The Peculiar Grace of a Shaker Chair
When I crossed the state line into New York, I began to have second thoughts. On the side of the road I saw the flag of late summer: grass browning out, leaves getting darker and thicker. The pavement had become pale and shimmery. The clock on the dash no longer made sense. I was thinking in fifty-minute blocks instead of hours, of lesson plans instead of meals. And when I flicked off the radio and rolled down the windows, there was that smell. Something about the trees in this corner of the world, the already hot morning, the purple wildflowers, the lumber mill, the gravel pit, the whir of my truck’s tires, the spot where two years earlier a tornado had skipped the road, sparing the pavement but leaving behind a sea of splinters.
A few minutes later I coasted over the top of a graceful hill and from behind a veil of maples my beloved emerged. Once The Mount had been the site of an industrious Shaker village and for some years afterward an academy of some repute, but two decades of steady decline had almost buried the place. When I’d arrived eight years earlier, I’d found a school that was little more than a ragged stump in the woods, a lonely child with three minivans, an asthmatic yellow bus, a grimy cafeteria and a collection of dorms that could only be described as fixer-uppers. But hard work over time had inspired change, and now the dorms were scrubbed and cheerful, the headmaster’s house was freshly white, the library had a new metal roof and the Tannery’s windows were gleaming in the morning sun.
I parked outside Wickersham, unfolded my body from the driver’s seat and climbed two flights of dim stairs. From the doorway of the Winter Meeting Room, I saw Gunnar Davis idling by a tall bookcase with a baseball cap in one hand and a coffee mug in the other. Art Remlap, a mensch in soccer flats, was seated at the front of the room with an enormous iced pastry. And Candy Dafoe, wearing red sneakers and pink and green plaid shorts, was merrily shaking her fist at someone across the room. Everyone, new and old, looked quite happy, everyone except for one couple. He, handsome and pink-cheeked, had a face that would’ve looked good on a paint can. She, in prim white shorts and a Kelly green polo shirt, gave off an aura of new dishtowels. But when they reached across each other at the buffet, he for a mug, she for a napkin, I got the distinct impression they weren’t quite sure where everything belonged.
Slipping into the room, I poured myself a glass of cranberry juice, and the girl in white shorts looked up from the bagel she was egregiously covering with jam. I said hello and told her my name. She smiled and apologized for stealing my breakfast.
‘Take anything you want,’ I said, ‘even the furniture.’
‘I had a feeling you were Jeff.’ She nodded at her guy, who was now by the window tucking into a danish. ‘I’m The Girlfriend Mary.’
Her comment made me think of mangers and Magi. It also told me she wasn’t working on The Mount. I didn’t get to ask any questions though, for as soon as Candy heard my voice, she spun around and put me in a bear hug. Another friend tickled me, someone messed up my hair, and for a moment I wasn’t on the verge of thirty-five. I was ten and doing a football drill, running between two lines as my buddies knocked the stuffing out of me. Big guy! So nice of you to grace us with your royal presence! We almost sent out a search party! Check you out!
When the mugging came to a end, our opening meeting began. Settling into a chair, I was sad to see The Girlfriend Mary slip out of the room and surprised to see her boyfriend squirming in his chair and peeking at me. Ever the good colleague, I tossed a smile or two in his general direction, but the guy kept looking at me funny, as if he had the same shirt or something, but maybe with different buttons. Anyway, he stopped acting so squirrelly when Candy, our Director of Student Activities, introduced him as ‘Sam Iafrati, our new Swiss Army Knife.’ Now he just looked embarrassed, and I was intrigued, but my curiosity was overpowered by the soporific effect of the meeting and the saccharine voice of the guest speaker who took the stage next. I think the woman was talking about the plight of adopted middle children, or was it the union of psychopharmacology and pedagogy in community building? No matter, in seconds my heavy eyelids snapped shut and I was back in New Hampshire, hammering nails into my mom’s deck and wearing out a pair of running shoes. I could’ve stayed there, too, but the butterflies of July were scared off by the banging of chairs and the clatter of voices.
Sitting up, I saw folks heading for the doors and for a second I thought we were done. But then the fog lifted and I realized I was being sent off to write down goals for the year. In other words, I was given forty minutes to do the impossible, so I drove up to my apartment in Medicine Shop, dropped my duffle and opened a few windows. Air began moving through my four cozy rooms, stirring the dust and alerting the indolent flies that their vacation was over. I made a tube out of a magazine, gave my palm a firm whack, and felt the stir of exhilaration. One or two of the flies took note and lifted slowly into the air, but it was too late for the little beasts.
When I sat down back in the Winter Meeting Room, Candy spied a blank piece of paper in my hand and asked if I’d share my goals. I politely declined. So she asked again, most likely because earlier I’d passed a note asking whether her new hairdo was The Country Mullet or The Northern Belle. Now I had a choice: I could cower like a rookie or act like an interim department head. Rising to the challenge, I cleared my throat, sat up tall and announced my goals: I wanted to go on a real vacation this year, drink less beer, eat better chocolate and, most importantly, find out where Candy got those amazing pink and green shorts of hers.
As a few people chuckled, Candy rubbed her nose with her middle finger and I was quite pleased with myself. She’d get me back—she always did—but for the moment I was feeling quite good.