a plumber in the basements of my mother's houses
Friday, January 8 2021
room 231, Hotel 24 South, Staunton, Virginia
It took a little while for us to get our day started after waking up in the erstwhile Stonewall Jackson Hotel. Our in-room coffee supply had been depleted, so I went down to the front desk to get some more. Several of the women working there bring their dogs to work with them, which they barricade in there with them using a chair. I tried to befriend the dog who was there this morning, a lanky mutt with very long ears, but she was having none of me and started barking.
Back in the hotel room, I breakfasted on cold leftover Chinese food. It was pretty good like that. Gretchen was finding the cable news coverage of the aftermath of the MAGA putsch unexpectedly good journalism. The reporters were asking smart questions of smart people, and they were responding thoughtfully.
After checking out of our hotel room, we took advantage of the mild, sunny weather to walk in a clockwise loop through downtown Staunton. At the north end of this loop, we were up on Frederick Street just below Mary Baldwin College but above most of the city, returning to our car past Staunton's one synagogue, Temple House of Isr&ealig;l.
We'd arranged to have a plumber come out and look at the plumbing systems that my mother Hoagie had left to fall into disrepair, and we needed to be there when he arrived. At my childhood home, Don was just getting ready to take Maple the Dog for a walk. Since cellphone reception near the houses is spotty at best, Gretchen and I decided to join Don on the walk, which would take us higher on Muellers' Mountain, where cellphone signals are more reliable. But Maple abandoned us down on the floodplain when she saw Hoagie come out of the house and wanted (for some reason) to be with her instead of us. We continued walking southward, mostly on the west bank of Folly Mills Creek, where the natural levee makes the ground the driest in the area. Further west is a broad swampy fen full of cattails and a number of rare plants. We countinued as far south as we could, but eventually the land became too swampy for anyone not wearing rubber boots to cross, and we turned around.
Gretchen asked about the "beautiful house" on the low terrace just east of Folly Mills Creek. I told her that it belonged to the Vs, the people whose kids I used to babysit and to whom I had reached out after reports of Hoagie's marginal condition began arriving. My parents used to be good friends with the Vs, but, as with all their relationships, it eventually soured. They've been feuding ever since I went off to college 35 years ago. It is said that good fences make for good neighbors, and in this case the source of their conflict was bad fences. Since the boundary between the properties is approximately Folly Mills Creek, which is subject to frequent flooding, it's impossible to maintain a fence there. Today the fence looked to be full of gaps, meaning the V's horse could easily escape westward or Hoagie's two horses could go east. While we were noting these things, a car arrived at the Vs house and Don V stepped out. I waved at him and he motioned us over. Fortunately, there was a tree fallen across the creek deeply embedded in both banks that allowed us to easily cross. By then we'd been joined by Don V's wife, Mary Ann, and of the five of us standing in a socially-distanced circle, two of them were named Don. My brother had some lightly-repressed hostility as he asked Mary Ann if he could please cut through her property to get to the road. It's evidently a request he has made before, and one that Mary Ann always permitted. But her response also seemed to contain some lightly-repressed hostility. This was a legacy of the ongoing feud, with Don being something of a partisan for my mother in the 35-year border dispute. Meanwhile, I'd made clear to Mary Ann via Facebook that I was not party to the feud, and so we greeted each other as old friends, in a socially-distanced sort of way. I quickly caught Don V and Mary Ann up on all the horrifying things I'd found at the two houses controlled by my mother, with Gretchen chiming in to provide details. We also discussed the origin of the feud between my parents and the Vs. As I mentioned previously the Vs used to be good friends with my parents (Don V, who is now 74 years old, even said they'd "partied" with them). Their relationship improved further in the early 1980s after Don V got my father to be on his grievance board after he was corruptly fired by Western State Hospital for being a whistleblower regarding the mistreatment of mental patients. But then came the border dispute and my brother's psychological decline. The Vs seemed to place most of the blame for the falling out between our families on my father, whom they described as borderline abusive, at least with his yelling. They said that they'd overhear echoes of that abuse in the things Don would mutter to himself on the edge of the fen behind their house. I didn't agree that my father had been as abusive as the Vs suggested, but perhaps he had been more so than average.
At some point I thought maybe Gretchen should go up the hill to where there is a cellphone signal to see if the plumber had called, and while she was heading in that direction, she had an entirely separate conversation with Mary Ann while I talked to Don V. He and I mostly talked about his raised-bed garden. Eventually I had to remind Gretchen that she really did need to go to a place where she could get a cellphone signal even though this was interruptin Mary Ann's stories of how awesome I am. Just before saying goodbye to Don V, he told me the story of a methamphetamine addict in the neighborhood who had been breaking into houses and stealing stuff. I told Don V that the meth-head was welcome to break into my mother's house and steal anything he wanted.
Back on the road in front of my childhood home, I found Hoagie standing there with a walking stick playfully twirling it every so often. She seemed happy and clear on who I was. I asked her to show me that she really could jog, and sure enough she could. Based on her physical health, it doesn't seem as if she's likely to die any time soon. While Gretchen had her distracted in the doublewide, giving her leftover Chinese food (which she ate greedily), I snooped around my childhood home in hopes of learning more about Hoagie's condition. One of the things I'd discovered was a stack of IOUs from the woman Sarah who used to live in the small house across the road. It represented thousands of dollars that was unlikely to ever be repaid. Sarah had moved out some time ago, perhaps because it became uncomfortable living across the road from a creditor she had no intention of repaying. The man who then moved into the house turned out to be on the sex offender registry after a conviction for sexually assaulting a child. I found some unopened mail in the big living room pile that had a potential to shed some light on Hoagie's finances.
