Dispatches From Quarry Farm: The Last Cigar of The Next Caretaker

Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.

The grass is green with light brown wisps and corduroy stripes from the mower. Cloudlike groups of wild Phlox flowers, light purple and white, float amongst the thick hedgerow. The trees are robust and line the open grassy area creating a kaleidoscopic wall as the leaves shift and flutter in the breeze. There is quite a cacophony of birds and insects, yet the noise somehow suggests peace and quiet. There’s a lightning rod on the little house out back. It has been there for years and is fresh and white and ready. The sun is shining. Today probably wont be the day. The dog softly snores in the corner. A fly occasionally tries for an escape but only bounces across the screen. 

Caretaker Steve Webb Spins Yarns For Schoolchildren in Front of Quarry Farm

I am mindless and staring and trying not to scroll, to go for an escape, to bounce across the screen myself. I am searching for motivation. I wonder what Mark Twain did on Saturdays.

If I was more motivated I’d look it up (there is a copy of Mark Twain Day By Day upstairs, after all), but instead I’ll just sit here and consider taking up cigars. The thought of filling the room with the thick blue smoke makes me a little queasy though. 

Years ago, maybe six, we were walking through the forest here that surrounds Quarry Farm. Tim, the previous caretaker, was telling me stories about the place, about John T. Lewis, about trees and animals and the whole Clemens family. He’d developed a real affinity for smoking and collecting cigars while working here so we were each smoking a Gurkha. He explained to me that they were “special-edition” stogies that he’d been saving for the perfect occasion. We were celebrating the changing of the guards as I was to begin my stint as Caretaker and he was excited about starting a new job out West. 

I’d never smoked a cigar before but was enjoying the hell out of it and considering adopting the habit full time in my new job. We smoked and walked and a euphoric buzzy feeling took over my body. My cheeks started to cramp from smiling. What’s in this thing? I thought as I slowly rotated it in my hand examining the structure. The smoke spiraled like an ascending spirit into the canopy above. 

“See that chimney over there?” asked Tim. I assumed he was talking about me but when I looked up from my cigar I saw a stone chimney standing lonely amongst the trees off to the left of the trail. There was moss in the cracks and mortar working its way around the rocks like it had been slowly pulling on a costume, over the past hundred or so years, in an attempt to assimilate with its woodland home. 

“Yeah.” I exhaled trying to act like my feet were still on the ground.  

“We believe that was the home of John T. Lewis…” I was fixated on how Tim always said “we” when he was talking about Twain scholar stuff. I wondered if I’d say we all the time too when I became the scholarly caretaker. I missed Tim’s whole explanation. We walked on. I was hoping there wouldn’t be a test. 

The trails seemed endless and winding and I wondered how he knew where we were. Now I know: a few years of trail walking and you figure it out. It becomes smaller. There’s an open field about a mile out. And since people like to use football fields to measure things I’d say that the field is at least five football fields (I haven’t been to a football game since ninth grade so “give-er-take.”) We stood on the edge of the forest looking out onto the huge expanse of tall grass and wild flowers, purple and yellow and baby blue, and all I could think was: Is this legal? Our cigars were about half their original size by then and if we made it back alive a celebration would definitely be in order—another cigar! I took a big affectatious puff. I’ve got this Twain stuff down, I thought. 

Fallen Tree in The Woods Behind Quarry Farm

“You know you’re not supposed to actually inhale right?”

“Oh. Yeah. Totally.” Uh oh…

We made our way back through the woods. Tim kept talking and I kept trying to act normal but I could feel that my timing was off: laughing when there wasn’t a joke, joking when there wasn’t a laugh and a general sense that maybe I didn’t have what it takes to be a scholarly caretaker after all. My cigar had burned out. I was unconsciously squeezing the remaining third between my thumb and pointer finger like I was trying to pop the head off a chicken. 

Tim and I were old friends. We met in high school and were then college roommates. He recommended me for the job. Tim is a very smart man. He was a perfect fit for the job and is still legendary in the Twain community. Because we’d known each other so long I could tell he was lookin’ at me funny. I think he started to notice that my eyes were no longer in communication with each other. I tried to control them but they’d gone chameleon and were googling all over the place. I may have gone green too. 

“You okay man?” 

“Yeah.” My voice came out an octave higher than normal. The breeze made the sweat on my forehead feel cold. My posture had rounded over and I could see both Tim and Mark Twain shaking their heads in disappointment. 

“You should probably give that thing a rest.” He looked down at the corpse of a cigar in my hand.

“Yeah,” I said again but in more of a whisper this time. All I could think to do was to let go. The “special-edition” Gurkha fell in slow motion and hit the ground in the shade of Tim’s palpable cringe. 

I stumbled off the trail through crackling sticks and dead leaves to spackle the forest floor with what remained of breakfast and the entirety of lunch. I imagined Tim giving a tour to the new Caretaker: “We believe that to be the remains of the guy we thought was good enough to be the next Caretaker.” The two would look at each other with mock seriousness, burst out in laughter, and walk on, leaving me like an old stump in the trail of their “special-edition” Gurkha smoke. 

I pulled myself together and made my way back to the trail. With puppy-that-got-into-the-trash shame I looked at Tim. His smirk had bushwhacked completely through his big biker beard. 

“You okay there sport?” 

“Yeah” came out like a sigh. 

We started back toward the house. He put his hand on my back like an encouraging baseball dad. 

“Don’t worry. You’ll get the hang of it, kid.”

“Yeah.” I exhaled, resigned and still a little green. 

Now that I think about it, I’m going to let that “special-edition” Gurkha be my first and last Cigar and figure out something else to do on this beautiful Saturday. We believe that Twian enjoyed lots of things when he didn’t feel like working: reading, walking, whiskey, talking, inventing games for his daughters to play. I imagine if I sit here long enough lightning will strike. 

Dispatches From Quarry Farm: Sympathetic Funk

Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.

