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. 

The Quietest Place (A Quarry Farm Fellow Testimonial)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows, which combine conversational illustrations of their research and writing process with personal reflections on their experiences as Twain scholars, teachers, and fellows. Applications for Quarry Farm Fellowships are due each Winter. Find more information here.

I had the privilege and honor of serving as a fellow at Quarry Farm last month. As many of you know, there’s nothing else to compare to a stay at Quarry Farm. For most of my stay I was there alone; it’s the quietest place I’ve ever spent time, even in contrast to my relatively quiet house in Berkeley. At home there is always ambient noise in the background, distractions, and tasks needing attention. At Quarry Farm, the quiet is seductive, always inviting one to sit and think, to take a book off the shelf and read, to listen not only to the birds but to one’s own thoughts.

Linda Morris is Professor Emeritus at University of California, Davis and author of GENDER PLAY IN MARK TWAIN (2007) and WOMEN’S HUMOR IN THE AGE OF GENTILITY (1992).

I am working on a new, ambitious essay about Susy Clemens, about whom I have written in the past, but whose essence has always eluded me. There’s so much material to take in and digest, and so many unanswered questions. Surrounded by myth, by a degree of sentimentality because of her untimely death, and by the force of her father’s reminiscences about her, it’s hard sometimes to find Susy in the mix. And there are gaps. Whatever happened to the many letters written by her Bryn Mawr friend, Louise Brownell, whom Susy loved passionately? Louise kept all of Susy’s letters, which are in the archives at Hamilton College, and it clearly was not a one-sided correspondence or relationship, but Louise’s letters are gone. Where are Clara’s letters to Susy, written while the family was on the “Equator” journey and Susy and Jean stayed behind with Aunt Sue at Quarry Farm?  I had the time and the inspiration to contemplate such questions, and to seek answers. 

One full day and a half I did nothing but steep myself in Livy’s letters as presented in Barb Snedecor’s compelling dissertation. Livy’s letters gave me a whole new perspective on Susy; I had read a number of them before, but that was nothing compared with reading letter after letter, with no interruptions except dinner and nightfall. Nothing in my “normal” life as a retired professor offered such luxury, even living within walking distance as I do from the Mark Twain Papers. Because I was returning to the subject of Susy after several years away from it, I brought all my notes and copies of primary material with me in my suitcase, and I spent almost one full day sorting through all the material and re-reading deeply enough to re-kindle my interest in the complexity of Susy. But the riches of the library at Quarry Farm are such that there were ever more avenues to explore, and I did, every day.

I also was fortunate to be there when spring began to break out. The forsythia was in full bloom, but the major trees were just beginning to bud out with their little yellow-green leaves, which each day become more visible and more glorious. Walking up to the site of the study, then on up into the woods beyond drew me almost every day, but I had to remind myself to look up high into the trees to see the springtime unfold. And so I did.

Towards the end of my stay I was scheduled to offer a lecture in “The Trouble Begins” series. I’d done this before, many years ago, but I had forgotten how attentive the audience can be. They stayed focused the whole time, and at the end asked excellent and engaging questions. It’s a very special audience, mostly folks from the town, not academics, but people who seem to have a genuine, perhaps long-standing interest in the Langdons and Sam Clemens and family. It was especially pleasing to me because the lecture was held in the barn, whereas before I had spoken on the campus, which had its own charms. When I had occasion to read from the Autobiography in which Twain said he had written the piece in question one day up in the study when he should have been doing something else, I felt not only my own sense of marvel glancing up toward that familiar hill, but a small thrill in the audience. How were we so lucky to be here, right here, over 120 years later? If you’re ever asked to present a paper in the series, I urge you to do so, and by all means apply for a Quarry Farm fellowship for an opportunity to do serious study and thinking and writing about Mark Twain. The place is magical.  