Eventually I had to take a shit, so of course I did it in the weeds back in front of a makeshift barn near the doublewide.
At some point I went into the doublewide and saw my brother Don gnawing on what looked like pizza. Gretchen said he'd taken directly from the freezer and couldn't be bothered to heat it up and just ate it the way it was, like dog might. There is a working toaster oven in the doublewide, but waiting for that requires too much deferment of gratification.
Eventually the plumber arrived. His name was Mark and he had, he said, 42 years of experience. Gretchen and I quickly apprised him of the situation, saying that it would remind him of the old reality show Hoarders. I said that I grew up in the first house we would look at, and that I understood its plumbing and would have done the repairs myself if I had the time. As I showed in the two non-working pumps in the basement of my childhood home, I also showed him the wooden boxes with NASA logos on them, saying not to worry, that they didn't contain space aliens. At some point Gretchen noticed the dogs in the background of Mark's phone and she and he bonded over that. Just to make sure Mark knew what he was facing, we walked him through the chaos of the house. "But she has money," I assured him.
Next we went under the doublewide to see why only a tiny trickle of water is available in only one bathroom, with no water at all reaching the kitchen or other bathroom. Mark couldn't tell and couldn't even give us an estimate of what fixing it might cost.
But he said he'd put it on the schedule, which made it seem likely water might one day flow again. Before he left, we introduced Mark to Hoagie and Don, and Hoagie seemed as pleasant and friendly, and if it weren't for the piles of dusty clutter and the horrifying state of the one bathroom Mark saw, he might have considered her perfectly normal.
Once the plumber was gone, I gave Don a quick lesson on checking messages on his cellphone. We did this near the old "temple" on the side of Pileated Peak, only about 100 feet from the child molester's cabin.
After that, I was eager to go, and so I began the drive with Gretchen over the Blue Ridge to Charlottesville for the next phase of our Virginia getaway. Gretchen had rented us a room at a nice hotel called the Oakhurst Inn just off Jefferson Park Avenue near the University of Virginia. As we were checking in, it turned out Gretchen's reservation hadn't actually made it into the system. But no problem, Gretchen was able to get an even cheaper rate than the one she'd thought she'd accepted earlier using some app on her phone. Two nights at the Oakhurst Inn was only going to cost us about $30 more than two nights at the erstwhile Stonewall Jackson Hotel. Our room was big and beautiful, as was its bathroom, which had a shower separate from a huge free-standing tub. (And the stairway to our room even had those like wedge-shaped corner things — "dust corners — to make sweeping them easier.) It was the kind of room one just wants to chillax in, but Gretchen had already scheduled going over to Nathan and Janine's place without even bothering to clear it with me first. I get Gretchen being the social coordinator in our relationship, but when we're in Charlottesville, the people are my friends, and I should be the one who decides what, where, whom, and how long. We decided to push back the evening an hour to give ourselves time to decompress.
On the drive over to Nathan and Janine's house, we stopped at a grocery store on Market Street to buy wine and beer. We were also bringing over bakery items from Vegan Treats in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, though they probably were no longer all that fresh. When we arrived, we stood around, somewhat socially-distanced in the kitchen while drinks were poured. Nathan and Janine's kid A is grown tall and thin and with his blonde mane and fierce cheekbones looks like a budding Nordic demigod. These days there's also a foster-daughter in the house, and she seemed well integrated into the temperament of the place. Best of all, though, was a huge dog named Brian. He has a black eye patch and back so wide one could use it as a table. Nathan kept saying "he's a mess" without ever elaborating.
Eventually, for social distancing reasons, we took our drinks out to the east porch. It being January, it was kind of cold out there, but not by the standards of the Hudson Valley. Even so, Nathan said it was the coldest it's been. Since I'd last visited, the porch had gotten a roof over it, and that roof had to be a complex shape so as not to block a large window in the attic bedroom. It looked really good, in that it-has-to-be-complicated-because-of-the-facts-on-the-ground way. We talked about various things, including our 23AndMe results. Nathan and Janine aren't willing to give up the privacy one has to give up to use such a service, though Janine admits to being interested in the results of one of her relatives.
We ended up eating dinner in the living room. It was an Indian-style curry with rice and was pretty good, though it needed hot sauce. I was appalled to see the foster daughter dumping Texas Pete on hers; fortunately a more appropriate habañero sauce was also available. Later looking back on how casual we were about social distancing (that is, sitting around mostly-maskless in one room together), it reminded me somewhat on the social pressures that lead to unsafe sex. One person lets down his or her guard and then other reciprocates, and next thing you know you're pregnant and have a dry cough.
There was a lot of catching up to do. After telling Nathan and Janine the situation with my mother, Nathan shared how his parents had fallen prey to a scam gutter-guard installation service that had cost them $50 per linear foot of gutter. It struck me that there's a happy medium for older people between susceptibility to being scammed (in this case, Nathan's parents) and ornery paranoia (my mother). Then again, as I mentioned, that neighbor Sarah managed to scam my mother out of thousands of dollars before replacing herself with a pedophile.
Gretchen with Don and one of my mother's horses. Click to enlarge.
Maple the Dog running on the floodplain.
Folly Mills Fen today, viewed from the northeast. Click to enlarge.
Mary Ann V and her dog. That's the lower part of Don V on the right. The background is part of Muellers' Mountain.
My mother Hoagie out on the road between her two houses.
Hoagie also has a cat. His name is Lenny and he prowls far afield. We saw him crossing the road well away from the houses.
This photo was taken in front of the doublewide.
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