“If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” – Mark Twain

If a skunk walks into your house at 2:30 in the morning you may not notice. You might, and will most likely, sleep right through the visit. It is, if fact, in your best interest to sleep through the visit; startling any creature at such an ungodly hour—especially a loaded one—is risky behavior. 

Knowing this—at least on a subconscious level—was why I kept my eyes shut. If I pretended to be asleep maybe would it just go away? I had to try. Please, I begged my own brain as my trachea constricted in self-defense, this has to be a weird dream.  Little paws, soft leather steps, on the wooden floor around my bed in the dark. The math. The odds of a skunk finding the secret cat door under the house and entering and climbing the stairs and pushing my door open and strolling right past the dog and jumping on my bed: slim. 

Mark Twain’s pet cats “Awake”

I sprang up, startling the animal (the damage had already been done,) and flailed around for the light by my bed. It was hard to function through the gagging; it was hard to see through the invisible-green sulfur cloud in the dark; I could only hear the quick, scratching claws on the door as the animal deftly pulled it open enough to slip out. My Olfactory senses were desperately trying to outsource and my stomach was refusing the work. 

I stumbled across the room blinded by the light and the stench and followed the trail. I thought about how much better it is to be sleeping at 2:30 in the morning. I wondered why humans feel it’s so fun to have pets. I wondered if a tomato juice bath is just an urban legend? 

In the adjoining room on the desk where I write massively important stories about cats, dogs, my kid and Mark Twain sat a soggy, disheveled animal hacking up the remnants of a confrontation—perhaps a date gone really wrong—on all the notes and papers in my disorganized, organized piles.

Everyone’s favorite Quarry Farm cat, Mr. Cat felt that it was ok to take a direct hit in the face from a skunk and then stroll into my room in the middle of the night and tell me all about it. Well, he’s actually a very literary animal; he showed me as opposed to telling me. He showed me how repugnant the nightlife can be by filling our entire home with a cloud of his bad decisions. 

With gentle hatred I grabbed the animal by the back of the neck and carried him as far away from my body as I could—there are no arms long enough—to the bathtub where I threw him, ever so delicately, in and slammed the shower door shut. 

A tomato juice bath isn’t a thing, which is good, because I didn’t have any tomato juice. Google was quick to find me the solution: hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and dish soap which is bad because I didn’t have any of that either—except for the dish soap. All the articles stressed the importance of working quickly before the oils in the spray “set”—A very inconvenient fact at that time of night. Once they do set it takes about six to eight weeks for the smell to dissipate. 

Caretaker Webb’s feline charge at Quarry Farm

A dish-soap bath for a cat in full protest while the glass, shower doors rattled in their tracks and I flailed with the howling, clawing animal is not a quiet affair. Yet, all the while, my son—one of those humans that thinks it’s fun to have pets—slept peacefully in the next room as I wrestled the soppy, raging pin-bag. It did cross my mind that he should share the joy pet ownership with me but I resisted the urge to wake him and did my best to quiet the beast. I considered some extended time under water to quiet him down but I also considered that the inclinations of the disturbed mind at 2:30 in the morning shouldn’t always be trusted. 

The dish-soap bath did almost nothing and I was not relieved as I wrapped the somewhat defeated creature in a couple of old towels and carried him to the basement where he would be quarantined until the Baking Soda and Hydrogen Peroxide Store opened. 

Unable to fall back asleep with all the gagging I stripped my bed and tried to wipe down all the things I think he may have touched or rubbed up against before I woke up. This was a task of blind guessing and seemed pointlessly impossible. I felt that I was getting used to the smell and at the same time smelling it absolutely everywhere. 

I put some new sheets on my bed and lay down and stared into the darkness. It was almost four in the morning and the sky outside my window was black. The old iron radiators hissed and clinked, tired from the long winter. The neurotic little footsteps of a squirrel in the attic came and went it short bursts. The dog snored softly in the corner. The window lightened shade by minute shade until the trees outside became clear and towering into view. The alarm chirped from my phone—bird sounds—and I clicked it off almost before it started, only six weeks to eight weeks, I thought. 

I woke the small person with an apologetic look on my face as I could see the toxic air sink into his. “What the…?” (At eleven he’s not quite into his free-use-of-expletives-in-front-of-dad phase but I could tell what he wanted to say and I wouldn’t have punished him for it.) 

“Yeah, your friend, Cat, got into some serious business with a skunk last night. Not good.” Our furrowed expressions of funky disgust mirrored each other’s, although I was almost used to it by then he was experiencing it for the first time, so my expression was that of sympathetic funk. 

And getting used to it did not ease my mind; personally, that’s great, but publically it’s a real problem. I noticed at the gym later, after I dropped the boy off at school, that the woman on the treadmill next to me wilted like a water deprived seedling and flung off the back of the motorized track with a zing and a thud. I wanted to believe it was just a simple heart attack—she was well into her golden age—but deep down I knew and let the commotion of rubberneckers and EMTs be a distraction for my slinky disappearance.

And when I went to pick the boy up from school he had a very strange look on his face. “Today was a weird day.” He said with a ghostly expression. “I’ll tell ya in the car.” 

Apparently our hero, Mr. Cat, had rubbed all up on his backpack after the incident because when he arrived at school the entire class groaned in disapproval and he experienced his first taste of social ostracization. The teacher procured a trash bag and his backpack was sentenced to solitary confinement for the day; tied up tight in that bag and shoved deep into the closet. “It was really embarrassing, dad.”

“Well, at least you didn’t kill somebody.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” 

The boy went on to say that a couple of his friends were extra nice to him because they could tell he was super embarrassed and we had an at-least-you-know-who-your-real-friends-are Hallmark kind of moment; it was touching and profound and by no means worth it. At the same time, even though I didn’t wake him during the incident, he still got to experience the joy of pet ownership and I can’t say that was worth it but there is some relief in a deeply rooted, involuntarily blossoming, smirk. 