Winners Announced for the Second “Quarry Farm Fireplace Creative Writing Contest”

Winners have been selected for the Quarry Farm Fireplace Creative Writing Contest sponsored by the Center for Mark Twain Studies. Two area students in grades 2-6 have been selected for their creative writings inspired by the fireplace tiles in the Quarry Farm Parlor: Treya Das Banerjee (Carder Elementary, Corning) and Elizabeth McNett (Finn Academy, Elmira).

Mark Twain often encouraged his children to create and tell their own stories based off the tiles adorning the parlor fireplace. The 24 tiles around the fireplace depict fables written by ancient Greek storyteller, Aesop, who utilized animals, such as crows, snakes, mice, and foxes, to illustrate moral lessons.

The winning students and their classmates will receive a personal tour inside Quarry Farm, something that is normally only open to Twain Scholars. In addition, the winning students will be able to read their story next to the Quarry Farm parlor fireplace, tour the grounds at Quarry Farm, and enjoy Mark Twain’s favorite dessert: gingerbread, vanilla ice cream, and lemonade.

CMTS has an extensive list of online resources for teachers, available to everyone at no cost to the student, teacher, or school.  To access this list, please click here.

CMTS encourages all local schools to participate next year.  For more information contact Director Joseph Lemak at [email protected]

EC Actors Participate in Upcoming Theatrical Production at Quarry Farm

The spring portion of the 2019 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, concludes on Wednesday, May 29 with two events, a theatrical reading of Waiting for Susy at 5:30 p.m, followed by a lecture by Professor Bruce Michelson of University of Illinois at 7:00p.m. Both events will take place at Quarry Farm. Both events are free and open to the public.

Last fall Professor Bruce Michelson of the University of Illinois asked if there would be students interested in performing a staged reading of his one act play Waiting for Susy, a comedy about a famous, momentous, historic encounter between Mark Twain and “a bearded man” that actually never took place. Luckily enough, theatre students Alex Garey ’19 and Matthieu Marchal ’20 were recruited, and alumna Sarah Kaschalk ’17 agreed to take over as director and perform as Susy, Mark Twain’s daughter. 

As an undergraduate Sarah was often seen on stage, both acting and singing. She was the stage manager and directed a one act play in her senior year. It had been several years since she was involved in theatre, and she said, “I didn’t realize how much I missed directing! Michelson’s play has reminded me of the joys of directing. It’s been fun to work with Alex and Matthieu who both have worked with the EC theatre department.” 

Alex, who was last seen in Professor John Kelly’s play “Gra” as the character Conor Fitzgerald, said he enjoys playing the part of Mark Twain, especially because of Twain’s ties to Elmira College and his prominence in the local Elmira area. “It took awhile to find the right accent after learning an Irish accent for ‘Gra.’ Finally, I just imagined an over-the-top Southern accent because this comedy highlights Twain’s eccentric character.” 

Matthieu’s experience came from taking Acting I as an elective last fall. As an art minor, he is quite comfortable in the role of painter, and his command of the French language and proper pronunciation has been indispensable in bringing this play to life. He plays the mysterious “Bearded Man,” with a wry sense of humor that comically provokes Twain to spar with him in his own less than perfect French.

Waiting for Susy will be performed in the Quarry Farm Barn on Wednesday, May 29 at 5:30p.m. Following the performance at 7:00p.m., Professor Michelson will deliver the final Trouble Begins lecture of the season titled  “Mark Twain’s Homes and the Public Private Life.” The Center for Mark Twain Studies welcomes everyone to attend both events.

Special “Trouble Begins” Event Features Play and Lecture

The spring portion of the 2018-2019 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, continues on Wednesday, May 29 in the Barn at Quarry Farm, with a special theatrical reading of a one-act play followed by the lecture.  The play and lecture are free and open to the public.

