The Long Haul #2: Brass Monkey

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“The Long Haul” is dedicated to exploring the paths writers have taken, and the choices they’ve made, the indignities and frustrations as well as the joys and rewards of the writing life. What follows is the second essay in the series, this one from Rumpus Books Editor Andrew Altschul.

**

With all due respect to Mark Twain, I’ve spent eight summers in San Francisco, and for coldness and misery none of them holds a candle to the winter I spent in Stone Ridge, NY. That was the winter my post-adolescent fantasies of literary glory, academic esteem, international jetsetting, and Rolodexes full of stunning, sophisticated women died a slow, hypothermic death, buried under 130 inches of combined snowfall, the worst upstate winter in fifty years. That was the winter I came close to alcoholism, closer still to clinical depression, not at all close to finishing a publishable novel. That was the winter—how the memory still burns!—I lost a minimum-wage job I really needed for playing the Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey.”

It was the end of 2000. I was thirty-one years old and had just moved back to the U.S. after two years in Latin America—first in Peru, then in Mexico—and everything I owned fit comfortably into a handful of boxes in the back of my shitty Ford Probe. I had a few dozen books, a backpack full of clothes, and my dog, Jack, a five-year-old mutt I’d gotten in graduate school and had dragged around Southern California and then down to San Miguel de Allende and back again—a four-day drive during which she endured dilapidated motels, punk rock played too loud on the car stereo, a freezing K.O.A. campground somewhere in Tennessee where I hope never to return, and my regular fits of violent self-pity. Peru had been a dream-come-true—until it wasn’t; Mexico had been a bust from the start. Before that, I’d tossed away a carefree life in San Diego as if it were the cellophane on a cigarette pack, for reasons I hadn’t yet fully figured out.

Where the hell was I now?

Stone Ridge is two hours north of New York City, secreted away somewhere between New Paltz and Kingston. The joke about New York being a large state with the city at one end, Buffalo at the other, and Alabama in the middle, starts to make sense right around Stone Ridge, where the summer homes of a few Manhattanites face off with small farms and shotgun shacks, where creeks babble through backyards, where the only intersection sports a dentist’s office, one restaurant (closed October to April), and a rickety building that bore the name of a hotel (long defunct) but housed only a small, grimy bar with blown Bud and Coors signs in the windows and the same three motorcycles parked outside year-round. If you blink while driving through Stone Ridge, you’ll find yourself in other, smaller towns with names like Kerhonkson or Cairo (pronounced “Care-O”), where churches and second-hand stores sit next to cornfields and the man who sells you cigarettes at the gas station reminds you of the movie Deliverance. In summer, they give tours of some of the quaint old colonial homes in Stone Ridge. But this wasn’t summer.

What was I doing here? Good question.

I suppose it was a process of elimination. I’d worn my way through a stack of possible lives since leaving grad school. I’d lived in eight apartments since 1995, setting up my futon and desk in each, spending a few months writing every morning and doing whatever I had to do in the afternoons and evenings to make rent, until the restlessness cropped up again and I made arrangements to sell everything and start over. I’d been an editor for a third-rate music magazine, a composition teacher, an ESL teacher, a translator, a bartender for one night, a layabout, a gringo discoteca-prowler, a reluctant salesman for a Mexican city guidebook. I had a grand total of two short-story publications, a novel-length MFA thesis that I’d continued revising despite knowing it was shit, a bit of teaching experience under my belt—but no wind in my sails, only the fast-ebbing tide of the twenty-something bravado that had seen me through grad school and the fading possibility of doing something more promising (Can you say, “law school”?), with my life. And the dog.

My last remaining friend from high-school lived with his wife in Kerhonkson. They had a friend who had a friend who owned a small house in Stone Ridge she never used. When I wrote from Mexico to say I couldn’t cut it down there; that the job I’d been promised was a bust; that in nine months I hadn’t made a single friend or been on a date; that I spent six hours a day writing and the rest watching the unbearable melodrama of the Bush v. Gore election aftermath; that I couldn’t go back to San Diego, just couldn’t stomach that feeling of surrender—my friend, Mike, bless his heart, said: “I’ve got a great idea.”

What I hadn’t said was that I felt lost. I felt like no one at all—like someone who had been someone, with friends, an apartment near the beach, a girlfriend, regular enough work, but who had not been satisfied with any of those things and so discarded them and became no one. I wanted to come home, but I had systematically made sure I had no home to come back to. I had erased myself.

“I’ve got a great idea,” Mike said. So I came.