Dispatches from Quarry Farm: The First Snow

Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.

The first snow of the year brings a crystalline stillness to the world. Quarry Farm pauses in muted silence. The trees, newly naked stick figures fresh from the fall blaze of amber and gold, are highlighted in the angelic white from above and rescued from the wind whipped blandness of cold mud and dormant stubble. The sky, usually dominant with oppressive greyness, is pushed far off in the distance and serves the solitary purpose of background, lifting the purity of the snowy middle and giving it a tangible luminosity that you can breathe in and hear and taste.

I’m out the door and up into the woods. The snow emits a muffled squeak with every step as it compresses under my boots and my arms stick out to the side a little more than normal because of my fat winter coat. The cold air rushing in through my nose tingles and feels good.  I can imagine it traveling all the way into my lungs before it warms up and is processed in my complicated pulmonary system that, when x-rayed, has a remarkable resemblance to the trees that I walk in amongst right now. They also have the same function, they are the lungs of the earth.

Way off in the distance I can hear a snowplow downshift and produce a familiar rumble that every northerner forgets that they remember and will recognize instantly upon its return.  For me the sound is tied to snow days and hot chocolate and the thawing of icy fingers after too many hours playing in a snowy school-free paradise. And presently, as of yesterday in fact, I have an even greater appreciation for the folks that charge out there when the weather is at its wildest to clear the streets for all the people trying to get back home.

I left my house yesterday to go pick up the lad from school as the very first flakes began to fall delicately from the sky. “Half-hour round trip,” I thought. “no problem.”  As I descended the hill and hit the highway, the situation went from Tom Sawyer to Mysterious Stranger—it got weird. Those fluffy little flakes became a blur of white streaks, like ludicrous speed in Spaceballs, and I thought, on this day in mid-November, about revising my yearly routine of mounting my snow tires in the first week of December.

I picked up the little fella and we headed back toward the Farm. As I hit the turn signal to go right on East Hill, I slid past the mark giving the shoulders raised, palms up “I’m sorry—what can I do?” gesture to the guy in the truck at the stop sign waiting for me to get my act together. I glided to a stop, did an awkward reverse in the middle of the intersection, and proceeded onward. The truck guy stared ahead with the look of an unhurried cow, but I’m sure he was wishing us well on the rest of our journey.

The beginning of East Hill is steep. I had almost zero confidence in our mission. We cleared the bridge section of the accent, which is still nothing compared to the grade we were about to hit. I got a little speed up, gripped the wheel tight at ten and two, and closed my eyes (kidding)—my eyes were close to bugging out of my head. One-tenth of a mile, two-tenths, then the wheels lost their grip and gravity took over. The transition from forward to backward was slow but full of potential. I was going to do a reverse swing to the right into the driveway I’d just passed on the way up—I’d seen the move on Nightrider when I was a kid. But as our speed increased I realized I wasn’t swinging anything anywhere. My son suggested, in a rather alarmed tone, that I try the brakes. There are several reasons why his suggestion was refutable but I didn’t have the time in that moment to list them. All I could do was try and keep the car in the center of the road, away from the deep ditches on both sides, and hope no cars were behind me as we careened down the hill backwards. I’m not sure the exact speed we were going but it was directly tied to my heart rate—unnaturally fast.

As the land leveled out and we didn’t end up in a ditch or a multicar pileup I grew to feel pretty darn good. A brief moment of stillness enveloped us as we came to a rest in the middle of the road like the cotton pillows of snow on our windshield. From above I could imagine our little white car quietly sleeping in the seemingly untouched white landscape where the difference between the road and the land is as mysterious as the indigo blue color of the snow filled sky at dusk.

I eased our chariot off to the side of the road and we started our hike. It was no more than a mile and a half up to the house—Twain did it all the time, of course that was in the summer—but really, as I told my boy at least forty-two times, there is nothing to complain about.

A whole evening and night of snow has delivered us a solid foot up on the hill. I pull my feet through as the powder parts around my legs giving me the sensation of walking through water—which is technically what I’m doing. Leftover hints of that mysterious indigo blend with the gray sky. The brilliant white powder and the wet black branches accentuate each other. The feeling of floating isolation makes me wonder if I’m still sleeping. There are only so many paths one can take out here in the woods and I’ve walked them all many times in the past five years. But there’s something so completely new and alive about this particular view. Maybe it’s that I can feel the whole world around me slow to a stop, even outside the seclusion of Quarry Farm. The weather is bigger than the plans everybody had and there’s no way around it. Except for the heroic snowplow operators, everyone allows himself or herself to take it a little slower than normal. Maybe they should let the clouds of white powder remain untouched for a while. Or maybe I’m just projecting because I think that’s what everyone should do with this opportunity. I dread the idea of walking down the hill to find my car. Not because it will be buried under a foot of snow and most definitely plowed in, but because when I get down there I might find out that it’s just another day.

There’s an open field at the top of the hill. It’s the highest point around. It’s the kind of place that you walk out into the middle of, spread your arms wide and fall on your back. When you float down to a gentle stop you might wonder if you’re still sleeping. You might wonder why you feel warm. You might let yourself pause in the blanket and watch nothing fall but the last few lingering snowflakes.

Dispatches From Quarry Farm: I’m Looking Out The Window Again

Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.

I’m looking out the window again. It’s one of the best windows in the house even though it doesn’t have the view of the Chemung River Valley that this place is famous for. It’s high, on the second floor, and looks off in into the forest in the direction of where Mark Twain’s study used to be. It’s my bedroom window and it’s what I wake up to every morning.

Whatever the opposite of crippling depression is I may just have it. Crippling beauty? I don’t want to get out of bed because it’s just too damn nice. But I must. There’s a child to feed and water, there are errands to run, and there’s caretaking to do. But I come back here every afternoon for an hour or so. I make myself write and stare out the window and either belittle myself for procrastinating and being the producer of pure garbage or I shower myself in praises for the inspired prose that I exude—certain that this golden bulls**t will pour from me infinitely.  Today’s results are yet to be determined.