The evening begins at 5:30 p.m. with the theatrical reading of “Waiting for Susy,” a one-act play by Bruce Michelson from the University of Illinois. The play is a one-act comedy about a famous, momentous, historic encounter that never took place. The setting is the great square in front of Rouen Cathedral in France; the time is October of 1894. Sam Clemens and his daughter Susy, living with the rest of the family in nearby Étretat, have come to town shopping for night-gowns and cigars. With brushes and an easel, and parked comfortably on a stool in this plaza, a strange, round, bearded French gentleman is dabbing at a couple of his paintings. What happens next is entirely made up, and you can safely believe every word of it.

The play will be followed by The Trouble Beings lecture, “Mark Twain’s Homes and the Public Private Life,” at 7:00 p.m., which will also be presented by Bruce Michelson. When Sam Clemens was still young, a technological revolution in publishing — including breakthroughs in printing of pictures — provided new ways to fuel and gratify an unprecedented curiosity about the private lives of famous writers, and doing so became a lucrative sport. Where they were born and where they resided; the byways they wandered for epiphanies or Deep Thoughts; where their spouses or their Lost Loves grew up or passed away – all of this and more became fair game for mass-market words and pictures. Over the course of Mark Twain’s life we can trace this cultural transformation, and see how Quarry Farm, the Hartford mansion, and other residences here and abroad figured in a long campaign by Sam and his family to live in this new limelight, and also to evade it. The Clemenses performed a “private” family life in some places, and tried to sustain the real thing in others — in an era before television, social media, paparazzi, data mining, and all the rest of it brought American personal privacy to an end.

Michelson is the author of Mark Twain on the Loose and Printer’s Devil: Mark Twain and the American Publishing Revolution, as well as many articles and book chapters about Mark Twain and other writers. He is Professor Emeritus of American Literature at the University of Illinois, and a past president of the Mark Twain Circle of America and The American Humor Studies Association. A contributing editor at Studies in American Humor, he is also a Fulbright Ambassador, having received two fellowships from the Fulbright Program. His most recent work includes a translation of George Clemenceau’s writings on Claude Monet and the fine arts, and a one-act comedy about Sam Clemens, his daughter Susy, and a Mysterious Stranger in France.

About The Trouble Begins Lecture Series – In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series.  The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in the fall and spring of each year, in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. All lectures are free and open to the public. 

Next “Trouble Begins” Lecture Focuses on the History and Preservation of Quarry Farm

The spring portion of the 2018-2019 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, continues on Wednesday, May 22 at 7:00 p.m. in Cowles Hall at Elmira College.  The lecture is free and open to the public.

Quarry Farm in the 1870s

The lecture, “Quarry Farm: Family Retreat with 1,631 Lightning Rods,” will be presented by preservation architect, Elise Johnson-Schmidt, AIA. In May 1869, Jervis Langdon purchases the land on Elmira’s east hill. It is there that he establishes the Langdon’s summer home, Quarry Farm – a place of respite which the family enjoys for 100 years. Sadly, Langdon dies shortly after its completion, but his oldest daughter, Susan Crane, inherits the house. She generously and joyously shares Quarry Farm with her sister, Olivia Clemens, Livy’s new husband, Samuel Clemens, and the Clemens children for the next twenty years. Sam and Livy embark on their “long European sojourn” in 1890 and do not return until 1895. During a time of transition, before Susan and Theodore Crane begin their chapter of life at Quarry Farm, Sam Clemens is “running two households – one up here on the farm & one in Buffalo…and Mr. and Mrs. Crane stay here with us, & we do have perfectly royal good times.” This lecture will focus on how Quarry Farm was used by the family and changes made to the house by Langdon family members. It will also discuss the lecturer’s interpretation of a story written during Clemens’ management of the farm – “The Lightning Rod Story” – a satire about dealing with contractors – which could be as true today as it was then.

Quarry Farm Today

Johnson-Schmidt is a preservation architect with 35 years of experience, whose firm specializes in historic preservation. Her firm has undertaken over 200 revitalization and restoration projects. She was also formerly the director of Market Street Restoration Agency. She previously worked on the restoration of Grand Central Terminal in NYC & Boston’s Trinity Church. She is a frequent lecturer across NYS on revitalizing historic buildings, and a (former) longtime member of NYS’s Board for Historic Preservation. Her firm is currently writing the Historic Structure Report for Quarry Farm.