**

Andrew Altschul

I moved into the house on the day after Christmas. It was small but comfortable enough, sparsely furnished, on maybe a quarter acre. Through bare trees I could see the houses on either side—though I never saw anyone going in or out—and a motionless brown field across the road. I was not allowed to use the master bedroom, so I set up my desk in the tiny second bedroom and slept in an attic-like room up a dozen stairs from the kitchen, with slanted ceilings too low to stand up and a mattress on the floor. That weekend Mike helped me drive a dozen stakes into the backyard to fence off a small area for Jack to run in. The house was quiet and clean, with room enough for one person (and one dog) to live. That first night I lay awake under the sloped ceiling and marveled at the country silence, and also at the way one life could be replaced by another radically different life with whiplash speed. Something in me had always been drawn to that idea, a romantic belief in the necessity of changing your context, gaining experience, carpe-ing every diem, never getting too comfortable or attached. I took satisfaction in that idea now, but that night I also started to hear the yawning silence that is that idea’s unmistakable counterpoint.

I probably don’t need to say that I was also broke.

Then the snow came.

A couple days after I moved into the house we got about two feet, the low steel sky divulging every last flake as if too exhausted to hold it anymore. When it started I ran outside with the dog, who’d never seen snow, and frolicked for half an hour, but by nightfall I was looking out the window in disbelief as it just kept coming. My car was disappearing, the field across the road was disappearing, the house was groaning like an old man under the weight of it. I held a mug of tea and shivered, as though the freezing temperatures had snuck inside—later I realized they had snuck inside, as the house’s ancient oil-burning furnace had conked out. So I found a flashlight, went out to the garage and lifted the trapdoor down to a very dark, cobwebby cellar, shuffled across the dirt floor and bumped my head on the low beams and tripped over roots and an old metal bedframe and god knows what else looking for the furnace. I gave myself a first-class case of the creeps—it was The Blair Witch Project down there, only colder—and when I did find the heater it must have been the power of prayer that got it started again. The furnace would shut down every three or four days that winter; sometimes, if it happened late at night, I’d just wrap myself and the dog in sleeping bags and blankets and wait it out until morning.

**

I woke up to one of those crystalline winter days when the sky is painfully blue and sunshine clamors off the snow and lifts the heart with its bright clarity. The field across the road gleamed like polished bone and the dog hopped joyfully through the backyard, burying her face in the high powder and sneezing and getting herself good and covered before racing inside to stand next to me and shake herself off. I made a cup of strong coffee and sat down at my desk and looked out at the still world, every branch and twig with its high white crest, and thought, This isn’t so bad. I got to work.

I’d started writing a new novel during my last days in Peru, plugging away at it all through Mexico. My plan was to finish a draft by the summer. I was discovering something new in my voice: an energy that was unfamiliar and addictive; it was that energy, the language itself, that was drawing me forward, opening the story to me slowly but steadily, showing me where to go. E. L. Doctorow says writing a novel is like driving at night—you can only see a short distance ahead, but you can make the whole trip that way—and often I felt like I had the high-beams on and around each curve they were revealing something surprising and inevitable, a world of humor and emotion and complexity I couldn’t have found on my own. For the first time I wasn’t distracting myself with daydreams of a big advance, prizes, standing-room-only readings full of stunning, sophisticated women. I was just writing.

An author's best friend

I spent those first days establishing a routine, two long sessions of writing separated by lunch and a walk with the dog. I liked to take her to the junior high school half a mile down the road, unclip her leash and let her race around the athletic fields, churning up snow behind her. It was so quiet out there, windless and bright, and I’d stand in the middle of the field and blow into my hands and the physical pleasure of the stern landscape would struggle against my sense of total isolation, of standing somewhere out on the edge of the world. I thought about all the people I knew—other writers, teachers, friends in California, in Peru—and how none of them had any idea where I was right now, in which country, how they couldn’t have imagined me here in this distant, snowy place. Only Mike knew, but I hadn’t seen him since he’d moved me in, and in fact I would see him only two or three times that winter, and never again at the house—his wife didn’t much care for me; his cats definitely didn’t care for my dog; he was having marital difficulties I could sense only vaguely. In short, the world and everyone in it was continuing on with its own troubles and preoccupations, and if I felt alone out there in icy Stone Ridge it was an aloneness of my own assiduous making, and alone was how I would have to ride it out.

There was the matter of an income to attend to. Writing unpublished novels while wearing pajamas does not pay well, so I started making calls and sending emails in search of work. Before leaving Mexico I’d emailed several colleges in the Hudson Valley about part-time gigs teaching composition or, ideally, creative writing. A few had sent encouraging replies, asking me to get in touch once I’d arrived. Now, however, the news was not good. SUNY New Paltz was fully staffed for the spring semester. Bard College didn’t reply. The department chair at Vassar claimed to be impressed by my MFA and teaching experience, but the classes never materialized. As New Year’s approached all I’d managed to rustle up was one Intro to Literature class at Ulster Community College, a mile from my house, that would pay $1,700 for the semester. To put it in Mexican slang: I was fucked.


Andrew Altschul was the founding Books Editor of The Rumpus. He is an O. Henry Prize-winning short story writer and the author of the novels Deus Ex Machina and Lady Lazarus. Currently, he directs the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University. More from this author →