A lot of people don’t know this but Twain didn’t start wearing his iconic white suit until very late in life—December 1906. He’d claimed—I’ll paraphrase here—that it looked really clean.  After hearing a story on some NPR program, I can’t remember which one, women who practice Hinduism are expected to wear all white after their husbands pass away. That got me to thinking. Just eighteen months after his wife Olivia died, Twain was first observed publicly, and from then on, in all white—who knows when he started privately?  Is it possible that the famous atheist, wild man of the west, and great observer of world culture was in fact…? I know what you’re thinking. Well the answer is no. Mark Twain was not a Hindu woman. But there is a pretty good chance that he wanted to wear that attention-grabbing white suit much earlier in life, but his wife, tasteful as she was, shut it down. That white suit seems formal to us now, but at the time it was the Adidas jumpsuit of suits. It screamed I don’t give a f#@k. Livy wasn’t havin’ that.

So, just for fun, let’s say that Twain was a Hindu woman. Since Quarry farm was one of his favorite places on earth.  He described it as “a foretaste of heaven.” Well, if he was a Hindu woman, I suppose he’d have called it “a foretaste of Swarga Loka.”  Maybe I can take it a step further, if he was going to be reincarnated—assuming he gets to choose— perhaps he could transmogrify into one of the sentient beings here on the farm?

I’ve considered the fox that I see almost daily from my bedroom window. He or she lives up by the original study site somewhere and is most active early in the morning and I’m assuming, by the terrifying screams that cut through the darkness, late at night. In fact, one scholar and his wife were convinced  that a woman was being murdered in the woods until they googled “woman screaming in the woods” and were relieved to find a cute little fox and not an unflattering picture of a certain caretaker. But there’s nothing really Twain about this fox except that he seems to dislike large school groups—he disappears the moment those big yellow busses pull up to the property for field trips.

I saw the fox just the other day in a standoff with my cat—we’ll call him Bob for the purpose of this story—and the wild little canine slunk off into the forest screaming over his shoulder while Bob stared at him with the classic cat look of belittling indifference. Cats were Twain’s favorite animals. Seems like they’d have been buddies.

The obvious next choice, if Twain were a reincarnated Hindu woman living here at Quarry Farm, is the cat, Bob. From what I gather, if Twain wasn’t writing, he was talking. Well when Bob isn’t writing–which is always–he’s talking too. The problem is that Bob has never said a funny thing ever in any one of his nine lives. Bob is like Twain only if he never had access to a thesaurus and bumped his head as a child. “Meow” over and over will never attain the status of great literature or even prosaic satire.

There are lots of animals around: tons of turkey, deer, the occasional opossum, a red squirrel or fifty, and the endless lurkers of the night that I never even see. None of these creatures jump out at me as Twainesque. This is a man that is still loved and talked about and dissected almost one hundred and twenty years after his death. Maybe reincarnation isn’t necessary.  

I’ll leave you now with a little thing I wrote one morning. It’s the closest example, in my experience, of reincarnation although it may be bigger and further reaching than any one man.

When a tree falls in the woods and there is no one there to hear it does it make a sound? Yes. Yes, it does.

I was in my room sleeping this morning and it was just before dawn. Well, sleeping isn’t quite the right word, I was in that space between awake and asleep—you know it well, you love it there, I love it there too. If I were completely asleep I wouldn’t have noticed that the curtains in my room had just barely, the teeniest tiniest bit, had begun to show the rectangles of light behind them. They’re not so great at hiding something as big as a dawn. I can see right through those curtains.

The birds were not awake yet though—and they get up early. There’s probably only ten seconds time between the appearance of the faint rectangles behind the curtains and the birds starting to sing. It’s possible that the birds were all in the in-between sleep and awake state too, just willing their dreams to see each other. Maybe that’s why they wake up singing.

I heard then, in that ten seconds, an enormous crash through the silent forest outside my window. Branches cracked, more like lightning than thunder, and I could see, in my mind, the enormous being breaking through the arms of the others trying to hold it up and thudding to the earth. It had rained a lot lately. The ground was just too wet and unstable for something so large.

The thing about these trees, the healthy ones, is that when they fall it’s never some sort of sad ending for them. The trunk is now abroad base that, over time, will become anchored to the forest floor, fused by new roots that will appear all along the  brand-new underside. On the now topside, all those branches that didn’t break on the way down, as of today, are officially trees. They, ten or twenty or thirty of them, will reach for a lifetime toward the new opening in the forest canopy. The hole where the old roots used to live, before they were turned up, will become a home. A woodchuck or a chipmunk and then a hungry fox will all probably spend a little time there and let their babies start out sheltered by the ornate and mossy weave overhead. One tree in now practically a forest.

Dispatches From Quarry Farm: Autumn Arrives

Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.

The turning of the seasons, the first little taste of Fall, begins at night. Suddenly you can sleep. The humidity, those dog days—and nights—make for a wide open, coverless, sleepless state from July to September.  Then suddenly your slumber is deep and dreaming. The perfect nighttime temperature—somewhere in the upper fifties—takes you flying over blue-green cities or eating a Beignet with a wildflower beauty in New Orleans (she’s laughing at you; there’s powdered sugar in your ear.)The dreams are a line of soft satisfaction that float your eyelids up to start the day and gently dissipate when you’re ready to stand on your own.

The early morning crickets on Quarry Farm drone on as one organism—like those fading dreams. There are little birds in the bushes near my window chirping away: Buntings, Chickadees, and the Tufted Titmouse. I have no idea what bird makes which noise but I’m glad they’re all there.

On some lucky mornings I can hear my favorite call, the Pileated Woodpecker, which to me sounds like some animal I’ve never seen in a rainforest somewhere I’ve never been. And on everylucky summer morning I can hear the sound of a ten-year-old boy downstairs screaming at his online friends while playing video games. Dissonance is important.