About The Trouble Begins Lecture Series – In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series.  The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in the fall and spring of each year, in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. All lectures are free and open to the public. 

Linda Morris Kicks Off the 2019 Trouble Begins Lectures with a Discussion of Twain and Sexuality

The spring portion of the 2019 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, continues Wednesday, May 8 in the Barn at Quarry Farm. The lecture begins at 7:00 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

“Writing About Sexuality: Mark Twain’s Private Work Made Public”

Linda Morris, University of California, Davis

After a relatively free-wheeling period in his life in the American West, Mark Twain courted and married a genteel young women from a prominent Elmira family, and he became the paterfamilias of a thoroughly Victorian family of his own. His major published works were deemed suitable reading for young men and women alike, and he raised his three daughters in a strictly Victorian, protected, and proper mode. Nevertheless, when speaking before all-male groups, or writing privately, he addressed sexual topics with frankness suffused with humor. Later in his life, in work not intended for publication, he let loose with explicit sexual references and frank talk about both male and female sexuality. This talk will examine a range of the works in which sexuality plays a major role, the language and metaphors he used to express sexual topics, and the sometimes surprising attitudes the work reveals.

Linda A. Morris is Professor Emeritus, University of California, Davis. She has writ- ten extensively about women’s humor in 19th and 20th century America, including a book-length study on the writer Miriam Whitcher (“The Widow Bedott”), and essays on Mary Lasswell and Roz Chast. Her work on Mark Twain includes her book Gender Play in Mark Twain: Cross-Dressing and Transgression, and essays on Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, “Gender Bending as Child’s Play,” Aunt Sally Phelps in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and “Hellfire Hotchkiss.” She was the 2017 recipient of “The Olivia Langdon Clemens Award” by the Mark Twain Circle of America, and the 2018 recipient of “The Charlie Award” by the American Humor Studies Association.

About The Trouble Begins Lecture Series
In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series. The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in the fall and spring of each year, in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. All lectures are free and open to the public.

Spring “Trouble Begins” Lecture Series Set

The spring portion of the 2018-2019 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies features four lectures, with the first event set for Wednesday, May 8 at 7:00 p.m. in The Barn at Quarry Farm.  All four lectures are free and open to the public.

The Barn at Quarry Farm

The first lecture, “Writing About Sexuality: Mark Twain’s Private Work Made Public,” will be presented by Linda Morris from the University of California, Davis. After a relatively free-wheeling period in his life in the American West, Mark Twain courted and married a genteel young woman from a prominent Elmira family, and he became the paterfamilias of a thoroughly Victorian family of his own. His major published works were deemed suitable reading for young men and women alike, and he raised his three daughters in a strictly Victorian, protected, and proper mode. Later in his life, in work not intended for publication, he let loose with explicit sexual references and frank talk about both male and female sexuality. This talk will examine a range of the works in which sexuality plays a major role, the language and metaphors he used to express sexual topics, and the sometimes surprising attitudes the work reveals.

On Wednesday, May 15 at 7:00 p.m., the Series continues in Cowles Hall on the Elmira College campus with “‘Infinitely-Divided Stardust’: Mark Twain and Lawyer Talk,” presented by J. Mark Baggett of Samford University. Told by the New Orleans fortune teller Madame Caprell that he should have been a lawyer, Samuel Clemens dismissed the law as “too prosy and tiresome.” But his immersion in legal language and legal fictions betrayed him. This lecture will explore Twain’s burlesques from a legal perspective and trace their influence, particularly in the dramatic stagings of court trials that appear so often in his longer works. 

