch Roost Corners. Not a good neighborhood.)
The cocktail party almost wrapped up without incident. But then a good ol’ boy named Terry Beauregard-something, well into his half-dozenth bourbon, cornered me. His face was red, his eyes were glistening, his lips were curled in a permanent snarl, and if I remember correctly, his solid gold snaggletooth was filed to a menacing point. Or maybe my memory is skewed by the retroactive terror.
“You ruined mah world,” Terry Beauregard rasped.
“I beg your pardon?” I answered weakly.
“You’re from Baw, Stun. Up nawth. You people came down heah and destroyed a beautiful way of lahf.”
“You mean in the Civil War?”
“The War of Nawthun Aggression,” he growled.
I tried not to stare at the Glock in his pants.
“Actually, I’m not really from Boston,” I offered.
Terry Beauregard cocked one eyebrow.
“My father was in the Air Force. I was actually born in south Georgia, on the base.”
He sighed, his nose a good three inches from mine.
“Way-ull,” he grumbled, his gold tooth twinkling, “Ah s’pose Ah’ll let you lee-uv.”
I probably should not have attended. Just because you feel badly about the “dear departed” does not necessarily mean it’s appropriate for you to show up at the funeral. For example, if you happen to have some measure of responsibility for the dear departed’s departure.
Which in this case, I guess I did.
I did not personally assassinate the chipmunk. My cat did the deed. My cat, Hercules Frank Brendel, is a skilled hunter, but a gentle giant: too much of an innocent to kill what he catches. He faithfully patrols our 200-year-old house, inside and out, with an unswerving devotion to a single, simple mission: Any uninvited creature must be chased and caught, then dropped, chased and caught again, then dropped again — over and over, until, inevitably, the weary little critter gets away for good.
Herc’s sister, Queen Anne, is in charge of insect invaders. She’s too classy to swat at anything bigger than a dragonfly. But Hercules is fiercely efficient at scaring off Mammalia, Reptilia, and those feathered, winged, egg-laying vertebrates. He does not murder the mice. He does not slaughter the snakes. He does not finish off the finches. He just pummels them, like a feline Rocky Balboa, until they decide to go somewhere else.
It’s a shame, in a way. Herc has the cool of a hit man. He could make it as a killer, if only he had the instincts to take it all the way. (He seems to have a particular contempt for voles — which doesn’t bother me, because so do I.) He bounds into the meadow behind our house and emerges with a furry, squirming mouthful. He marches to the part of our backyard that he has designated as his own private Roman Coliseum, and he proceeds to play with his prey. I must say, as a city boy, there’s something deeply pleasing about knowing that the rodent being smacked like a soccer ball this afternoon won’t be crunching the cashews in my kitchen cabinet tonight.
But this week, Hercules made a little error. He was off his game a bit. He momentarily lost his light touch. Perhaps as he prepared to carry his latest victim out of the meadow and into the backyard, he somehow tripped in the tall grass, or stumbled over a stone. Maybe he was a bit hung over, after staying out too late the night before with the cat from across the street, slurping Sam Adams empties tossed out by rude drivers on Randall Road.
Whatever the reason, Hercules did something unfortunate.
He chomped a chipmunk.
Bit a bit too hard. Crunched a crunch too crunchy. Snapped something in that little guy’s anatomy that wasn’t designed to snap.
So when Hercules dropped it in the backyard, it went thunk.
I’ve been accused of heartlessness when it comes to wildlife, but this was not an easy moment for me. Chipmunks are cute. Everyone agrees that chipmunks are cute. Whoever thought up “Alvin” was brilliant. So when Hercules marched out of the meadow to the Coliseum with a chipmunk in his teeth, I already felt a bit of a catch in my throat.
But when I realized the chipmunk had already passed over into that great burrow in the sky … when I realized that this little guy had stuffed his cheeks with goodies from my garden for the last time … when I realized that my cat had snuffed out a universally beloved, iconic, cartoonish, delightful symbol of playfulness, cheer, and happy-go-lucky nonchalance…
Well, I had no choice. I had to go to the funeral.
It was a small affair — I mean, the attendees were small. It was a big affair in terms of number of attendees. Clearly the deceased was greatly loved. There in a circle around the grave were his five children from the summer litter; four slightly larger children from the spring litter; ten adult children from last year’s litters; nine more from the litters of the year before last; and of course, one very weary widow. There were lots of little sniffles, and plenty of moist, red-rimmed little eyes, as the little chipmunk clergyman squeaked out some tiny Scriptures.