This has been the wettest summer in Quarry Farm history. At this rate we will be waterfront property by October. In anticipation for this I’ve purchased two Kayaks. My son and I will mourn the loss of Elmira with some recreational paddling in the new Lake Chemung.

I’ve also contacted the Mark Twain Foundation about funding for an official Mississippi riverboat replica, just like the one Twain would’ve piloted during his years on the river. We’d dock it at the front porch and charge admission for evening cruises. Hosted and Piloted by yours truly, of course. I’ve read Life on the Mississippi, how hard could it be, really? The foundation has yet to return my emails, but I’m optimistic.

I’m also considering a rope swing off of one of the big Maple Trees out front. Nothing exemplifies Tom Sawyer-esque American childhooed like swinging from a tree into a flooded river valley due to the catastrophic effects of mankind upon the Earth’s climate. Sometimes serious problems have simple answers: more rope swings.

Other than a better nights sleep I don’t care for Fall all that much. I’m optimistic that since it was Spring all Summer it will be Summer all Fall and maybe we can just skip Winter all together. The colors that the Autumn leaf-peepers get emotional about just signify impending death to me.

The ceiling at Quarry Farm has not collapsed despite the record rainfall. Yes, we’ve lost some plaster over the back stairs, we’ve used some pots and pans for things other than cooking, and some otherwise perfectly good bath towels have been retired. Thankfully, the repairs are scheduled. The contractors have a full calendar so we don’t know the exact date the repairs will take place but I’m excited to see the synergy of hardworking people coming together to get things done. Imagine the inspiration: you’re a scholar in residence reading, researching and focusing on a big project and you get to look up from your solitary studying to see a section of roof being torn off and replaced. I can’t imagine anything more inspiring than the synchronicity of hammers pounding overhead to the methodical typing of your perfect sentences. I’m excited to see which already scheduled Quarry Farm Fellow will win this lucky lottery.

On a sadder note, we’ve lost a great member of the Quarry Farm family. Bosco Trotsky Webb passed away in early May. He was a good man, for a dog, that lived a long blessed life well into his thirteenth year.

Born in the Redwood forests of Northern California he spent his first few years running wild amongst the giant trees and rugged coastline, swimming in the Pacific and avoiding garden hoses and vacuum cleaners. When he was three he moved to Southern California to try out the Hollywood life. He took to it immediately. Sprinting along the shoreline after distant ocean birds, plunging through the whitewater out past the break and gracefully riding the waves back into all the beaches from Malibu to Santa Barbra. It seemed possible that he’d never leave but the traffic and crowds and materialistic Hollywood culture—the pressure to bathe more often—wore him down. Rural life was calling.

After four years in Southern California he took a job as the assistant to the Caretaker here at Quarry Farm in Upstate New York. His skill at chasing deer away from the flowerbeds was sublime and the gardens flourished under his supervision, although the caretaker took most of the credit. With his guarding skills solely focused on deer, he welcomed all others to the farm and was loved and admired by scholars, students and even trespassers that I wished he chased off. There was more than one occasion where I had to suspiciously eye a departing scholar for fear that he or she was going to kidnap him. I could hardly blame them.

Bosco, my friend, we covered a lot of ground together. You will be deeply missed. Why do parrots live like seventy-five years while dogs, who are way cooler, only live thirteen if you’re lucky? What’re all the genetic engineers doing!?!

Anyway, I’ve spent way to long writing this and have missed my window of opportunity to mow the lawn. It’s storming: which reminds me of that quote from the boss-man himself, looking out over Elmira and the Chemung River from his octagonal study: “…and when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lightning flashes above the hills beyond, and the rain beats on the roof over my head, imagine the luxury of it!”

Dispatches from Quarry Farm: Huck! Speak Up. We Need You.

Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.

The word and all it carries.

My son and I live in the space where Huck and Tom were called into existence. He’s nine and quickly approaching age that the boys were in Mark Twain’s stories. So it only seems appropriate that I’d read the great novels to him here at Quarry Farm. But how do I explain the struggles and cruelty, the dehumanizing hate and ignorance, the misguided belief and responsibility that is all packed into that one word—a box that will bust open, I know, the first moment it reluctantly passes over my lips as I read.

When I was young I was inadvertently armed with that word—definitely old enough to know better, but I didn’t. I just assumed it ranked somewhere near the “F-word” on the scale of words I don’t say in front of my mom. I was sitting at the lunch table with my little school buddies and I flung it out like it was funny, like just the word itself was a punch line. The table went quiet. They all looked down and through the tops of their eyes, at me, then over at Matt. His brown face darkened with red and his eyes shot me with shock, pain, anger and a cutting finality all in a split second. He grabbed his books and he left. He never came back to the lunch table again for the rest of the year. My apology later in the locker room was a jittery, stuttering, failure that he didn’t even turn to acknowledge. I never saw him again. Yes, we were in classes together and passed in the hallway but all I saw was a stoic black face looking straight ahead. When I see that same look on people of color today, I can’t help but think about it; it’s probably not a coincidence.

The real tragedy is that I didn’t even mean it in any malicious way. I was merely insensitive and ignorant. I was irresponsible. I think Matt took it so hard because I was nice and shy and smiled a lot. He had known me for years and probably trusted me as someone wasn’t a racist, then out of nowhere I let that word fly. It probably made him question his sense of judgment. Is everyone a racist?

More than twenty-five years later I still think about this nearly everyday. How do I prevent my son from making the same mistake? For him it’s not even the deeper problem of unlearning obvious prejudice that has been conditioned by school, church, and society, as Huck chose to—and as an unfortunate segment of our population still needs to. It’s the conveyance of responsibility and empathy and the willingness to stay open and teachable. It’s the awareness that society and culture still place those biases in our heads like air, invisible and everywhere, and as a white man raising a little white boy the responsibility to know them and correct them as they arise is as important as any lesson I teach him. But how do I convey all this to a nine-year-old boy who displays, as I try not to cringe, more traits of a young, outspoken, mischievous, Tom Sawyer than of the sensitive and thoughtful Huck Finn? How the hell should I know?