Cowles Hall on the Elmira College Campus

The Series continues in Cowles Hall on the Elmira College campus on Wednesday, May 22 at 7:00 p.m. with “Quarry Farm: Family Retreat with 1,631 Lightning Rods,” presented by Elise Johnson-Schmidt, AIA, preservation architect. In May 1869, Jervis Langdon purchases the land on Elmira’s east hill. It is there that he establishes the Langdon’s summer home, Quarry Farm – a place of respite which the family enjoys for 100 years. This lecture will focus on how Quarry Farm was used by the family and changes made to the house by Langdon family members. It will also discuss the lecturer’s interpretation of a story written during Clemens’ management of the farm – “The Lightning Rod Story” – a satire about dealing with contractors – which could be as true today as it was then.

The spring portion of the Series wraps up on Wednesday, May 29, in The Barn at Quarry Farm at 5:30 p.m. with a theatrical reading of “Waiting for Susy,” a one-act play by Bruce Michelson from the University of Illinois, followed by Michelson’s lecture at 7:00 p.m., “Mark Twain’s Homes and the Public Private Life.” When Sam Clemens was still young, a technological revolution in publishing — including breakthroughs in printing of pictures — provided new ways to fuel and gratify an unprecedented curiosity about the private lives of famous writers, and doing so became a lucrative sport. The Clemenses performed a “private” family life in some places, and tried to sustain the real thing in others — in an era before television, social media, paparazzi, data mining, and all the rest of it brought American personal privacy to an end.

About The Trouble Begins Lecture Series – In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series.  The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in the fall and spring of each year, in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. All lectures are free and open to the public. 

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. 

The “Quarry Farm” and “Antenne” Twain Marginalia Now Online

From the January 1985 issue of the Mark Twain Society Bulletin:

Twain marginalia from Tent Life in the Holy Land by William Prine

“When Sam Clemens married Livy Langdon he married into a family that loved books, bought books, gave books, read books and enjoyed discussing books. In addition to discovering a young lady who was beautiful, charming had a sense of humor and was cultured and wealthy, young Mark Twain found a bride who shared his love of reading. The Langdon family library, or the more than 1,000 volumes of it that remain at Quarry Farm, represents the purchases and gifts to each other of four generations of Langdons. It would be surprising if Mark Twain had not read some of these books in the many summers he spent in Elmira. Only recently has an examination shown that he wrote in as well as read some of the volumes belonging to his in-laws.

When Mary Boewe and her husband, Charles Boewe, the Rafinesque scholar, stayed at Quarry Farm … they examined the library looking for specific titles of books that they knew Mark Twain and Livy had read. They found extensive Clemens marginalia in three works by Lecky…”

The link to the entire article is found here. The discovery by the Boewe’s was the first of many.  Since the initial Lecky discovery, an additional forty-six volumes from the Quarry Farm library have been identified as containing marginal notes and/or inscriptions by Mark Twain.  Given that over three decades have passed, there remains no indication that the scholarly potential has been exhausted.  Within the last year, selections from the Quarry Farm library have been featured in the Mark Twain Journal (Fall 2018) and “new” marginal notes have been confirmed in Ida C. Langdon’s copy of Rubaiyat

In 1993, another set of books, this time from Mark Twain’s personal library at Stormfield, came to Elmira College through Robert and Katharine Antenne, descendants of the Clemens’ housekeeper, Katy Leary.  The Antenne’s donated 90 volumes, the majority containing inscriptions and/or marginalia from Mark Twain. 

As a cornerstone of the Mark Twain collection, these two collections of books are an important resource and curiosity for Twain scholars and enthusiasts alike.  Having been exhibited, used in presentations, and studied by many a scholar for many a publication, these volumes have begun to show signs of their extensive use.  In an effort to care for the originals and provide greater access for further educational and scholarly research, the pages of marginalia are being made available at the following address: https://nyheritage.org/collections/mark-twain-collection. The complete CMTS Mark Twain Archive can be found here, along with other research opportunities afforded Quarry Farm Fellows.

Enjoy!