I stayed well off in the background. I didn’t care to be seen at all. Unfortunately, however, just as the service ended — right after the eight little chipmunk pallbearers had lowered the little chipmunk coffin into the ice cream carton-sized hole in the ground — the grieving widow caught a glimpse of me. She never looked away. She turned her steely little eyes on me and marched all the way up to me in her tiny black dress, her tiny black veil quivering with each step of her tiny black Diego di Lucca heels.
“You have some nerve,” she rasped.
“I’m sorry,” I replied quietly.
“It’s too late for apologies,” she answered sharply. “You let your cat out. To commit murder.”
“I don’t think it was technically murder. Murder is intentional. I think this might have only been——” I gulped. “—chipmunkslaughter.”
“Uh huh,” she grunted. “Once a cat, always a cat.”
She turned and stalked away. For a moment, I didn’t move. Then, suddenly, I heard the whirr of sleek feathers cutting through the air. A beautiful blue-gray Cooper’s hawk swooped out of nowhere, grasped the chipmunk widow in its talons, and lifted her into the sky without so much as a pause.
The widow shrieked at me as they disappeared together: “I suppose this is your bird, too!”
If someone publishes a directory of all the people in the world according to how strong their sense of direction is, and they put people who have a great sense of direction toward the top of the list, and people who have no sense of direction at the bottom of the list, don’t even bother thumbing through the book looking for my name. Just turn to the back. To the last page. There, at the bottom. That’s me.
My wife is on page 1. She doesn’t just have a good sense of direction; she has built-in radar. She thinks of GPS as a prosthetic device. She has been known to say, “GPS atrophies your mind. It numbs your brain. It makes you even less able to find your own way.” She’s assuming, though, that the direction-finding part of your brain isn’t already numb. Which mine is. I was born numb.
It’s bad to have no sense of direction, but it’s catastrophic if you have no sense of direction and also can’t read a map. Reading a map requires a certain frame of mind, I think, an ability to imagine yourself “up there,” like God, looking down on the earth, and then you hold that bird’s-eye view in your brain, and look around you, and translate what you saw from “up there” to “down here.” Which apparently indicates that another part of my brain was born numb. To me, a map is squiggles and shapes, a kind of Rorschach test that I’m doomed to fail.
Yes, I understand the basics of up north, down south, back east, and out west. But the details seem to be exceed my bandwidth. As a result, when I moved here to Ipswich, I gathered only a vague notion of how to get through the center of town. (Newcomers, beware: It’s very, very complicated.)
For starters, I needed to learn that Central Street becomes South Main Street and South Main Street becomes County Road, all of which are 133, but also 1A. OK, no problem. It’s all one street. It just has a number of aliases. (Possibly due to a history of trouble with the law.)
I also came to understand that I come more or less from my place on outer Linebrook (“out west”), and then I bend more or less to the right as I head toward Hamilton (“down south”). The operative phrase here, however, is “more or less.”
The reality is, I enter Five Corners heading southeast; and by the time I make that seemingly slight bend to the right after the Choate Bridge — by the time I pass Elm Street — I’m already headed totally south. Sure, the road wiggles back and forth as it passes through this part of town; but gosh darn it, it still feels “more or less” eastbound to me. It doesn’t feel really, truly southbound until you make that very distinct final right bend past the Museum and the Whipple House. In fact, when I first came to town, I thought if I turned off onto Elm Street, past the police station, I would be heading north. Not east. North.
Which made it almost impossible to become an Episcopalian.
“Let’s try the Episcopal church,” I said to my wife, the beautiful blonde human GPS unit.
Certainly I couldn’t bear the shame of turning on my actual GPS unit with her in the car. So we set out trusting my own sense of direction. Or lack thereof.
I knew Ascension, the Episcopal church, was somewhere up there, on County. But I didn’t want to negotiate that awkward cross-traffic move that gets you from 1A to the stop sign at County. So I turned off early, on Elm Street, and drove past the police station.
Of course, I thought I was heading north. I imagined when I came to the T at the end of Elm, I must be at Green Street. So I turned right — east, right? — to get over to County.
“Do you know where Ascension is?” my wife asked evenly as I turned right.
“Sure,” I replied, exuding false confidence. “It’s on County.”
“We’re on County now.”
Indeed we were. Before I knew it, we were approaching 1A — the very intersection I had tried to avoid — but from the north. I had only one thought: How the heck did I get here?
I can now certify that it’s possible to drive this route over and over again — Elm, County, South Main, Elm, County, South Main, all right turns — without ever arriving at Ascension Church.
But when you have no sense of direction, you learn to adapt.
“Let’s try the Baptists,” I finally said.