Again, jittery and stuttering—apparently my default—I explained the word he will soon hear me read over and over. My language smoothed out and I tried to be objective. I told him that this word was not mine or his or any other white person’s word and outside of this story you’ll never hear me say it. I told him it was the ugliest and most hurtful word in the English language.

“Worse than the F—word?”

“Not even in the same league.” I said in a low gravely whisper that pulled his attention closer.

I think he got it. His stare was intense and earnest as he lay tucked into his little bed with a look of impending punishment. Too much? In this case too much is better than too little. Too much may not be possible.

As I began to read and I settled into the best Hal Holbrook drawl I could muster he began to lighten. See, a mischievous boy will quickly recognize a fellow artist when he sees one. He fell into Hannibal and the “hymn to boyhood.” I had to explain much of the language, unfamiliar to a 9-year-old in 2017, but as I got into the flow of reading, he got into the flow of hearing. I just hope he heard everything.

Weeks later when I was picking him up from school he had a story to tell me. He started off jittery and stuttering: hyper, not scared.

“You know Zach in my class? Not my cousin Zach, but the Zach from my class.” (He clarifies this every time….I get it.)

“Yep.”

“He said that word today! The word from Mark Twain (I know, one step at a time.) He called Mariah that right to her face! I got up and said ‘You can’t say that!’ and told the lunch lady. He got suspended.”

Most of the time the job of parenting haunts me with two questions. First, How am I screwing this kid up? I have a long list of unfavorable answers. And second, What kind of world am I leaving him with? I rarely have even one good answer. I wish that Matt hadn’t had to experience my ignorance way back then, but at least it helped Mariah see that she wasn’t alone and she didn’t have to leave the lunch table— and I hope she never adopts that stoic stare.

As for those two haunting questions of parenting, with about the frequency of Haley’s comet you get ‘em both right.

Dispatches From Quarry Farm: The Cat, Plays Bass.

A train rumbles through the city of Elmira. The tracks are at least three miles away, and I can hear it as a distant echo. I think of the past and the future here at Quarry Farm. It’s 4:00 A.M. and a cat, the cat, of the house has developed a habit of strolling through my room in the middle of the night like a young man entering a party just a little too full of himself. The distant ghost of a train is like the booming bass in a dance club in the city of Los Angeles. With at least forty-six elongated meows he not only wakes me up, but my eyes are bright white circles in the black room. My heart jumps to a pace that’ll be impossible to relax before the birds begin to sing, and I’m wishing this creature—my good friend in the daytime—was tied to the tracks in front of that train.

In Pudd’nhead Wilson, Mark Twain wrote that “A home without a cat—and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat—may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?” Twain said this about cats but he never said what to do with a cat that talks too much. I guess it’s possible that around Twain no cat ever had a chance to get a word in. When all the Twain scholars are here on the lawn or in the house or on the porch I don’t get word in. So I guess that puts me in the league of most cats; except this particular one that has rousted me in the middle of the night, which leads me to believe this cat may be a scholar. Maybe I’ll sign him up to do a talk at the upcoming quadrennial conference? It’s possible that after fifteen lectures on Twain the cat will be as sensible and inspiring as anyone. Maybe he could do the keynote? He’s cheap too—a can of tuna and a little nip would cover his fee.

Twain and his family traveled almost yearly in the 1870s and 1880s from Hartford, CT to Elmira, NY. The trip was about five hours by train from Hartford to New York City then, after an overnight, a ten-hour trip from the city up to Elmira. Often, as was a habit of his since boyhood, Twain traveled with his favorite cat—Sour Mash being his most prized feline of this time period. Although the trip, for most, is much shorter these days I would encourage you to not bring your favorite cat to the conference. The Assault of Laughter is the theme and in my current experience, though assaulting, cats are not that funny.

I will, however, encourage you to bring some earplugs. Three reasons: 1. ) the cat will need some time in the spotlight—most likely at 4:00 A.M.—so all those staying at the farm be advised, 2.) the snoring from the attendees—most often occurring in late afternoon sessions—can be distracting, and 3.) there will be a Jazz trio playing at the Quarry Farm picnic from 6-8 p.m. Since Jazz was not invented in Twain’s lifetime we can only speculate (and I’m sure we will) on his opinions of the music. But since it is a truly American art form, born on the Mississippi. I like to imagine that our favorite riverboat pilot would have approved. Another reason for the earplugs is that the bass player in this particular jazz trio is an incompetent faker and simply used his connections to the Center for Mark Twain Studies to get the gig. So unless you can shut off one-third of your hearing—for the other two musicians do possess great talent—wear your earplugs!

As Caretaker of the majestic, Quarry Farm, I want to assure the scholarly community that the lawn and house will be pristine, the flowers will be brilliant, the weather ideal, I will actually practice my jazz bass skills and all the stories will be riveting. I will however assure you of none of these things. I am a moody, procrastinating, recluse. It’s important to manage your expectations.

I do look forward to this weekend though! The conference will be great. Scholars from around the world will arrive and talk. And talk. And talk…And talk. The American icon, Mark Twain, will be honored for what he did best. There will be food and music and jokes and probably some cigars. Then, everyone will leave. I’ll clean up and settle back into the creepy caretaker role that I so adore and before I know it the next weekend will arrive. I look forward to that weekend too.

Dispatches from Quarry Farm: A Tree Named Lewis

Quarry Farm’s only year-round resident, Caretaker Steve Webb, provides us with occasional, not altogether reliable, updates from the premises. To paraphrase the friendly ghost with whom he shares his home, Mr. Webb’s dispatches include eminently plausible fictions, mildly exaggerated truths, and an exhaustless mine of stupendous lies.

The rain froze in a thin black sheet beneath two inches of rapidly-accumulated snow, but that didn’t shake this hearty Northeasterner. I exited the driveway with a confidence that promptly slipped away like four bald tires on a steep icy hillside. I really wish I made that appointment a day earlier—I thought as I slid down Crane road at approximately one mile per hour. My snow tires were to be mounted and balanced tomorrow at nine — they were already in the back of the car ready to go. But that didn’t matter much as I pulled and released my emergency brake, pumped the pedal, down-shifted and up-shifted, cursed and hollered, all with no effect.

In August of 1877 Twain’s sister-in-law, Ida, niece, Julia, and their nursemaid were settling into a carriage for a ride from Quarry Farm into downtown Elmira when their horse got spooked and bolted out the driveway with no one at the reins. Ida’s husband, Charlie Langdon, and Sam ran hatless from the porch in horror as the carriage disappeared in a cloud of dust that hung like a eulogy. The sharp, steep curves ahead would surely be their death.

It’s commonly reported that in the moments preceding a life-threatening experience time slows. An entire life can be recapped in a fraction of a second. Childhood memories flash by: a mother’s song; a candle on a birthday cake that won’t be wished away and the giggling friend bearing witness; the face of a first love; the seagull that eyed your popcorn on a family trip to the beach. Apparently, when you’re sliding toward death at less than two miles per hour the slideshow isn’t just your greatest hits. A quarter mile down the hill I became bored with screaming and decided to choose two appropriate songs to die to—the first one played through in its entirety.

It’s hard to imagine what poor Ida Langdon or the nursemaid must have seen in their mind’s eye as they hurdled towards peril. Did they shriek and scramble to find the reins or did they go stoic so as not to scare little Julia? Either way their hearts must have raced just like the horse’s hooves. With Mr. Clemens and Mr. Langdon so far behind, rescue wasn’t even a speck on the horizon.

I was going at least five miles-per-hour now and my hatchback was sideways. I could look out the window and see the slick, white earth feeding under me like paper into a shredder. I’d considered simply stepping out of the vehicle, but was determined to regain control of the ship. If I only had a broom, I might have run in front of the car sweeping snow away like an Olympic curler. I’d clear a patch and the little Honda might come to a halt. I was approaching the sharpest curve about a half mile down the road from Quarry Farm, and my sense of urgency was rising again as I spun the detached steering wheel, hand over hand, right and left and right again.  

Bouncing and rattling and flying toward the very same curve the three ladies must’ve accepted their fate. There is no way a horse and carriage could make that turn at top speed. With an eighty-foot gorge straight ahead, tragedy was certain.

Then he appeared. From out of the blind curve the mighty John T. Lewis ascended Crane Road like a guardian angel. He acted quickly, swinging his humble chariot sideways across the road and leaping to cease the bridle of the panicked beast. Lewis, a pig farmer that lived and worked at Quarry Farm, who would become one of Mark Twain’s closest friend , was hero to the entire family, as he would remain for the rest of his life.

Where was my John T. Lewis? My situation was getting more slippery. If someone did come around the corner their car would probably just become part of my slow-motion death spiral. It was then that I noticed, like an apparition from the darkness, a clear spot of asphalt. A pine tree big enough and old enough to have witnessed the original incident was looming out over the road like an umbrella that the rain and snow couldn’t penetrate. The shadow was virtually dry, and I slid into that protected space and stopped with a little jerk no more drastic than a speed bump. I inched my car to the side of the road, opened my door to the rural silence, and walked home through the blue muted air of a fresh nighttime snowfall.

Dispatches from Quarry Farm: It’s Definitely The Cat

Quarry Farm’s only year-round resident, Caretaker Steve Webb, provides us with occasional, not altogether reliable, updates from the premises. To paraphrase the friendly ghost with whom he shares his home, Mr. Webb’s dispatches include eminently plausible fictions, mildly exaggerated truths, and an exhaustless mine of stupendous lies.

The breeze pushed through the window screen just hard enough to float the curtains away from the wall and split them a few inches to reveal the blue sky. There was a trace of cool to the air that had arrived just before sunrise and would be gone in minutes. July had been relentless with its sticky, dogged heat. The news all around was that we desperately needed rain. I even set aside my selfish desire for burnt grass, which didn’t require mowing, and hoped for rain too.

It wasn’t the drought or the blink of a cool breeze that woke me that morning though. It was the silence. And it was the silence that got me up and quickly out of bed. If I’d heard footsteps over there in the big part of the house, the repeated thwack of the screen door, the patterned creaks of the trips packing people make up and down stairs, I’d have felt much easier. I would have closed my eyes and hoped for rain even while I slept a little longer; I’m that helpful.

I knew they had to be down south, somewhere in southern Pennsylvania, to pick up their cat, Sam Clemens, by noon. I knew it took three hours, and I knew that the cat, who meowed with a southern drawl, meant the world to them because that’s what they told me. If they didn’t pick him up by noon on Saturday he’d have to stay at the place where he was being boarded until Monday and Sam Clemens wouldn’t have it. It’s a known fact that cats hate Mondays (Davis). The only thing worse than a Monday for a cat is waking up in jail on a Monday when you were supposed to be sprung on Saturday.

Five days before, while I was dragging the carcass of a deer than someone somewhere shot and didn’t collect into the woods to be buried, the fit, salt and peppered scholar caught up to me. His eyes were wide with childlike wonder, in disbelief that he was walking the very same grounds where Twain wrote his greatest works. “A foretaste of heaven!” he proclaimed—which is how Twain himself described Quarry Farm. We took a moment together, in silence, to gaze over the rolling front lawn and off into the distant blue hills of Pennsylvania. A yellow Swallowtail butterfly flitted against the azure sky and lured my gaze to the Tiger Lilies where it selected the perfect flower, amongst a patch of at least a thousand, to stop and rest and drink the summer nectar. The carcass hadn’t been out in the sun long enough to bloat and smell. I, too, found myself drinking in the wonder of it all.

He went on to explain that he was going to donate a substantial amount of money to the Center for Mark Twain Studies in Elmira upon his departure from God’s green Earth. I was grateful for the decision that he and his wife had made, assuring that the scholarship at Quarry Farm would be carried into the distant future. However, it didn’t change the way I treated him and his wife because I’m nice and they’re nice.

It was the least I could do to make sure they didn’t oversleep. I crept, as good caretakers do, around the outside of the house and peaked through the windows for signs of life. Nothing. A garbage truck roared through the eerie serenity, and I cringed at the beast as it lumbered to a stop out in front and shook the quiet, wooded road.  Two men hopped down from the elephant and picked up the cans that I left out yesterday, because yesterday was trash day. As they worked, they grumbled like I wasn’t even there. I felt a little wave of pride go through me. I had mastered my caretaker creep. I was nearly invisible.

I had to get down to business. These kind people needed to leave by nine to spring Sam Clemens from the big house, and it was already 9:12. Their car is still in the driveway, they haven’t packed it, and there is no sign of life anywhere downstairs. I’ve learned that it’s impossible for a person upstairs to hear a knock on the kitchen door; it’s just too far away in this maze of a house. I ran to the barn to fetch a tall ladder. My outlook was increasingly dark.

First of all: This particular couple was definitely a morning team. I’d heard them clumping around early every day all coffee’d up and chattering. I said this with a little attitude in the keep-myself-company-voice, not quite inaudible, but not comprehensible either. I’m the guy who forgets when he goes to the grocery store that he should probably stop talking to himself.

Second of all: They were definitely the responsible type. The gentleman tucked his shirt in all the time! There’s no way they wouldn’t have had the car packed and ready for a departure at nine o’clock sharp. The ladder butted up against the stucco wall right next to the upstairs bedroom window at the exact same moment the word “sharp” punched militantly from my mouth.

Thirdly: What about Sam Clemens!? I muttered loudly enough to draw attention if I was in the grocery store. They had said that Sam Clemens meant the world them. Is it possible that they were referring to the actual man? They drove all the way here to visit his grave and stay at his house. No, it’s the cat; it’s definitely the cat. I said in a decisive staccato.

At this point it was obvious, without question, they were dead.

I ascended the ladder slowly at first. Not only was I afraid of what I was about to see but this was my first time on the tall ladder since my little accident last fall. I had been about thirty feet up cleaning the sludge from the troughs after the beautiful fall foliage turned brown and coagulated in the gutters. Added to the soppy stew was a red squirrel that had consumed a few too many walnuts and got himself wedged in the downspout at least a few weeks prior. I could tell it had been a while because his tail had lost all its puffy, soft cedar glow and came to resemble a slimy black rat tail. I pulled on the tail, gently at first, then with increasing force until I was yanking on the little vermin. He popped free and I heard the satisfying sound of rushing water. I smiled for a very brief second and forgot I was holding a soggy dead squirrel. Then, as a reaction to the great force I applied to the rodent’s hindquarters, the ladder began to slide along the gutter in the opposite direction. I chucked the squirrel and started grasping for something—anything! The speed increased, the train was off the rails, and I was speeding toward the earth. (Insert some suspenseful music here, then a sudden stop. Pause for effect. Picture darkness.)

I opened my eyes shivering in the middle of the late-fall night. I sat up, checked my appendages and shook my head. I struggled to my knees then to my feet and did a hunched over, ninety-eight-year-old shuffle into my house and went straight to bed. When I woke up two days later I was completely fine, one hundred percent normal and ready for action. I do have the slightest fear of ladders now. And I tend to mix up my times. Oh, and I talk to myself excessively, in italics. But besides a couple of the most miniscule blips I couldn’t be more normal and less traumatized by that horrific, terrifying fall.

Back on the ladder for the first time in months my little phobia grew into a fear of what I was about see, then it morphed into sorrow, and finally into full blown panic. I was frozen midway up. Now staring distantly, through the rungs of the ladder, through the wall, through the house, through the movie of my mind I recalled the conversation…

The reality of this situation was too much for me to swallow all at once. Not only had I lost my first two scholars but also I was sure to be blamed for their murder. My own voice broke the hypnotic trance I was in and I took another step up the ladder. Like a mantra I began to say: I’m not a murderer, I’m not a murderer; they’ll believe me. I’m not a murderer. I leaned over to the left to look in the bedroom window. It was a long lean. My right leg lifted to balance me and I put a hand against the wall to try and steady myself. It was an awkward flail but I was able to keep my comforting mantra going. I’m not a murderer; I’m not a murderer; they’ll believe me. I peaked in their bedroom window and saw nothing but a neatly made bed.

I my mantra gleefully as a reaction to the corpseless room. I turned my head to descend the ladder and saw four running sneakers at the bottom, connected to four legs, connected to two Mark Twain scholars—sweaty from a run—with four very wide eyes.

I was so ecstatic I hopped halfway down the ladder and said, perhaps too closely, because they seemed a little skittish: I’m so happy to see you guys–I knew I wasn’t a murderer! They looked at me like they didn’t know what I was talking about. But I’ve grown accustomed to these academic types, more brains than common sense, if you know what I mean. So I didn’t take it personally when they turned and ran. It was obvious that they just wanted a strong finish to their workout.

I went inside and hopped in the shower—I figured it’d be relaxing after such a stressful morning. I felt so blessed that, besides a deer and a squirrel, nobody had to die and productive, inspired scholarship could continue, for yet another day, here at Quarry Farm. The water began to run cool, and I turned the knob off with a little squeak.

I got out, pressed the towel to my face, and looked out the window in time to see the back end of their car tearing out of the driveway, a cloud dust billowing behind them. Off they went, the socially awkward academics, in a big fat hurry. It’s the cat. I said to keep myself company. It’s definitely the cat.